Total Recall (1990)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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Paul Verhoeven’s movies have a knack for raising grand, philosophical questions about the world which he rushes through in order to tell a more entertaining, even silly story.  It’s in that rush to move past the horrifying implications of these dystopian worlds, as if they don’t deserve a second thought, that seem oddly enough to draw more attention to those implications.

RoboCop followed a man who is revived into a Frankenstein-esque monster.  Though his mind is ostensibly wiped, he becomes a tragic figure as he holds onto traces of his old life, distant memories that he has trouble sifting through.  It’s a similar situation for Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Total Recall.  Minutes into the film he is given an opportunity to take an imagined vacation to Mars wherein a corporation gives you implanted memories which feel as real as any other memory.

When the procedure goes wrong, apparently, Quaid will have reason to call into question his true identity.  It also helps shake things up when your wife tries to kill you and then flat out says she’s only known you for eight weeks (the rest of their relationship is a series of false memories).

Quaid will soon learn that he is really Hauser, a member of a rebel alliance on Mars, fighting for control of the planet from Vilos Cohaagan (Ronny Cox) who literally sells the air needed to sustain life on the planet.  This side of the story becomes a social commentary on class structures, and it’s thick enough satire to occasionally distract from what I think is the much more engaging, haunting side of the story: Quaid’s identity.

Again, the story rushes through all of this which makes it all the more horrifying.  Quaid’s wife, Lori (Sharon Stone), will try to kill him, then tell him she’s not his real wife, then later try to seduce him again by saying she is his wife and that all this secret agent bulls*t is a side effect of the memory vacation he tried to take, then again try to kill him, and then Quaid will shoot her in the head.

She’s one of the villains, so sure, she gets what movie villains deserve, but Quaid still sees her as the love of his life, the woman he’s been married to for years.  Even if it’s a false construction it feels real to him, but he hardly gives it a second thought after shooting her.

Later Quaid will learn that he can’t even trust himself, or who he used to be because that might as well be a completely new person.  Hauser, it seems, was working for Cohaagen all along and falsely implanted in himself memories that would lead him down a path towards the leader of the rebel alliance, Kuato, a gremlin that protrudes from a man’s abdomen.

Sure enough Quaid leads the bad guys to Kuato, the mystic from the abdomen is killed, and then Quaid must reckon with the purported reality that he himself is one of the bad guys.

There’s a lot of information given to us very quickly and in one of those trope-y “villain explains his secret plan to the hero” scene so that we understand what’s going on.  It’s a silly moment, but the whole movie is absurd, just as RoboCop was and Starship Troopers would be.

Total Recall is a solid, silly action movie.  Any movie with Schwarzenegger is bound to be a little silly.  This movie on its own might just feel like an absurd 80s action movie, but based on Paul Verhoeven’s other work you can see the themes and satire at play.  He always seems to know what he wants to convey and how to convey it in a way that doesn’t detract from the movie’s commercial ability.

With Schwarzenegger he seems to be using him in a way that mocks and celebrates his familiar movie hero identity.  We get plenty of shots of the man looking big and strong, and of course several precarious moments end with him using brute strength to escape.  To me it feels like Verhoeven has found the perfect action star, someone whose appearance nearly justifies the absurdity of the story as a whole.

So I guess this film brings up thought-provoking ideas but then spins them into a popcorn flick.  The whole thing is ridiculous and not meant to be taken seriously, because really how could you take this seriously?  And yet Verhoeven sneaks in all these horrifying implications about the world, capitalism, the fallibility of memory and the fluidity of personal identity as if knowing it will begin to burrow into your head at night. On the conscious level you’re watching Arnold Schwarzenegger punch his way out of flimsy looking Hollywood sets, and on a subconscious level you begin contemplating how you would define yourself were you to learn that your entire memory was implanted within you.

If there is reason to question anything that has happened before, to doubt it, then all we have is the present moment.  It makes more poignant the otherwise cliche final shot of the film, wherein the hero and heroine of the movie bring up the idea that this could all be a dream.  So what can they do about it other than make out right then and there?

Up Next: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), After the Storm (2016)

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