Action Heroes – Schwarzenegger: Total Recall

Well, here it is then – Total Recall, as remembered by yours truly.

There are good movies and there are great movies. Sometimes you know you are witnessing a great movie at the time of release, you just know it’s significant and you sit there transfixed. Conversely, sometimes you really don’t. For me, a good example of the former would be Oliver Stone’s amazing Platoon. Something about that movie made itself comfortable, and settled into some backwater part of my brain while I was still watching it at the cinema. It was like a little voice saying “OK Ben, remember this moment, remember where you are, and who you’re with because this movie is going to have some serious impact and longevity long beyond the here and now”. I knew it on a subliminal level before being consciously aware of it.
Other times, greatness is determined further down the line, and one isn’t as aware that the movie you’re munching your popcorn to is destined to become a true classic, still respected and held dear decades later. Blade Runner fits that bill for me. I was 11 when I saw it at my hometown flea-pit and, although I enjoyed it, I was possibly a tad too young for it, and was probably expecting something more ‘Lucas’ like. The film’s quality, significance, and greatness only became apparent to me as a teenager. Over the years, with many repeat viewings, my opinion of its quality became focused, hardened and resolved into the surety I have now as a 40 year-old man that it’s pretty bloody sweet.

Well, it has been just over 20 years since Total Recall hit our screens (jeeze, that makes me feel so ancient), and the movie is still an Arnold fan favourite, as well as a sci-fi classic. It’s a perfect storm of complimentary elements and an exuberant indulgence of the highest order. As you may or may not know, a remake is in the works and scheduled for a 2012 release. I learned this news with very mixed feelings, particularly when Colin Farrell was announced as the lead. This alone dictates a very different movie from the original, which could be either a good or bad thing. We shall see how Total Recall 2012 turns out, but it has an awful lot to live up to, and on many levels, hasn’t got a chance if it tries to go toe-to-toe with the original.
What worries me is that it seems like these days a remake doesn’t actually have to be artistically that good to successfully trade on its name and make a ton of money, justifying not only its own existence but that of possible sequels too. This allows studios to perpetuate the practice of studios rehashing their intellectual properties purely as a business tool. That’s an unfortunate modern truism. I’ll expect wonderful SFX visuals, and hope for a tight intelligent take on the story, but who knows?

For those who are not aware of Total Recall’s origin, here’s a brief summation:
Author Philip K. Dick (yes he who wrote Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the book upon which Blade Runner was based), also wrote a great story called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale which forms the basis and inspiration for Total Recall. The transformation from book to movie however was via [Alien] writers Ronald Shussett and Dan O’Bannon, with a further distillation through the direction of slightly crazy Dutch filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven, (who had unleashed Robocop on an unsuspecting Detroit), and action-orientated producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna (the guys who brought you Rambo). Attaching Arnold Schwarzenegger to the project brings a final level of refraction.
The end result is Total Recall as we know and love it. I know, I know, as a sci-fi cognoscente and intellectual I’m supposed to lament the ruination of the purity of Dick’s book etc etc. and yeah OK, I can see why the book’s fans may have been upset. Total Recall doesn’t really explore the finer nuances of the basic idea behind Dick’s story, and Arnold’s character is not burdened with doubt about what’s real and what isn’t for very long (if ever), and prefers to blunder off to Mars, shooting people and running around not worrying about it. Verhoeven instead merely maintains a possible ambiguity about the reality of the film’s events that the audience may or may not cotton on to. But, y’see, the popcorn-munching Arnie lover in me doesn’t care about that at all, as the movie remains an action/sci-fi tour de force.
For me, going to see Total Recall was a no-brainer. I was a massive Arnold fan, a lifelong sci-fi fan, and a recent Verhoeven fan thanks to Robocop. Total Recall brought all these things together: this was Arnold, sci-fi, and the dude who made Robocop all rolled up in a couple of hours of pure ultraviolet awesomeness. I was 19 and hooked.

Arnold is a force of nature in Total Recall, as he so often was during his golden period (see Red Heat retro for more on that). He runs around dispatching bad guys (and ex-wives) with such gusto, and with whatever unlikely tools that come to hand, that you just have to marvel at the absurd, bloodthirsty craziness of it all. He kills with magnificent glee for a guy who is supposed to think he’s just a regular guy.

As is usual with Verhoeven’s movies, the violence is copious, bloody and graphic. Personally I’ve always liked this ‘no holds barred’ aspect of his filmmaking. I can’t stand the ’15′ certificate pandering that the marketing bean counters almost always enforce these days, particularly in horror movies that really should be allowed to have the courage of their convictions. I remember Verhoeven saying on the Robocop DVD commentary that he felt it was dishonest to have people firing guns in the movies and for the audience to not see what happens when those bullets hit their marks. How true. In Verhoeven’s movies, you get shotand you get torn apart. Simple. As such, bullet hits in Total Recall rip and shred and the claret flies in all directions (along with the odd bit of skull).

