[For Esquire magazine, June 2014]
It’s 24 years since Total Recall opened in cinemas worldwide, but it seems that audiences still don’t really get the reality of Arnie’s surprisingly cerebral movie.
Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s and early ’90s were largely exercises in crowd-pleasing dumb violence. Red Heat, Predator, The Running Man, Commando, and Raw Deal all obsessed over body count. Total Recall seemed to be more of the same, and if you ask someone who hasn’t seen the film in years what they remember (especially if they last saw it when they were a teen), they’ll probably cite the triple-breasted hooker and a fine-looking young Sharon Stone. But Total Recall was a cut above Arnie’s other films of that era.
It’s certainly as violent as the others, with 77 on-screen deaths (it originally got an X-rating from the MPAA) and is peppered with Arnie’s trademark corny quips. But the intentionally ambiguous nature of the last two thirds makes it far more interesting. One thing, if you’re yet to see the original or Colin Farrell front remake from 2012, then, spoiler alert! Don’t read any further. Get a copy, watch it, then revisit this article.
The basic plot is: in 2084, construction worker Doug Quaid goes to a company called Rekall to have a virtual vacation to Mars implanted in his brain. Things go wrong, however, when it awakens suppressed memories of having been a secret agent and he heads to Mars to find out the truth. Or so we’re led to believe. Based on the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (right) there are variations from the original text, and director Paul Verhoeven was accused by critics of letting the “brainless violence” obscure the clever tale.
While it’s true that the film bears only a passing resemblance to the original short story, it actually adds much more in other ways. Verhoeven wanted to make the film ambiguous so audiences would question whether it was all an implanted memory or reality as presented at face value. For the record, Verhoeven believed it to be a dream, but pointed out that the casting of Schwarzenegger would mean many of his fans — used to Arnie’s sci-fi fantasy roles — would assume it was meant to be real. In fact, in an online poll from 2010 over 40 percent of people still believed Quaid really went to Mars.
Throughout the story, however, the film is explained before the action happens on screen. When Quaid goes to Rekall to buy the memory, the salesman tells him, “By the time the trip is over, you get the girl, you kill the bad guys, and you save the entire planet.” In the same scene, where he’s having the implant inserted, the doctor says to one technician, “We’re doing alien artifacts now”, which turns out to be the “secret” on Mars shown later. And when Quaid is asked to describe the type of woman he is attracted to, as part of the spy fantasy implant, it builds a picture that resembles Melina (the film heroine and girl he ends up with) on the screen. Finally, the technician takes a look at the memory to be implanted and remarks, “Wow, a blue sky on Mars. I’ve never seen that before” – the famous ending. Rarely does a film give away the entire plot in the first third (in one scene) as a clever preemptive rejoinder to the question raised in the final scene.
It was also happy to remind you of what’s to come halfway through when Dr. Edgemar visits Quaid to tell him he’s stuck in a dream and needs to take the pill to awake. The doctor outlines the entire third act of the film in detail. Quaid just follows the script. But because it was presented in a way that could be taken at face value many people dismissed it. Verhoven called this clever construct “a misinterpreted reality”.
The stylised ending also belies the notion that the action was real. The final line is a nod to the fact that all events after Quaid entered Rekall were in his mind as part of the implanted holiday. Everything happend as predicted. In the 1997 re-release DVD, Verhoeven explains that he chose to fade to white rather than black, as that technique is typically used in cinematography to indicate either death or awakening from a dream. If there were a scene that followed it would be Quaid waking up in Rekall, but the final lines of him saying, “I just had a terrible thought… what if this is all a dream?” and Melina replying, “Then kiss me quick… before you wake up,” were surprisingly perfect.