Total Recall (1990) – Directed by Paul Verhoeven – Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox.
“I just had a terrible thought. What if this is a dream?”
Don’t worry, Arny. One, it is a dream. Two, it doesn’t really matter because it’s a pretty good dream. Three, if it is a dream, you get to wake up and go home and have sex with one of the hottest versions of Sharon Stone committed to the screen. So go ahead and play some kissy face with the sleazy but demure Rachel Ticotin before the credits get done rolling.
TOTAL RECALL has one of the more clever excuses in hand if you want to complain about the plot holes or plot conveniences – it’s all a dream that’s manufactured to give Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) the biggest bang for his buck, so of course everything happens exactly when it needs to happen. The key, of course, is that in action movies almost everything almost always happens when it needs to happen, which can leave the audience unsure if what we’re watching is real or simulated. Cleverly, RECALL builds in a backdoor in that, if you want to believe this is really happening, the film offers the idea that Quaid’s reality was actually his dream. Both reality and fantasy thus justify the existence of the other – either Quaid was living a false life (in essence, dreaming while awake) during his marriage to Lori (Stone) and has now woken up, or he was awake and is now dreaming. In the middle sits Quaid’s interest in Mars and interest in Melina (Ticotin) – if Lori is really Quaid’s wife, then Melina is the girl he’s been fantasizing about brought into the dream Rekall (the company that makes the dreams) built, and if Lori is really the waking dream wife, then Quaid’s past with Melina is bleeding through into his reality. Likewise, either Quaid is really obsessed with Mars, or he’s programmed to get back to Mars to complete his mission.
RECALL works on two levels – it’s foundation is an action movie, and above that is all the sci-fi goodness questioning reality. The action is constant and drives the plot and during the non-shooting parts of the film is when the film gets to thinking about what’s real and what isn’t.
As the film opens, Quaid is obsessed with Mars to the point that he’s more interested in watching the news than he is in being ravaged by his hot, frizzy-haired
wife, Lori. He decides to go to Rekall and get a Mars vacation implanted into his head. When they start the procedure, things go wrong/”wrong,” and it turns out/”turns out” that his brain had already been implanted and blah blah blah fight fight kill kill all the way to Mars. (For what it’s worth, when Quaid gets injected with the implant in the side of his neck, you can see that it leaves a clear, dark mark, yet when he starts wigging out, it’s gone. It’s not enough to point to this alone and say, “A-ha! See, it’s all the Rekall dream!” but it is there. Or not there.)
Quaid escapes the facility and makes his way to Mars, hiding as an woman to get through security in the scene famous for Arnold pulling off that multi-leveled mask, and once there he makes contact with Melina, who wants nothing to do with him because she loved him and he betrayed her. As this is playing out, Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the director of the Mars Colony, has sent his primary enforcer, Richter (Michael Ironside), to capture Quaid and bring him in. Cohaagen’s endgame is to get Quaid to lead him to Kuato, the psychic leader of the resistance that’s growing out of his brother’s stomach.
That was a fun sentence to write.
Michael Ironside is the best part of this whole movie; he’s got laser beam eyes the entire picture and even though Cohaagen wants Quaid captured, Richter is full on trying to kill him – perhaps because in this reality, Richter is married to Lori, who’s been playing house with Quaid to keep an eye on him. Eventually, Cohaagen tells Quaid that he’s really Houser and that this is all part of an elaborate ruse. Quaid never gives up on the idea that this is all really happening and that if he used to be Houser, well, he’s Quaid now and that’s where he plans on staying.
Schwarzenegger is the worst actor in the film among the principals but it works to the film’s advantage. All he has to do is run, shoot, fight, and drop the occasional one-liner (though RECALL blessedly keeps the quips to a minimum), like when he tells the dead Lori, “Consider that a divorce,” or when he taunts Richter after an elevator accident by yelling, “See you at the party, Richter!” It’s these moments where Schwarzenegger seems most alive, almost as if he got to these parts in the script and his brain went, “Yes! I understand this part!”
Twenty-two years out, TOTAL RECALL is a weird film to watch. It’s both incredibly dated because of it’s Ah-nuld center (and Sharon Stone’s hair), but it also holds up better than most Ah-nuld movies because Verhoeven minimizes his main’s star’s Ah-nuld-ness, while still delivering a rocking, straight-ahead action film. The supporting cast – Stone, Ironside, and Cox – is very strong and so is the story. I fully believe what we’re watching is a dream, but I think the film supports both versions to the point that the film’s ultimate message is the experience is what’s important, and not whether that experience actually, physically happened or happened inside your brain. The consequence of the experience being real or imagined might be different but the experience and the memories it leaves you with are both valuable. If Quaid wakes up in the Rekall facility and goes hope to frizzy-haired Sharon Stone, his obsession with Mars that was driving a wedge between them has likely been satiated. And if it hasn’t, it lets him know that there are deeper issues with his marriage that need to be addressed.
Whether we’re talking about TOTAL RECALL, The Usual Suspects, The Wizard of Oz … whatever movie contains a story that “doesn’t happen” inside the narrative that “does happen,” it’s still a story we get to experience. It’s fun to argue about whether the main narrative of TOTAL RECALL is Quaid’s actual experience or his Rekall experience, but either way, we get a pretty decent movie out of it.