This brings me to the architect of all of this gut -wrenchingly wicked gore, Mr. Rob Bottin. He’s a genius, and while Stan Winston, Rick Baker and the great Tom Savini seem to have reaped the most plaudits and gained the highest profiles, let’s not forget the complete mastery of Bottin’s work. It was Bottin that made the creature FX in John Carpenter’s The Thing so sickeningly original. No one who has seen The Thing will ever forget the Norris/Copper defibrillator scene! And in Total Recall, it’s Arnold’s sadistic method of dispatching Richter (Michael Ironside). Richter’s fate is reminiscent of Copper’s in The Thing, and the effect is still amazing, and totally convincing today (and yes, I’ve watched it in slow-mo) – so bugger off CG gore, Bottin will show you how to do it!

Speaking of CG, one of the problems back in the heady early 90s was this situation with new computer technology in special visual FX. Filmmakers were entering a stage where computer-generated imagery was creeping in more and more, and the distinctions between practical and animated FX began to start blurring. At the same time, traditional ‘in camera’ make-up, prosthetic and animatronic effects were becoming incredibly advanced, and ever more convincing and complex. One of the problems for Bottin’s work in Total Recall (and for Stan Winston with T2), was that once people were starting to see impressive CG effects in movies, they tended to think ‘everything’ amazing ‘must’ be CG. T2 is remembered by many as the movie that really took CG effects to the next level after The Abyss and before Jurassic Park, but most folks would be absolutely shocked at how much of T2’s amazing effects were done in camera by Stan Winston, with prosthetics, animatronics, false perspectives etc. Similarly, albeit to a lesser degree, some of Bottin’s work in Total Recall is mistakenly thought to be CG. Well I salute the big hairy bear (Bottin is a big hairy bear), and think that almost all of what he did in Total Recall still looks fantastic.

Truth be known, and let’s be frank, the FX shots that really don’t work when watching the film now are not usually Bottin’s stuff, but rather the miniature set and model work. I think there are very few pre-CG environment era movies whose miniature works remain convincing (Blade Runner being the exception that proves the rule in most of its miniature work). This is a shame, but we’ve just got used to the clarity and photorealistic quality that the best CG environments can provide nowadays, and miniature sets, model trains and stop-motion marionettes just don’t fool anyone.

A last word on FX – I always thought there was something familiar about Johnnycab (the cybernetic ‘driver’ found in Total recall’s taxis), but could never put my finger on it. Reading the closing credits, it turns out that Robert Picardo (who I knew well from his role as the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager), provided the voice of Johnnycab, and it would seem that Rob Bottin may have also modelled the look of the Johnnycab ‘driver’ on Mr. Picardo to a degree as well. Funny.

If I had to create a top 10 list of my all-time favourite film composers, Jerry Goldsmith would certainly be on it. Whether it’s Alien, or The Omen or Star Trek, he has penned quite a few of my fave film scores. It has to be said, though, that Goldsmith’s score for Total Recall is not essential listening, although it is an interesting bag of themes. It’s not the most memorable score, and there are more than a few slightly uncomfortable cues that remind me, not only of Goldsmith’s own previous works (Alien in particular), but of other composers’ works too. There’s a strong flavour of Basil Poledouris’ Conan main theme cropping up here and there, for example.

Like all the best Arnie films, Total Recall is chock full of brilliantly quotable lines. I can spout a lot of these at will. Here are some of my favourites:

“Consider that a divorce.” (After shooting his now apparently ‘fake’ wife in the head.)

“I’ll blow this place up and be home in time for corn flakes!”

“See you at the party Richter!” (After cold-bloodedly slicing Richter’s arms of at the elbow, causing him to fall to his death. Arnold then throws the bloody appendages down after him. Lovely.)

I also love that Verhoeven shoehorned a dose of his usual satire into the film too (although not nearly as much as in Robocop). For example, when Quaid (Arnold) is watching the morning news at the beginning of the movie, I just love the way the news anchor is spinning a complete bullshit story about a violent incident on Mars, while the footage blatantly contradicts everything she’s saying. It’s an interesting satirical observation of the power of the news media to spin the ‘news’ any way that suits their agenda. Verhoeven is saying that they don’t even have to try and hide the fact that they’re lying about what happened, and to prove it; here’s the footage uncensored while we bullshit you. Great stuff.

Well I’ve waffled on for long enough, and it’s time to wrap this one up. It’s still a great movie though not without its flaws. Its budget was big, but some of the sets, vehicles and other dressing items, props etc. don’t stand up to close inspection too well, and can look a bit under-engineered. There are many contrivances and plot flaws during Quaid’s journey. And there are many times where the audience’s ability to accept the dramatic situation is severely tested. The most notorious example is the finale, where Quaid and Melina are exposed to Mars’ atmosphere. Their swollen tongues bulge from their mouths as their internal organs collapse under the pressure, their skin erupts in painful burns and their eyes erupt from their sockets. Nevertheless, as soon as they get back inside the protective dome they make a full and instant recovery.

Is it all a dream? Is Quaid living a fantasy in his own mind? Is he on Mars, or back on Earth in the lab having an embolism? Is anything real? Am I real? What about you? Is this door really a door, or is it ajar? All these questions and more are not left hanging in the air at the close of the movie, because they didn’t really ask them. What Verhoeven, Schwarzenegger and co did do was produce a terrific slice of sci-fi action. Sometimes funny, always violent, often visceral, and mostly silly, but perpetually entertaining, and still a bloody good ride.

Ben Pegley

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