Schwarzenegger Month: Total Recall

Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t in any movie released in the year following Twins. I would like to think that he had receded into isolation, that he took the time for some introspection, some reflection on just what it meant to be an action star in the 1980s. Explosions. Big guns. Massive body counts. He was a master of everything that made action flicks great, and just about all of it was discarded in Twins. I hope he found new purpose, a new center, in his life. But very probably, he was enjoying the new house all that Twins money bought him. Seriously, that movie was a smash hit. And so was his next film, Total Recall, which was released in 1990.

Total Recall was a return to form for Arnold. And its success probably owes a lot to Twins. Arnold was never able to get over the hump into superstardom until Twins. Afterwards, he had a built-in audience for every movie he was in. Total Recall was fortunate it was the first film after, as it probably owes some of its quarter-billion dollar box office to Twins turning Arnold into a very bankable star.

Total Recall is adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Dick’s work is an endless fount of source material for Hollywood, and it all began less than a decade before Total Recall with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Dick was perhaps the best science fiction writer of all time. His novels follow a particular pattern, usually told in three acts. In act one, we meet the main character, and the universe he lives in is described, with all of its foibles and eccentricities. In the second act, Dick destroys whatever stability both the character and the reader have, his sole aim seeming to be introducing chaos and confusion into the narrative. Finally, in the third act, the hidden truth is revealed, and the story reaches denouement. Put more simply, Dick was a master of the mind-fuck. But, his mind-fucks are generally far too complex for film, so Hollywood adaptations dumb down his stories quite a bit. Rather than this being a bad thing, in actuality it is a recognition that film has limits that prose does not. Even trimmed down, Dick’s stories are still quite meaty.

In Total Recall, Arnold plays Doug Quaid, a mild-mannered construction worker in an unnamed city in the not too distant future. His life is fairly boring. He lives in a drab apartment and works a menial job. Worst of all, his wife, played by Sharon Stone early in her career, is a ten. Never before has the axiom that a man can become accustomed to anything been demonstrated to be more true than in the dead eyes with which Quaid beholds his stunner of a wife.

Anyway, because he hates his life so much, Quaid decides to go to Rekall, a company that can implant memories in a person’s head, like they just got back from vacation. But…something goes wrong. It turns out that someone has already been messing with Quaid’s head. It looks like he might not be the boring, beefcake construction worker he thinks he is. He might be a secret agent on Mars. Wow, that’s quite the turn of events.

The setting shifts from Earth to Mars, and it turns out that Quaid is really a double or triple agent working with the Mars resistance or for the evil Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Motivations and allegiances can be nebulous at times in this one. It’s all part of adapting Dick. But all the things occurring on Mars is not the Dicksian mind-fuck. Oh, no. I won’t spoil it for any of the Loyal Seven that have not seen the movie, but all might not be as it seems.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, and was the middle film in a sci-fi trilogy that began with Robocop and ended with Starship Troopers. There were a couple of other films in between, but it’s the three sci-fi films, with their commentary on fascism and corporate overreach that define his work for me. Total Recall is the best of the three, although neither it nor Robocop approach the sublime level of satire that permeates Starship Troopers.

But, this month is all about Arnold, not Paul Verhoeven. So, how was he? After having to sit through an hour and a half of smiling simpleton Arnold in Twins, I was thrilled to see Arnold kicking ass again. My personal favorite sequence in this film is Arnold murdering about a half-dozen lab technicians with his bare hands. This is a howler of a scene, because all the guys attacking Arnold really look like a collection of lab geeks. Why in the world would they attack this hulking behemoth of a man? If I had been one of them, I would have calmly showed Arnold to the door, then dialed 911 after he left. He murdered those poor, misguided fellows. Pro tip, if you have a PhD, do not attack a secret agent trained in all sorts of exotic methods of killing people. I can’t believe I have to make that clear.

Total Recall is a hell of a watch, and one of the movies that any fan of action or sci-fi needs to find, the sooner the better.