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Total Recall

Action & Adventure movie directed by Paul Verhoeven

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A philosophical review of Total Recall: varieties of skepticism

  • Dec 11, 2007
Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is uneasy. Things are not right in the world. Sure, he has a nice place to live, a decent job in construction, and a beautiful wife (Sharon Stone) -- but he has a feeling he is missing out on something, that there is something false about his life, and that his destiny is elsewhere, maybe on Mars. He watches the news, reports of terrorist attacks, and reassurances of the government that everything is under control. He dreams of walking the red soil with a woman who is not his wife. Then, he hears about the company Rekall and their promise to deliver memories on demand, and takes advantage of their "special agent" package that will give him true to life memories of having been a secret agent on Mars, attached to a woman just like the one in his dreams. The hijinks that ensue, when he apparently finds out that he really IS a secret agent from Mars, whose memories had been erased, are lots of fun. What elevates the film above similar features like Running Man is that the action (which can get pretty violent) and adventure is tied to philosophical questions about the nature of memory and knowledge, and on the power of skepticism.

You don't need to imagine high-tech corporations capable of implanting memories to realize that memory is a dubious source of knowledge. We remember selectively at best, and psychological experiments have shown that memories can be altered and manipulated. One of the basic questions the film poses is whether Quaid should trust his memory and instincts or his reason. He needs to consider which is more likely: that he is a secret agent whose memories have been erased to make him seem like a lowly construction worker or whether the memory implant he actually remembers having chosen and that would make him remember to have been a secret agent with a sleazy brunette girlfriend has simply kicked in and is malfunctioning. Reason favors the simplest explanation; but Quaid of course goes with his gut. Does he choose correctly?

The plot of the film, then centers around the basic philosophical question how can we know what we think we know. It poses this question by means of a bizarre but entertaining science fiction scenario (drawn loosely from a story by Phillip K. Dick). That the question is not merely academic for Paul Verhoeven, however, is suggested by how similar the news reports from Mars are to those that we hear (and were hearing even in 1990 when the film was released) from the middle East. On Verhoeven's Mars, a group of rebels is fighting the governmental controls of society that are intended to secure its access to "Tribinium ore" -- a tremendous source of energy. Because these rebels lack governmentally sanctioned legitimacy, their struggles to save their planet and way of life are labelled "terrorism." The parallels are obvious. The most significant brand of skepticism raised by this film is not the academic form that asks "how can I know whether I am not dreaming" but the very healthy and necessary political skepticism that asks "how far can we trust the media to present the facts about our world in an unbiased way?"' While Quaid may well be mistaken in his belief that he is really a secret agent, he is certainly right to be troubled about the distortions regarding the Middle East (um, Mars, that is) that are presented by the popular media. As with most of the best of his films (Starship Troopers, Robocop, Black Book), Paul Verhoeven presents a powerful critique of contemporary society under the guise of a lightweight entertaining popcorn flick. Definitely one to watch, both fun and enlightening.

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review by . December 24, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
  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.   STORY   In the year 2084, a man named …
review by . July 02, 2009
There are certain films that aim to entertain and try their very hardest to keep the audience entertained, if not on the edge of their seat, but rarely are they also capable of making the audience think. This movie is fun from start to finish, but it also manages to keep you thinking about reality and the implications of the ideas presented in the movie.     Total Recall is certainly one of the better films to come from director Paul Verhoeven whose career I must say has its …
About the reviewer
Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #68
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
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This science fiction blockbuster from 1990 began its production life as a very different movie than the one that was released. An adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,"Total Recallwas originally conceived of with Richard Dreyfuss starring as a Walter Mitty-like character who experiences a variety of artificially induced fantasies. The movie we know is a mega-budget action epic set on Mars. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a normal working man who discovers that his entire reality has been invented to conceal a plot of planetary domination. Oscar-winning special effects and violent action propel the twisting plot, in which Arnold manipulates his manipulators in a world of dazzling high technology. Director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop) indulges his usual penchant for gratuitous bloodshed, but the movie has enough cleverness to rise above its excesses.--Jeff Shannon
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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Genre: Action, Adventure
DVD Release Date: May 31, 2005
Runtime: 113 minutes
Studio: Lions Gate
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