TOTAL RECALL stands the testament of time as thee thinking man’s action film. Dan O’Bannon worked with Ronald Shusett to deliver a unique and thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi adventure from the short story authored by Philip K. Dick. O’Bannon delivered a future that is a blend of chaos and consumerism that is still recognizable even today. Gritty, dark, and filled with gallows humor, O’Bannon crafted an expert story of the delicate balance our minds create for us to deal with the pressures of life, especially when those pressures force us into compelling situations such as interstellar travel, mutants, and gun battles that make the OK Corral look like a tea party. Often regaled as a simple action film in the pantheon of what made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar, Total Recall has far more under the surface.
Without TOTAL RECALL, there wouldn’t be films like EQUILIBRIUM, iROBOT, THE MATRIX, MINORITY REPORT, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, INCEPTION and a slew of other high intrigue fueled capers of one man against a vast conspiracy that questions the reality of his situation. Total Recall still holds all the cards in terms of delivering a morbidly graphic version of life and death in the future. Here the fundamentals of exploitation cinema are chiseled from gratuitous violence, foul language, and a special effects design that stands up to this day. Many of the aforementioned counterparts have stripped away this brash sense of bravado that watermarked much of Schwarzenegger’s career. Despite all the action of INCEPTION, you’re still left to wonder how much cooler it would be if there were some mutants in that mix. And here you’re wondering if the top stopped spinning. O’Bannon was a believer that appealing to our most primitive instincts as a form of entertainment isn’t something to be ashamed of, instead he amped it up by delivering the very best in what many film critics consider brain dead sub-genres of cinema. On the surface is a futuristic tale of one man’s battle against an evil corporation in an alien world. But there really is no evil corporation or aliens, only mining of a world that has already been stripped of its culture. In essence, Total Recall is a post-apocalyptic story. As safe and domesticated as Earth is, Mars is the Wild West for our hero gunslinger, where he must travel to bring law & order. Like MAD MAX to gasoline, SOLAR BABIES to water, or even WATERWORLD to dirt, the element of control that drives the story is just that, control of an element; air. Such a simple spin on a unifying need for all creatures is what subconsciously draws us further into the peril of the journey. Added to the mix is the quest of personal identity. Sure, Quaid is a lowly construction worker looking for escape from himself, something we can all identify with as we struggle to define ourselves as we would like to be seen rather than as what we really are in society. If anything the physical obstacles for Quaid to overcome can be seen as manifestations of his Id, Ego, and Super Ego. In his mind he has constructed a world where sex and violence is unfiltered and always on tap. So whether it is a reality or not, get your ass to Mars.
The Rebels and their political struggles are far too reminiscent of the 3rd World conflicts that flicker on the Nightly News. Instead of a misunderstood religious rhetoric to rally their efforts, the Rebels instead fight for air and independence. Throughout the entire story the complete plot and all of the possible endings are laid out in front of the audience like school clothes for the next day. The beauty of it all is that despite what we would normally perceive as red herrings in modern cinema, these instances are the nuances that fuel the story forward. The story swings with the pace of a pendulum, yet you’re never sure where it will settle. You’re only comfort is knowing you’re in the blood soaked middle with Quaid. A particular resonating scene is when Cohaagen kicks over an aquarium and the goldfish lay gasping for air, a visual foreshadow of his plans for the inhabitants of Mars. These visuals of life and death transcend more than just your standard VHS shoot ‘em ups.
The Agency is a vast conspiracy that spans both Earth and Mars. Essentially we, like Quaid, believe they control a man that can’t even trust his memories. This sentiment echoed throughout my first viewing of MEMENTO. This plays with the archetype of a hero’s quest versus that of his destiny. But what truly makes Total Recall unique is the lack of closure with the ending. Sure, we as an audience would like to believe that he’s overcome the dark side of himself and lead the rebels to victory and helped colonize Mars for generations to come. And yet, we’ve been told the entire way that it’s all a dream, a memory implant gone wrong. Perhaps he was still in a lounge pod at Rekall being brought back from the brink of a schizophrenic embolism. One thing I marvel at is the science fiction technology of this film that came to pass into reality. From the video phones to the X-ray backscatter, it seems that Dan O’Bannon had a finger on the pulse of how we as a society develop through technology. Not since ROBOCOP has a film delivered such a gritty and blood soaked vision of the future, which I’m sure is what drew Robocop’s director Paul Verhoeven and actor Ronny Cox to this project. I’m still holding hope for Johnny Cabs.
