Forgotten Gem: The original Total Recall

Total Recall – 1990

Director Paul Verhoven
Starring
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox
Written by
Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon & Gary Goldmanbased on the story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick

When I found out that they were remaking Total Recall, it occurred to me that I had not watched the original in nearly 15 years.  I had upgraded from VHS to DVD, buying the Artisan Special Edition that came in the Mars Tin.  Then I promptly forgot it.  I thought about it from time to time, mainly because the movie provided some of the absolute best Arnold one-liners of all time.  It was not necessarily what he said that was brilliant.  It was how he said it.

Being snowed in and no chance of getting out tomorrow, I decided that I was going to take advantage of my time and bore through it again.  What I discovered was special effects that the last gasp of the miniatures era as well as the first glimpse of computer generated effects, if perhaps overdone, (deliberately if you take into account the career of Verhoven) a plot on par with the best Arnold ever had (Terminator 1 & 2 notwithstanding), and Arnold giving it everything he had for a story he verily loved.

Some people are aware that Schwarzenegger was not the first choice of then Producer Dino De Laurentiis, with whom he had worked with many times before.  Instead, they floated Richard Dreyfus up there for some reason, and, eventually Patrick Swayze, who was still riding high off of Dirty Dancing.  Swayze might have given somewhat more of a nuanced performance, but why in the hell would anyone have wanted Dreyfus in this film?  It was not to be, either way.  De Laurentiis went broke and the rights were sold to Carolco.  The rest is a history soaked with fake blood, over-acting and money.

More annoyed than scared looking at the end of a barrel.

What in Total Recall works 21 years later?  The plot, for one thing.  Arnold as a construction worker Douglas Quaid who experiences recurring dreams of revolution on the mining colony of Mars.  He makes a visit to a virtual vacation company Rekall, is asked a few questions, then sedated, and then he flips out.  Why this happens, I will leave to the viewer.  Suffice to say there are plenty enough elements of the original Dick story to invite more questions than answers.  Several viewings in, there is still enough there to merit many ideas on what is happening.

Another asset for the film is a young Sharon Stone.  She had hung around Hollywood for a while by this point, never quite hitting it big.  In Total Recall, she gives much more to the role than most of the rest of the cast are capable of.  Her looks of annoyance before she starts attempting to kill Quaid gives us the insight into someone who has had to deal with someone she was less than enamored with.

Schwarzenegger is a net positive here.  He is given nearly free rein to go all out by Verhoven, and he obliges in the only way one who needs competent direction would.  Arnie has skill when he is pushed, as Terminator 2 would show in spades.  Here he hits a bit more often than misses.  He has the innate ability to look totally perplexed by the most inane things, and this helps him when he’s dealing with annoying cab driver or the wise little baby guy who comes out of the guy’s belly.  Arnold looks like he believes everything, and that pushes the effects just a bit farther than they deserve to go.

Ronny Cox is once again delightfully bad as the sinister Cohagen.  It might be that his usual characters were usually pretty kind, but his role as Dick Jones in Robocop and here are especially villainous, to the border of absurdity.

Rachel Ticotin seems to have lost a touch with the passage of time.  I am not sure if it was her performance here or the followup in Falling Down that impressed me at the time, but here she is just hitting the notes.

...or Coleman Francis
Separated at birth: Ironside or...

Of Michael Ironside, what can be said?  He’s definitely no Darth Vader.  He is one of the worst character actors of all time.  The post 1980’s answer to Coleman Francis.  He has one speed: dumb brute.  It’s not a change of pace to see him pissed throughout the film, and his end is particularly brutal.  It’s a nice touch whenever he dies in a dumb, brutish way.

The big surprise still works...

The special effects don’t get any better for a B-Movie.  The deal is, however, the budget was definitely A-Movie.  It is not amazing that they won an Oscar, but time has not been kind to the special effects team lead by Rob Bottin.  It’s not that their work is anything short of amazing.  It is grand work.  Problem is that Verhoven liked to crank it up to 11,

This works too.

when a 10 would do just fine.  The woman costume works as well now as it ever did, as does the scanning machine.  The characters as mutants are good as well…for the time.  The repeated showings of the effects on Mars lack of oxygen is showed ad nauseam, to the point where I was praying that Verhoven could be thrown into the airless atmosphere for his crimes against my senses.

Speaking of crimes, the violence one endures with Verhoven films in the glory days was unparalleled.  Robocop broke the innocence of the country in a way none had done since the days of Peckinpah.  As a followup, Total Recall was so graphic, the MPAA originally gave it an X-Rating.  This was exactly what Verhoven was expecting, though.  He took out a few of the intentionally over the line scenes and in the process got some of the other intentionally over the line scenes left in.

Overall, Verhoven keeps things together enough to complete, along with Robocop, the zenith of his career.  He would go on to help Stone attain notoriety in Basic Instinct, then completely blowing his credibility with Showgirls and then using what was left of his cache for one last hurrah in Starship Troopers and Hollow Man before heading back to the Netherlands.

Will the new Total Recall give this one that last push into obscurity?  With different screenwriters, and nothing happening on Mars, it definitely will be different.  Colin Farrell has more acting skill than Arnold, to be sure, but his presence in a film is usually decidedly less.  The rest of the cast, is better, if you don’t count Jessica Biel.  Len Wiseman doesn’t give me too much either way.  He brought Underworld upon us, and that series just won’t go away.  He made the 3rd best Die Hard film, legions above Die Harder, but still it was PG-13.  My guess is that this version of the story will be with us for some time, for more reasons than one.  The microscope will show things like effects will have improved, but nothing can beat a good story done with enthusiasm.

(**** out of *****)

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One thought on “Forgotten Gem: The original Total Recall

  1. Very intreresting post. It was very relavant. I was searching exaxtly for this. Thank you for your effort. I hope you will write more such useful posts.

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