Originally shown January 26, 2011
When we watched the 1990 film Total Recall at Movie Klub, I had one of those weird feelings about my own aging. How is it that Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose career matured as I matured, is now a guy that we look back on? How is it that the film was shown by a person younger than it is? (I wonder if it’s the same way for my parents with Star Wars, which was released a week or two before I was born.) I remember when Total Recall was just another summer blockbuster, that year’s Schwarzenegger film, and later became that movie that you always saw while surfing the cable channels. Trying to watch it with a critical eye is a weird, weird experience.
Arnold plays Douglas Quaid, a construction worker on Earth who is strangely obsessed with Mars. When he visits a virtual-vacation company that offers to implant memories of a vacation to Mars in his mind, he gets caught up in an interplanetary conspiracy, and an action film breaks out. The screenplay was first adapted from a Philip K. Dick story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (Alien) and re-written more than forty times while it spent most of the 1980s in development hell. When Arnold finally got a hold of it, he was such a star that he had near-complete control over the production, including hand-picking director Paul Verhoeven (whose 2007 film Black Book would be shown at Movie Klub the very next week).
All of this is important because I could sense some awesomely prescient science-fiction ideas in the script. The whole reason Mars is colonized in the first place is to fund wars between a wealthy “Northern Bloc” and poorer “Southern Bloc” (thus accurately predicting every war since 1990). As long as the war is going on, the Martian corporation/government run by the villainous Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) can do anything and kill anyone it wants and no one “back home” will care (Blackwater, anyone?). However, big ideas went straight out of the window as soon as Schwarzenegger got involved. Rather like The Running Man, this is a movie which has a high concept but cares much more about its action scenes.
Verhoeven, who was fresh off of Robocop and still had Starship Troopers in his future, knows his way around action. It’s interesting to contrast this movie with, say, a Michael Bay film. Bay’s annoying style treats every shot like a climax, with swelling music and hero-shots for every character, and the problem with that is that the drama gets lost. You can’t get excited for the climax of a movie when every single shot is treated like a climax, and you can’t maintain climax-level excitement for two hours. Verhoeven’s set pieces are stories in themselves, where the action and violence build until you see Arnold or kick-ass female lead Rachel Ticotin do something extra-heroic, and then the story moves on.
I was just starting to pay attention to movie reviews when this film came out, and the one criticism of it that I saw over and over is that it is super, super violent. Verhoeven seems to enjoy using enormous squibs and a gallon of stage blood for each gunshot. I actually think that the level of violence is justified by the story for a little while, but later it becomes ridiculous to the point of self-parody; evil heavy Richter (Michael Ironside) is dispatched in a way so disgusting as to become cartoonish. The combination of laugh and groan of disgust was a common thing to hear during this Movie Klub screening. Arnold certainly wasn’t going to complain; in this Sports Illustrated profile from 1987 he told a story of suggesting on the Commando set that he rip a guy’s arm off and beat him to death with it, y’know, for comedy.
But that’s the weird thing about Arnold’s career. He looks so serious, his films are impossible to take seriously,* he knows it, and somehow he is able to walk that line. There’s a reason that his biggest bomb was the movie that most openly encouraged us to laugh at him, The Last Action Hero. We didn’t want to be told to laugh at him because at some point we started laughing at him on our own, and instead of ruining the experience as it might have done for an old-time star like Steve McQueen, the laughter made it even better. Total Recall came right when that was starting to happen, and that makes it fun to watch, even all these years later.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Exception: The Terminator.