Total Recall (1990)

by John Bruni

I n the futuristic world of Total Recall anyone who has enough money can pay to be strapped into a machine, have their brain zapped, and walk out with a completely new set of ersatz memories. The procedure also erases all recollection of the implantation, allowing the recipient to firmly believe he or she actually lived through the “remembered” experiences. This enables Total Recall’s main character, Quaid, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take the vacation of his dreams on Mars, living out the role of a double agent with a girlfriend tailored to his exact specifications. He requests “athletic, sleazy and demure,” and that’s what he gets in the form of Melina, a prostitute played by Rachel Ticotin.

The screenplay is based upon a Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Dick, a prolific writer of science fiction in the late 20th century, barely eked out a living in his day. Gauged by the earnings of the films based upon his stories, Dick’s manuscripts are now worth billions. The films he spawned include Blade Runner, the gold standard of the “tech noir” genre, other notable screen gems such as Minority Report, Screamers and Paycheck, and other works-in-progress whose scenes have not yet shuttered through the gate of a Panavision camera or an animation computer.

The script for Total Recall was re-edited an amazing number of times before it hit the screen in 1990. No doubt for this reason the story eventually veers far from Dick’s original version. It does, however, stick to his original vision, which can be described as “a dream within a dream.” In essence Dick asks, “How do we know that our life isn’t just a dream, the memory of which, upon awakening, will evaporate in the light of day?” This dream-within-a-dream concept is not new; Edgar Allen Poe raised its specter in a poem by the same name written in 1827. In it he asks:

      Is it all that we see or seem
      But a dream within a dream?

Centuries before, Sufi mystics developed related concepts in stories now translated from Persian to English. There is, for example, the tale of a simple man who ducks his head into a bucket to wash his face and is instantly transported to a far-off land. He lives forty years there, becoming a wealthy nobleman, and then awakens to find himself back at the bucket, having aged not one second. Are all his memories for naught, or did he really live those forty years? In Total Recall, as with Dick’s original story, the viewer must wrestle with questions of this nature. There are devious twists to the plot, courtesy of the screenwriting team Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett of Alien fame. One permutation of the script began shooting under the auspices of Dino De Laurentis and died when his production company went bankrupt. Schwarzenegger reportedly had been eying the script for years and persuaded Carolco to buy it when the script became available. Schwarzenegger also recruited the Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven, to direct the film after seeing Verhoeven’s American debut in Robocop.

There is a great deal of violence in Total Recall, as one would expect in a film directed by Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man.) The film reportedly set a record for the biggest budget of its day and featured a hefty amount of special effects. These effects are particularly notable when one considers that CGI (computer-generated imagery) wasn’t used for lengthy film sequences until after the genesis of this film. A short but entertaining segment known as the “Fat Lady” scene does use CGI. Happily, the effects are used for humor as well as for shock value.

As for the science in Total Recall, it’s totally ludicrous, or maybe it really doesn’t matter. After all, everything might well be a dream in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s square-jawed head. Either way, some of the “science” is just plain wrong, but who cares? This is an action film framed as a space opera and the good guys always hit their mark while the baddies can’t graze the broad side of a planetoid. Philip K. Dick might have one little quibble, though. They spelled his name wrong in the opening credits. Oh the French would say, “C’est les pommes de terre.” Dick died in 1982, years before the film was made.

At the beginning of Total Recall, Arnold is portrayed as a heavily muscled construction worker whose wife Lori, played by Sharon Stone, is critical of his dreams of Mars. Many say Stone’s role resurrected her film career. One wonders, too, would the governator have been in charge of the State of California if Schwarzenegger had bombed in this role? And one other aside: Quaid – named Quail in Dick’s original story – was supposedly renamed because Hollywood did not want to offend the man who was Vice President of the United States at the time; his name was Dan Quayle. Getting back to the film, Quaid’s wife tries to discourage him from perseverating about Mars, and a coworker who knows that Quaid is thinking of getting a memory implant tells him, “Don’t **** with your brain, pal, it ain’t worth it.” The coworker also mentions that a previous implantee had to have a lobotomy after suffering a serious side effect in the form of a “schizoid embolism.” Why the company couldn’t just erase the unlucky customer’s implant rather than giving him a lobotomy isn’t explained, maybe it’s because the writers felt the word lobotomy had a nasty ring to it.

