Tuesday 12 March 2013

Movie Review: Total Recall (1990)

One of the last non-digital science fiction adventures, Total Recall is a combustible combination of director Paul Verhoeven's ultra-violent tendencies and Arnold Schwarzenegger's bulging brawn in a brisk adaptation of a thoughtful Philip K. Dick story.

It's the year 2084, and Mars is colonized and being actively mined for a precious mineral. On Earth, construction worker Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is having inexplicable nightmares about Mars. He tries to convince his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) that they should relocate to the red planet, but she is not interested. Instead, Quaid hires the Rekall company to implant false Mars vacation memories into his brain, and requests the special "secret agent" package to spice up his fake recollections.

But something goes wrong during the process, and Quaid is catapulted into a seemingly real life-and-death struggle, finding himself the target of vicious assassins led by Richter (Michael Ironside), who is taking orders from the ruthless Vilos Cohaagen, the governor of Mars. Quaid receives a message from himself recorded in the past: he used to be government agent Hauser, working for Cohaagen, before switching sides and joining a rebellion against the governor. Subsequently his memory was erased and he was given a new identity as Quaid. Now he must travel to Mars, connect with resistance fighter Melina (Rachel Ticotin), and help the mysterious rebel leader Kuato.

An army of screenwriters including Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon laboured for years to adapt Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale story, and the result is a chase movie filled with wild wit and woolly violence. But amidst the dangerously high levels of kinetic energy, Total Recall remembers to build tension around fundamental conflicts, such as defining life's value either through past actions or present decisions, but not both. What makes Quaid human becomes a core challenge, since his rational mind can no longer be necessarily faithful to over-written memories, but his heart can chart a path back to commitments made but not necessarily understood. None of the philosophical aspects of the film are belaboured, and Verhoeven manages to incorporate the interesting queries without causing long pauses in the action.

Total Recall's visual effects won a Special Achievement Academy award, and the look of the film is admirable. The Earth of 2084 is not as grim as the world of Blade Runner (1982), but Total Recall's modernity is infused with a kitschy undertone that keeps the future in its place. The movie brazenly leaves plenty to be desired in the technology of the future, the cars looking clunkier than their twentieth century counterparts, Mars conquered but its climate-controlled spaces apparently not worthy of equipping with shatter-proof glass, and the weapons, outfits and hairstyles of 2084 don't look that much different than the styles of 1990. The Mars colonization is imagined as an austere early industrial age outpost, red mountains being systemically strip-mined, the motif of suffering completed with the Venusville red light district where mutants try to hustle a living.

Meanwhile, Verhoeven is busy finding innovative ways to throw globs of violence, blood and gore onto the screen, outdoing himself with an escalator gun battle in which Quaid defends himself by using an innocent bystander as a (very dead) human shield, the lifeless body repeatedly punctured with ever more bullets. Not able to resist a gruesome exclamation mark, Verhoeven ends the scene with a bad guy taking a squishy step on another dead body. The level of violence in Total Recall is beyond anything necessary, but excess is Verhoeven's calling card, and here he works it to his advantage.

Arnold Schwarzenegger continued his upward career trajectory as an action hero, reaching new heights with Total Recall. Although still nowhere near able to convey subtle emotions, Schwarzenegger brings a confident swagger and good comic timing to the role of Douglas Quaid. His physicality is still by far the dominant feature of the performance, but Schwarzenegger convinces in a role notably more complex than his more typical revenge operas, and filled with necessary confusion.

The supporting cast is comparatively bland, but a pre-stardom Sharon Stone catches the eye as Quaid's supposed wife Lori, mixing kittenish seduction with kick-ass martial arts, not to mention negotiating a most violent divorce. When Verhoeven meets Schwarzenegger, even marital conflicts get settled with a bullet.

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