The World According to Arnie -Total Recall (1990)
I haven’t visited The World According to Arnie since the ‘Jarv reviews New Years Eve’ Christmas blitz of 2011. That one was Arnie’s moderately successful first foray into family friendly comedy, ‘Twins’. But after a brief respite, Arnie’s back where he belongs, as a kicking, punching, shooting, neck snapping, murdering planetary saviour in Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Total Recall’. I love this movie. It rivals ‘The Terminator’ as my favourite Arnie movie, and I’m going to have to turn to my old mate the thesaurus to look for new superlatives to use during this review. I can’t very well describe everything as “awesome” can I?
Douglas Quaid (Arnie) is a construction worker, married to the sexy Lori (Sharon Stone). It’s the year 2084. It is the summer of Doug’s discontent, and he dreams of adventure. Unfortunately he’s stuck in manual labour; he’s got bills to pay and a wife to keep happy (lest she start nagging). He decides to go to Rekall, a company that provides low cost “holidays” by inserting memories into your brain. It feels like you’ve really been there. But Rekall are the Ryanair of artificial holidays. They sucker you in with promises of a cheap holiday, but once signed up you quickly realise that you’re on the trip from hell, surrounded by freaks who want to kill you. When the procedure inevitably goes wrong, Doug is dumped in a taxi with a memory wipe and sent on his way. But that’s when Doug finds himself the target of a team of assassins, and he must get his ass to Mars. It’s up to Doug to uncover an alien conspiracy, thwart the bad guys evil plans, save Mars, and to find out who he really is.
‘Total Recall’ is a perfect marriage of brilliant science fiction premise and B-Movie space opera. The premise is a fascinating one, with similarities to Kathryn Bigelows ‘Strange Days’ which built it’s story from the concept of black market “simulated reality”, where the user would plug their brain into a machine that simulates entire experiences that have been recorded by another person, allowing the user to live out their every fantasy. Similarly, ‘Total Recall’ is about simulated reality, only here the customer can take an “affordable vacation to Mars”, and the experiences are implanted in their brain as memories. The twist being that you can pay a little extra and upgrade to fantasy mode. Why go as boring old you? Wherever you go, there you are, right? What would make your holiday truly memorable is if you weren’t you, but a secret agent caught up in an interplanetary conspiracy?
To be honest, when you think about this particular concept, it begins to fall apart. Surely the brain would reject memories that were blatant fabrication. Reality tells you that you aren’t a secret agent, so the memories wouldn’t really be memories, but fantasies. The construct of an overactive imagination. But it’s a concept that the entire plot is built around, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, therefore we’ll move on.
Okay, so everyone’s seen Total Recall. If you haven’t, why the hell not? Either way you don’t need a review of me saying everything’s awesome. It is, but that’s not very interesting. I’m not going to talk about performances (awesome), writing and structure (awesome), Jerry Goldsmith’s score (awesome), special effects (awesome miniature and matte painting work) and how Paul Verhoeven manages to secret a brilliantly designed, complicated and intriguing story behind a mask of over the top, cartoonish ultraviolence and space opera silliness (awesome!).
The B-movie nature of Total Recall actually betrays an intelligence to the film. At script level, this film is stunning (just ignore my quibble with implanted fantasy memories). Why? Because Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman have created a perfect balance, where both possibilities could be true. Doug is either caught up in an interplanetary conspiracy, or he’s stuck in a chair at Rekall having a “schizoid embolism”. So what I’m going to do is a valiant attempt to present my case for my position on the most interesting aspect of the movie. Is it real? Warning! This may be an abysmal disaster, but here we go.
My opinion, henceforth argued, is that it’s all in Doug’s head. I base this opinion on tenuous evidence, but it’s an opinion nonetheless.
The character of Melina (Rachel Ticotin) is the most important aspect of the opening scenes, in terms of establishing the questionable nature of reality. The film, ironically, opens with a dream, where Doug and Melina are in spacesuits, on Mars. They’re cosying up looking out across the vista of the red planet when Doug falls, the visor on his helmet is smashed open and he begins to suffocate (with hilarious eye-poppery). Then Doug wakes up, in bed next to his wife Lori (Sharon Stone). Without going into lame attempts at dream reading psychobabble, it’s easy to interpret Doug’s dream as his feelings of suffocation, his dissatisfaction with his life and his marriage (which I will go into later). Importantly, the Mars in Dougs dream does not feature any “landmarks” (apart from Melina and a mountain) that we will see later in the film. There are no structures, no people, no vehicles. Just Doug, Melina and a whole lot of red planet. These are visions of Mars created by an unknowing brain.
At breakfast Doug is watching the news, which features a story about the rebellion on Mars. He sees the strong arm tactics of Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), as well as some of vehicles and structures. There is also dialogue mentioning alien artefacts found in the Pyramid mine, mutants and the “terrorist” Kuato. All information that will form the basis for his dream. This is also the scene where Doug explains his dissatisfaction with his life (“I feel like I was made for something more than this. I want to do something with my life, to be somebody.”) and suggests a move to Mars. Lori is quick to put the kibosh on Doug’s suggestion, establishing herself as the obstacle between Doug and the fulfilment of his dreams and desires. Women, right?
