Lobotomising Schwarzenegger: Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall

Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is an action classic. With the film out now on Blu-ray, we look closer at its bleak subtext.

“If you’re watching this, things have gone wrong and you’ve got a wet towel wrapped around your head.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven kicked off the 1990 summer season with an explosion of gore and concrete with Total Recall, a violent and deliciously funny sci-fi action movie loosely based on a short story by Philip K Dick.

Total Recall is a relentless chase movie – at that point, the most relentless chase movie since The Terminator, perhaps – and as a result, is generally regarded as a less intelligent film than Verhoeven’s previous Hollywood feature, RoboCop.

While it’s true that Total Recall places spectacle front and centre, beneath the imaginative bloodshed and wisecracks, there’s real intelligence at work, and the film could be read as an adult retread of Alice In Wonderland, with mutants instead of hookah-smoking caterpillars and a raging corporation boss instead of the crimson-faced Queen of Hearts.

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There are also clues that the story’s Hollywood ending isn’t as cheery as it first appears.

“If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?”

We’re introduced to Doug Quaid, an ordinary iron-pumping 21st century construction worker with a pretty wife, Lori (Sharon Stone), and a predilection for high-protein shakes. Quaid also has a strange obsession with Mars, a planet now colonised and ravaged by a conflict between ruthless corporate dictator Vilos Cohaagaen (Ronny Cox) and heavily-armed resistance fighters. Quaid dreams of encounters with a mysterious brunette called Melina (Rachel Ticotin) on the Martian surface, and becomes quietly convinced that there should be more to his life than drilling and (presumably) lifting weights.

Against the advice of his best friend Harry (Robert Costanzo), Quaid heads to Rekall, a company who can implant false memories of everything from exotic trips to sexual encounters for a knock-down price. Harry’s warnings of previous Rekall customers ending up as lobotomised husks fall on death ears – a plot point that will have greater significance later on. 

Seduced into upgrading to a more exciting ‘Ego Trip’ package by smooth-talking salesman Bob McClane (Ray Baker), Quaid settles into a high-tech chair to enjoy his Martian holiday.

And then things go awry. The memory implant process, it seems, dislodges a cork in Quaid’s brain, and a repressed history bubbles back to the surface; Quaid, we gradually learn, isn’t Quaid at all, but an agent named Hauser, who once worked for Cohaagen on Mars and realigned himself with the planet’s rebels. Captured, Hauser had his memory blanked, and was dumped back on Earth with a false past and two potential assassins posing as his wife and best friend.

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“Baby, you make me wish I had three hands.”

From this set-up, plucked almost entirely intact from Philip K Dick’s short story, Total Recall spirals off on a crazy chase across Earth and Mars, taking in exploding heads, fights with gigantic tunnelling machines, endless shoot-outs, and a final-act brush with alien technology. In a kind of sci-fi updating of The Sword In The Stone, Quaid becomes a hero worthy enough to trigger an ancient alien reactor, sending oxygen spewing out into the Martian atmosphere, thus ending Vilos Cohaagen’s control of the planet’s air and at the same time rescuing the supporting cast from asphyxiation.

It’s an ending so implausible that it feels simultaneously like something from a 50s B-movie or a dream – which, of course, is precisely Verhoeven’s plan. Although Total Recall ends with a kissing couple and a pale blue sky, there are clues everywhere that Quaid’s story may have a far more tragic conclusion.

As Verhoeven points out in Total Recall’s commentary track, the film, uniquely, has its characters repeatedly give the entire plot away before it’s unfolded. Before Quaid sits down in the Rekall chair, salesman Bob gives him (and us) a detailed précis of everything we’re about to experience:

“You’re a top operative working undercover on an important mission. People are trying to kill you left and right. You meet this beautiful exotic woman. I don’t want to spoil it for you, Doug, but you rest assured that by the time the trip is over, you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet.”

Although it appears that Doug wakes up mid-way through the implantation, everything that occurs from this point on is part of his Rekall dream; the line between reality and simulation is almost invisible to both Quaid and the audience.

This, of course, is all fairly obvious if you’re paying attention. (The program Quaid’s given at Rekall is even called “Blue Sky on Mars, which is but one hint.) What’s more easily missed, however, is the suggestion that not only is everything Quaid experiences a fantasy, but also that he may never wake up at all.

