I first watched Total Recall on a premium channel (probably HBO) back in late 1993/early 1994 and thought it was awesome, and like all prime movies, they get better the older you get. When it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger's movies, people seem to think that the first two Terminator movies and possibly Predator are his best, and while I think all of them are fantastic flicks, I personally think Total Recall is Arnie's best movie.
In the year 2084, a man named Doug Quaid has recurring dreams about Mars and a beautiful brunette. Doug, despite going against his wife's wishes, visits Rekall, a company that specializes in creating artificial vacations for customers by implanting memories made according to the customer's wishes. When Doug requests being a secret agent on Mars, a thrilling, twisting action ride follows, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. On the way, Doug learns that he's an agent from the other side, whose turned after finding out he's fighting for the wrong team.
While the characters aren't intellectual masterpieces, they're all very well-sculpted, and fit the movie like a glove. With Schwarzenegger being the star of the show, he's perfect as Quaid/Hauser. As an action hero, Quaid is a fine balance between being a skilled combatant and a human. This is so because in many of the scenes, he's cutting through enemies like soft butter, but in others, he does get injured and is compromised in some ways. This is an important trait for action stars because if there's no tension, it gets boring really fast. Also, with Arnold being Arnold, he dishes out one-liners that only he can spew with such charm.
The supporting cast is also really solid. Sharon Stone is great as Lori Quaid, a sexy undercover agent posing as Doug's wife. Rachel Ticotin plays the role as Melina really well, a sexy brunette that's in Quaid's past dreams and in the “real part” of the movie, whose a prostitute and an undercover resistance fighter against Vilos Cohaagan (Ronny Cox) and his oppressive rule over the red planet. Cox is a master as the vile Cohaagan, since he's such a charismatic yet despicable man who'll do anything to maintain control of Mars, even if it means cutting off air supply to the mutant population. Michael Ironside is great as Richter, Cohaagan's lead henchman hell-bent on killing Quaid, and Mel Johnson Jr. is a blast as Benny, a humorous cabbie on Mars helping Quaid on his adventure (but his true motives are hazy).
With Total Recall being a sci-fi action film, and that it's about blending fantasy with reality, the plotting for this movie is superb. Towards the beginning, Quaid goes to Rekall to get memories of a Mars vacation implanted into his mind, the doctor explains to Quaid what the basic outline of his simulated vacation will be like, and when the memory implants begin, the audience is twisted into thinking either the implant didn't work and Quaid is having a psychotic reaction to the implant, or that it's all part of the simulation he paid for. Along the way, there's a good deal of twists with characters and the storyline that are too good to spoil, but I'll assure you that it's really well-done.
While Total Recall's main theme is blending fantasy and reality, which is a very ubiquitous theme in many different types of fiction, it's still very unique because it's intertwined with interesting ideas like the question of simulated memories being better than actually living out such desires. Also, while not totally groundbreaking, the fact that a blonde woman (Lori) is evil while a brunette woman (Rachel) is good, is a neat reversal of the common idea of light representing good and the dark representing evil.
With Total Recall being an action film from 1990 (though it retains a very 80's feel to it, since it was made in the very late 80's), there's some special effects that show their age, but thankfully, this aging doesn't really detriment enjoyability of the movie. For example, the effects of lightning bolts and some 3D rendered imagery displayed in the TV screens in the movie's universe are pretty aged, but thanks to the talent of skilled special effects artist Rob Bottin (whose credits also include the previous Paul Verhoeven movie Robocop and the John Carpenter masterpiece The Thing), the visual effects for the mutants are very well-done. The visuals of the Martian landscape are also really good for a movie made before mass usage of CGI.
Also, with this movie being a futuristic movie made in the late 80's, the ideas of what future technology show their age as well, since vehicles look very angular, mass usage of tapes for electronic devices, guns retain their basic functions and haven't advanced so much as they changed in how they look, and TV/computer screens are all CRT display devices. I'm honestly not bothered by this because hardly anyone back then could imagine the rapid advancements in technology that we're so used to today, and it gives character to the movie. The only thing I found to be pretty goofy-looking was the Johnny Cab, which the robot cabbie inside the cab looks like an invention of the 50's and 60's, but they're not seen past the firs third of the movie, and even in the first third, they're not dominant in the picture. Fashion senses are also cemented in the 80's. There's a scene where Lori is working out to an aerobics hologram, and she looks like an aerobics instructor from 1985, and not to mention that so many of the women in this movie have the “big” hair the 80's is famed for (along with a good deal of 80's clothing to boot).
COMPARISON WITH LITERARY SOURCE
Since this is one of those rare instances where I've watched a movie and read the book that it's inspired by, I'll talk about how it differs from the source material. In the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, the story is much more focused on the idea of whether simulated memories are better than the real thing, and blending fantasy with reality. With Total Recall, it takes the core premise of the source material and remodels it as a feature-length action movie while still making it a solid brain-twister. I have no problem with this because when both materials are evaluated, both are great in their own rights.
Jerry Goldsmith struck gold with the movie's soundtrack. The main theme of the movie really gets me going, and the other tracks for differing moods are top notch. While not a part of the official soundtrack, the music played in the Last Resort club reminds me a lot of the music from the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games (and this is a good thing by me). All in all, the music here is gold.
What's an action movie without any great action scenes? Fortunately for us, Total Recall has great action scenes aplenty. There's some cool fighting choreography between Lori and Melina, and lots of stellar gun fights throughout. One of the more notable is towards the beginning, when Cohaagan's henchmen are chasing Quaid in the subway, the bad guys try to gun him down, but end up killing a bystander. Quaid just takes the dead guy and uses him as a “meat shield” when he blows away the bad guys. When the people in the Last Resort crowd end up fighting with Cohaagan's security forces, you even see a midget prostitute stab one of the bad guys with a large knife and mow down some baddies with a machine gun. Now that's something you don't see everyday!!
This movie is certainly one not for the kids because there's A LOT of brutal violence and some nudity/sexual imagery depicted, including the bare chest of a three-breasted female prostitute. There's a lot of blood shed in the gun fights, and even some fight scenes are more brutal than others. No joking, some bad guys get killed by having sharp objects impaled through their heads and even one is unfortunate enough to be slain with a hand-held mining drill.
Total Recall is a masterpiece as an action film and a sci-fi film. It's both Schwarzenegger's best movie and Paul Verhoeven's best movie, and if you love action films that manage to be both intelligent and fun, then this is mandatory viewing.
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