Total Recall: 20 years on

Get your ass to Mars. It’s twenty years since Paul Verhoeven directed Total Recall. Ryan looks back at an action sci-fi classic…

Arnold Schwarzenegger at his brawny best. Sharon Stone divorced with a bullet. Martian hookers with three breasts. Paul Verhoeven isn’t a director known for his subtlety or restraint, and 1990’s Total Recall saw the Dutchman at the height of his trashy, wryly intelligent powers.

Because, while his trio of truly classic science fiction movies, RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, is risibly, gloriously violent, there beats a deliciously cynical, satirical heart beneath all the blood and mayhem.

And yet, Total Recall could have easily been a very different film.

Floating around the offices of Hollywood for years, the rights to Philip K. Dick’s original short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, were originally purchased by Alien screenwriter Ron Shusett in the early 80s. Renamed Total Recall, the property was developed by Dino De Laurentiis, with David Cronenberg set to direct and numerous actorsincluding Richard Dreyfuss, William Hurt and Patrick Swayze attached to the lead role over the next few years.

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When Cronenberg’s drafts of the script failed to impress Shusett (“No, no, we want to do Raiders Of The Lost Ark goes to Mars” was how the frustrated director Shussett reacted at the time), another director, Bruce Beresford, was hastily drafted in as a replacement. Then, just as set builders began turning a corner of Australia into a miniature version of Mars, De Laurentiis’ production company went belly up.

At the behest of man-mountain Arnold Schwarzenegger (he’d wanted to star in De Laurentiis’ version of the film, but was turned down in favour of Swayze) Carolco Pictures bought up the Total Recall rights for $3 million. Paul Verhoeven was hired as director (again, at Schwarzenegger’s insistence), and writer Gary Goldman was brought in to help Ronald Shusett finish off the screenplay, which by now had gone through more than forty drafts.

But while the movie’s pre-production had been a fraught one, those difficulties didn’t carry over to the big screen. Through its successive drafts, Dick’s slight, curious tale had mutated into sprawling space opera, a mutation that resulted in a brash, undeniably exciting film that nevertheless retained faint, tantalising hints of the original story’s themes.

Set in 2084, Schwarzenegger plays hulking construction worker Douglas Quaid, whose visit to Rekall, a company that specialises in implanting false experiences into customers’ minds, inadvertently uncovers his apparently wiped true identity. Far from the blue collar underling he initially thought himself to be, Quaid is, in fact, a secret agent with mysterious links to a colony on Mars.

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In a brilliant big screen synthesis of Dickian paranoia, Quaid returns home from Rekall to find that everyone he knows is arrayed against him in some massive conspiracy. His ice maiden wife Lori (Sharon Stone) isn’t really his wife, but the deadly, high-kicking girlfriend of Richter (Michael Ironside, excellent, as always), and even his once-friendly co-workers are actually gun-wielding assassins.

Escaping to Mars, Quaid discovers his real name is Hauser, a one-time pawn of the colony’s evil administrator Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, cast in the same nefarious bureaucrat role he played in RoboCop), and that his mind is the repository for secret information that could alter the Martian landscape forever.

Seldom concerned with logic, Verhoeven keeps Total Recall moving at an extraordinary pace, lurching from one ludicrously violent over-the-top set piece to another.

The film’s most memorable moment, however, is a quiet yet remarkably tense sequence in which Quaid/Hauser is confronted by his estranged wife and a doctor, who claim that Quaid isn’t really on Mars at all, but still strapped to a chair at Rekall and in the middle of a psychotic episode. By swallowing a pill, the doctor says, Quaid can save himself, and restore his life to its former balance.

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It’s a rare pause in the action, and made all the more mesmerising by the gory headshots and other grotty slayings that bookend it. For the first time, the audience is given a moment to question the strange dream-logic of everything it’s seen thus far. Are the colourful inhabitants of Mars, the dim-witted goons who insist on using machine guns in a glass dome, and Quaid’s new love interest Melina (Rachel Ticotin) all constructs of his slumbering mind?

No matter. With another bullet through the skull, Verhoeven’s off again, embarking on another half hour or so of chases, fights and gleefully nasty deaths. It’s only as the final credits are set to roll, and a vast subterranean network of alien technology transforms the Martian surface, that Quaid, and the audience, have one final chance to wonder whether everything the protagonist has experienced is simply a fantasy.

Briefly the most expensive film of all time (knocked off its perch one year later by the groundbreaking Terminator 2), Total Recall looks like the product of a bygone age. Pre-CGI model effects aside, it’s hard to imagine, in 2010, a big budget, mainstream movie getting away with the R-rated level of violence displayed here. With studios now more anxious than ever to pull in big audiences, executives would probably demand the film be cut for a PG-13/12A certificate.

It’s unlikely, for example, that Inception or Avatar would have been granted such enormous budgets had they been as wilfully bloody as Total Recall was.

Nevertheless, Total Recall is, in its own way, a hugely entertaining movie. As a piece of action cinema or hyperactive space opera, it’s a kinetic, brash rollercoaster ride, made all the better by Rob Bottin’s squishy make-up effects.

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And while it’s not to hard to wonder just what David Cronenberg’s take on Dick’s premise would have looked like (though his reality-bending 1999 movie eXistenZ gives a partial answer), there’s no denying that, between them, Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven created a bloody popcorn classic that, beneath the violent divorces and tri-breasted ladies, still contains distant echoes of the original short story’s infectious paranoia.