Lori is established as the ball and chain from the get go, but during the opening scenes she’s actually not entirely unreasonable. Sure she’s a bit hard work, but she’s only reacting to Doug dreaming of another woman (“It’s not funny, Doug. You dream about her every night!”) and his absurd suggestion of a move to Mars. In the early scenes she’s established as the reason why Doug is unhappy. Once Dougs dream kicks into gear, those feelings manifest into betrayal and murderous intentions. A little unfair on Lori. You’d put up with a bit of moaning if it came in a Sharon Stone shaped package wouldn’t you?
There are important pieces of dialogue during the Rekall scenes that provide “suggestion” for Dougs dream. In particular, the exchange between the two lab techs while they’re preparing the content of the implant.
Lab Tech #1 - Don’t you watch the news? We’re doing alien artifacts now. It’s wild. Yeah, they date back a million years.
Lab Tech # 2 – That’s a new one. Blue sky on Mars.
These are elements that are included in the dream package, and inevitably the film revolves around the discovery of a mysterious alien artefact, which dates back a million years, that when activated will melt a core of ice and create an atmosphere. At the end of the film, Doug and Melina look on as clouds part and a blue sky emerges. Dougs concern after hearing the horror stories (from his workmate) about Rekall malfunctions nearly lobotomising people also manifest themselves as the “schizoid embolism”.
Lastly, I will attempt to interpret the image Doug sees on the screen in Rekall. The image in question is Melina, his dream woman. This is rather dubious and I’m fashioning my interpretation in such a way as to lend my stance support. Here goes. Doug’s injected with a sedative, and as he’s beginning to pass out he’s asked to describe his dream woman. With leading questions from the tech, he describes his dream woman as being “brunette, athletic, sleazy, demure.” Moments before he passes out we are see on the screen (via a POV shot) a photo of the woman who appeared earlier in Dougs dream, with the shot shifting in and out of focus. How can this be? Well, one suggestion you could go with is that the entire film, from start to finish, is Dougs dream. But the implications of that are far less interesting than the alternatives. So we’ll bin that. The theory I have is that the last, fleeting images Doug sees as he’s falling asleep are actually merged with his dream state. His dream woman is already clear in his mind since, as earlier stated, he’s been dreaming of her every night. Therefore, prompted by the leading questions from the tech, Melina occupies a space of clarity in Dougs consciousness and in that half awake, half asleep dream state, he sees her. Dubious, you say? A bit of a reach? Sure, but otherwise how do you explain Melina appearing on a screen at Rekall, if the entire thing is real? Was she a model before she was an interplanetary hooker and freedom fighter? Did Melina pose for some stock photo’s, later purchased by Rekall and incorporated into their procedure?
Right, so that’s my position on Total Recall. I’ll be brutally honest. With a little minor tweaking, many of these same factors I’ve used to support my argument can easily support the competing argument. For example, Doug is actually Hauser who has had his memory wiped and what he sees is on the screen at Rekall is his subconscious projection of his Melina. But, if that was true, why did Hauser see Melina as his dream woman when he was only using her to get to Kuato. None of the subsequent evidence (Hausers videos later in the film) explain anything.
The simple fact that a film like this can allow for such analysis is a credit to everyone involved. Part of the reason why Total Recall is so good is because it can be discussed, argued and generally talked about in terms greater than a few cool looking action scenes. It’s complex, if you want it to be. But it’s also simply a big, loud, dumb and supremely entertaining movie if that’s what you’re after.
The film also features one of my all time favourite set up and payoff kill lines ever in an action movie. “See you at the party, Richter!” is, by itself, downright hilarious, as Arnie (a payoff line professional by this point in his career) shouts it at a plummeting Richter, tossing his arms after him in contempt, but it also has a carefully placed set up a little earlier in the film. It’s an innocuous exchange, but the payoff is brilliant. Plus the fact that it’s a bit random. Unlike many of Arnie’s other one liners, this one’s not a pun. It’s not Arnie throwing a pipe into Bennetts chest and telling him to let off some steam. That’s funny, but obvious and a little easy. “See you at the party, Richter!” simply doesn’t make much sense, and therein lies its genius. It’s up there with the best, along with McClane’s “Yippee-ki-yay Motherfucker!” and Indy shooting the swordsman in Raiders. I realise that last one isn’t a line, but it’s the payoff and in the same vein.
Obviously, I love Total Recall. It’s everything I want from an action movie. It’s smart and dumb at the same time. It’s full of great characters. Spot on performances. It absolutely belts along and is, quite simply, awesome fun. One of my favourite movies and only challenged by the iconic ‘The Terminator’ as the best film on Arnies CV.
Arnie’s World View…