Quaid nonetheless drops into the offices of the Total Rekal Corporation and orders up a trip to Mars, replete with realistic souvenirs and customized with an “ego trip” in which he saves the planet and wins the love of a beautiful woman. In the next scene we see him with Dr. Lull and the implant team; Quaid is about to have the memories implanted that he’s specified. “We’re doing alien artifacts on Mars,” they tell him, and a nearby screen pulls up the image of a giant alien reactor bay on Mars. While a technician looks at the software package he’s momentarily bemused by its contents. “That’s a new one,” he says, “Blue skies on Mars.”

Moments later, something goes wrong (or does it?) and the team is shocked to discover that Quaid actually was a secret agent on Mars (or was he?) “You’ve blown my cover,” he says. The procedure seemingly nudges some previously erased memories back to the forefront, memories that were deleted by Quaid’s superiors after he completed a secret mission on Mars. The Rekal team manages to re-erase his memories in an attempt to protect themselves from the secret police. After this Quaid struggles free but runs afoul of his coworker buddy. The man is actually another agent detailed to kill him if his memories return. He goes home and tells his wife what just happened, and she tries to kill him too. She, too, is an agent, required to prostitute herself as Quaid’s wife while keeping an eye on him. Overpowered by a team of agents, he’s told, “Sorry Quaid, your whole life is just a dream.” IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, states, “During filming, Sharon Stone complained to director Paul Verhoeven that she wasn't sure whether her character really was married to (Quaid).” Welcome, Sharon, to the world of Philip K. Dick. You’re not the only one left wondering.

Quaid escapes, whether in dream or reality, and in an amusing scene he contends with a bag lady to recover a suitcase full of things his previous self left behind. Akin to a similar concept used by Dick in Paycheck, protagonist Quaid has amnesia and must use the tools in the suitcase to decipher his past. There’s a scene in which Quaid removes a locator beacon from, well, his nose; it’s a rather bizarre scene. A violent series of events unfold in which Quaid evades uber-assassin Richter (Michael Ironside) and ends up on Mars. The red rock and skies of Mars will have a very nostalgic look for those familiar with early covers of Amazing Stories magazine. Quaid evades Richter once again, along with the red planet’s customs agents, and hitches a ride with Benny (Mel Johnson Jr.), a can-do cabbie who takes Quaid wherever he wants to go. Later, Benny proves duplicitous and meets an unpleasant death in a scene that, with others, initially earned Total Recall an “X” rating. Benny’s denouement and other violent scenes were ultimately edited down to obtain a more bankable rating of “R.”

As is typical of Schwarzenegger’s films, the writers have him reaching several times for a quotable quote. The line that succeeds is the one he delivers after killing his wife, Lori, with a bullet to the forehead. “Consider this a divorce,” Arnie says to his betrayer, and the audience doubtless cheers. But Lori mysteriously reappears, along with Doctor Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) from the Rekal clinic, in a seemingly minor but absolutely pivotal scene. The two break into Quaid’s “trip” in an effort to convince him that, if he ever wants to wake up, he’s going to have to fight to regain reality.

Instead, Quaid decides he’s being deceived and chooses to shoot Dr. Edgemar, setting the stage for all that follows. Quaid’s every desire comes to fruition. He helps the mutant rebels led by Kuato (Marshall Bell) defeat Mars’ evil dictator, Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), a man hated for charging the denizens of Mars cutthroat prices for the very air they breath. Quaid also activates an ancient alien reactor that replenishes all of Mars with fresh air in a matter of minutes. He wins the heart of the athletic, sleazy and demure Melina. At the end of Total Recall he and Melina express the thought, “What if this is a dream?” The two kiss as the screen fades to white, leaving us to Quaid leading a new, free life on Mars...or was the fade to white a sign that he has just been lobotomized? There are at least two possible conclusions, maybe more. You’ll just have to watch the film and decide for yourself.

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