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“You’re not here and neither am I.”

In what is arguably Total Recall’s most riveting scene from a dramatic standpoint, Quaid receives a visit from Doctor Edgemar, brilliantly played by Roy Brocksmith. Depending on your reading of the film, Edgemar comes to either trick Quaid, or warn him of his impending doom. Everything Quaid’s been experiencing, Edgemar says, is a “freeform delusion”:

“I’m sorry to tell you this, Mr Quaid, but you’ve suffered a schizoid embolism – we can’t snap you out of your fantasy. Think about it. Your dream started in the middle of the implant procedure. Everything after that – the chases, the trip to Mars, the suite at the Hilton – are all elements of your Rekall holiday ego trip.”

Edgemar then presents Quaid with a choice: either he takes a pill, which he says will snap him out of his delusion and bring him back to reality, or continue with his fantasy and risk his life in the process:

“…with no one to guide you out, you’ll be stuck in permanent psychosis. The walls of reality will come crashing down…you’ll be the saviour of the rebel cause… you’ll even have fantasies about alien civilisations, as you requested, but in the end, back on Earth, you’ll be lobotomised.”

Quaid, of course, distrusts the doctor and blows his brains out. But sure enough, everything he says comes to pass; the walls of reality really do come crashing down, as Cohaagen’s forces explode into the room.

This exchange with the doctor is the last moment where Quaid could have saved himself, and from here, his fantasy plays out to its apparently cheery conclusion. Quaid transforms the planet, kills the bad guys and gets the girl, as predicted. But as he and Melina enjoy a lingering kiss (“I can’t believe it. It’s like a dream”), we see a pinpoint of bright light which grows to fill the entire screen – a sign, Verhoeven says, of Quaid’s mental collapse.

Total Recall, then, is even more ambiguous than its “is it all a dream?” premise implies; the suggestion is that, not only does Quaid imagine the film’s events, but he never escapes them; in reality, he’s sitting in a recall chair awaiting a lobotomy.

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What’s so clever about the Edgemar scene, though, is that it’s so easily ignored in the context of the film; action movies seldom require the viewer to pay much attention to dialogue, and we’re generally asked to take the hero’s actions at face value. Quaid’s merciless shooting of the doctor is easily accepted, since he’s the hero, and Edgemar was a suspicious character presumably working for Cohaagen. Besides, if Quaid had taken the pill, the action would have ended, and few audience members would have wanted that. As a result, we’re practically willing Quaid to make what could be a disastrous decision –  to give us the gratifying third act we desire while sacrificing his brain in the process.

For both Quaid and us, the fantasy is more palatable than the reality.

“Kiss me quick before you wake up.”

This gloomy reading of the film makes Total Recall a close cousin of Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder’s saturated action fantasy about unreality and lobotomy. It also means that Total Recall is one of the few Schwarzenegger films (before End Of Days and Terminator 3) to have a downbeat ending – which is typical of Verhoeven, since he always did enjoy sneaking subversive elements into his Hollywood movies, and lobotomising Arnold Schwarzenegger’s about as sneaky as anything you’ll find in 90s US cinema.

This year sees the release of Len Wiseman’s remake, which ejects the Martian setting from the 1990 script, but appears to keep many of the same characters and situations, from a resistance fighter called Melina, a Rekall salesman called Bob McClane, and a corporate villain named Vilos Cohaagen. The presence of Colin Farrell as Quaid brings the character closer to the average Joe character in Philip K Dick’s writing, but the movie seems to follow the same chase format as the previous film – it even finds time to crowbar in a reference to a three-breasted lady of the evening.

We’re keeping an open mind about Wiseman’s remake, and trust that, while the trailer implies that his Total Recall follows many of the same story beats as the original, it’ll still have some surprising new ideas of its own.

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At any rate, we’ll always have the spectacular original, which, even as it hurtles past its 20th birthday, still has the power to entertain and amuse, in spite of its ageing special effects.

Identity, paranoia, dreams and reality – the fights and explosions amuse our senses, but its these themes that make Total Recall so endlessly rewatchable.

Verhoeven’s Total Recall is out now on Blu-ray.

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