The special effects sequences are always a favorite of mine. I can only imagine O’Bannon’s process for thinking up Kuato, the mutants and especially the 3 breasted entertainment at The Last Resort. The customs check-in scene on Mars is one that lives on in infamy. Kuato is a favorite character being a martyr for his cause two-fold. His symbiotic relationship with Marshall Bell’s character George reflects a dichotomy within Quaid himself. They are essentially two people willing to give their lives for the greater good, the cinematic definition of a hero. Of course an Uzi toting simile of Belial from BASKET CASE probably wouldn’t have won over the American public, so Kuato’s sacrifice was a necessity, one not met in vain. As hyperbolic miscreants of Mars, this subtle blend of projected imagination is what I found lacking in INCEPTION and other garden variety mind game films. For all of DiCaprio’s digging into the subconscious of our dreams, there were never the wildly imaginative personifications of the human psyche’s fears and desires as perpetuated in O’Bannon’s work. The scenes of pure gore such as Ricter’s double arm rip off or the eye bulging in a zero oxygen atmosphere stand as great effects that come from a great story. These effects stand as one of the last instances of practical effects for Schwarzenegger before CGI filled his consecutive feature films. The story lends itself for the delivery of such over the top sequences that it successfully marketed itself on the fundamentals of exploitation cinema to the American public. Prostitutes, hit men, mutants, gun play, gore, it’s wonderful to see all this still thriving in 2084.
An analytical viewing shows that Total Recall is a potpourri of genres that blends the aromatic draw of each into its own signature scent. Don’t believe me, just follow your nose. It is one part neo-noir, with equal parts action and suspense with hints of comedy and horror. Blending it out is a balance of a love story as well. Douglas Quaid is essentially a detective forced into a case to find out whodunit only to find that he’s the man behind all of his troubles. Lori steps in as a classic femme fatale in this computer programmed neo-noir. Melina serves as the perfect parallel for Schwarzenegger’s love triangle. This isn’t a story about an “every man”, because the Governator just isn’t like you and I. Quaid must contend with his realization that he’s really Hauser, and he’s an asshole. And that’s one of the great Act III obstacles of the last 20 minutes for the audience to contend with as does our hero. Each beat of the story is fleshed out with a distinct goal to uncover the conspiracy of the story and all the interconnected elements that blurs fantasy with reality.
Michael Ironside as Richter delivers a character of almost Shakespearean villainy and that resonates in the classic style O’Bannon draws from with his writing. Richter’s a henchman with eyes on the bigger prize, but is confounded by his boss Cohaagen’s thirst for power. His love for Lori, played by an almost unknown Sharon Stone at the time, fuels his anger towards Quaid and yet our secret agent will never truly understand why. Even Mel Johnson Jr.’s role as Benny offers a traitorous turn that arcs the story through varying degrees of betrayal and revenge. This is what creates a sense of struggle and need for heroism, when the sides of “evil” and “indecency” are as equally matched to that of our protagonist. Honestly there are no bit parts throughout the whole film. One standout in my opinion is Roy Brocksmith as Dr. Edgemar who seeks to talk Quaid off the proverbial ledge of a mental breakdown of psychotic proportions. Envision crafting such a freeform delusion from a schizoid embolism and translating that into a cohesive narrative. Now imagine if everything Edgemar said to Quaid was true? The fact that he offers Quaid a pill in within the confines of a computer constructed simulation in the same fashion as Morpheus to Neo in THE MATRIX draws even deeper comparisons to O’Bannon’s affect of today’s cinema. The rabbit hole grows deeper than you could imagine.
One criticism to address is that along with the gratuitous violence is the lack of female presence in the film. I find that laughable considering the duality between Quaid’s imposter wife Lori and his fantasy girl Melina. Lori is a strong and dynamic character, cunning and adept at survival. She actually goes at Schwarzenegger and survives, proving to be quite the ass kicker and possessing the smarts to help corner Quaid on Mars until her “divorce”. Melina may be “sleazy” but she would roundhouse kick any comparison to the “hooker with a heart of gold”. Instead she is a pivotal role in the resistance movement and never truly falls into the pratfalls of a damsel in distress. Melina is tough and sexy, and rallies against Cohaagen who as a suppressive villain personifies his ideals of sexism through Rekall technology, “You’re going to be respectful, compliant and appreciative, the way a woman should be.” Quaid isn’t attracted to Melina because she’s sleazy, he’s attracted to her because she doesn’t placate him like Lori; his attraction is to a woman that makes her own decisions on how to live her life. Melina doesn’t need to be rescued or won over; she exists as her own separate entity on her own terms. This female dynamic is hard to find in any other Schwarzenegger film and I’ve looked, so relax. You’ll live longer.
It’s damn near impossible to discuss this film without addressing the rumors of Columbia Studios intentions to produce a remake in early 2011. Colin Farrell is rumored to step into the star role as yet another rehashing of a blockbuster hit is plopped down at the box office. Neil Mortiz is rumored to be attached to the helm as well as writer Kurt Wimmer. My opinion of the matter is that if a studio feels absolutely compelled to craft another version of the film then they should revisit a director previously attached. I say hand the project back to David Cronenberg and deliver a new vision that almost was, but never fully realized. Cronenberg had previously departed the picture on terms of conflict of vision with Shusett and now I would be curious to see what that entails though Cronenberg’s initial desire to cast William Hurt as the lead would have made for a drastically different picture the first time around. Though Shusett’s determination to hammer out more of “Indiana Jones in Space”, you can easily see the elements of the story that O’Bannon crafted from Philip K. Dick’s genesis. And for the fans of this film and Dan O’Bannon, I leave you with this quote from the mutant mystic Kuato, “A man is defined by his actions, not his memories.”
Good night, Sweet Prince. I’ll see you at the party.