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Review: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Premise: A blue collar laborer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) visits a company that implants false memories but after the procedure he becomes the target of government agents who believe he is a member of a violent resistance movement.

What Works: Total Recall is a unique science fiction picture and the success of the film is attributable to the collection of talent in front and behind the camera. This film was made by moviemakers who were at the height of their careers. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s participation in Total Recall came after the success of Predator and Twins and shortly before the release of Terminator 2. Screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon had previously written Alien and O’Bannon had recently directed the cult classic Return of the Living Dead. Producers Buzz Feitshans, Mario Kassar, and Andrew G. Vajna had overseen the productions of several high profile action movies of the 1980s including the Rambo series and director Paul Verhoenven was on a tear, having previously directed Robocop and would follow Total Recall with Basic Instinct. This confluence of talent at the pitch of their influence and moviemaking skill resulted in an ambitious picture that manages to be highly entertaining while also thoughtful. Total Recall is an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, but it is distinguished from many of the other action pictures that Schwarzenegger had made. The movie is much smarter than his other works and it puts Schwarzenegger is a more vulnerable position than the characters he usually plays. Schwarzenegger should be wrong for the part of an everyman but he works well in the role because of his charisma, a gift that has often compensated for his lack of acting skill. Although Total Recall is consistent with the action films that Schwarzenegger typically made at that time, this is as much if not more a product of director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven films, which include Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Black Book, are often overtly political stories and his movies frequently deal with corruption, revolution, and militarism. Total Recall is among his best works and politically one of his most interesting films. The movie is a subversive tale of corporate greed and political malfeasance in which the hero has a complicated relationship with those in power and the way in which the story keeps complicating those themes makes its political content much stronger. Verhoeven is also a filmmaker who has never shied away from the sexual aspects of life but in Total Recall the sexual content plays into its political themes, as the decadent underclass is portrayed as sympathetic and struggle against the corrupt establishment. Total Recall is also distinguished by a very creative visual style. The film includes innovative character and set design with makeup effects and set pieces that remain unique over two decades after the picture’s original release. Those unique and sometimes strange visuals give this movie a character and texture that is frequently missing from science fiction adventures of the digital age in which the visuals have a sterile and interchangeable look.

What Doesn’t: The logic of Total Recall is rather tenuous and the story gets rickety in the finale. This is a movie with a lot going on in it and there are several logical inconsistencies, namely the terraforming of an entire planet within a few minutes. The picture also takes a step backwards whenever it plays like a typical Schwarzenegger movie. The actor’s bad puns are more out of step with Total Recall than his other pictures because they don’t match the superior storytelling.

DVD extras: The “Mind Bending Edition” blu-ray includes a commentary track, interview with Paul Verhoeven, featurettes, image gallery, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Total Recall has become a science fiction classic and it is one of the best films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven’s careers. Its longevity is partly due to how entertaining it is but Total Recall is also smart and a little subversive. 

Episode: #452 (August 18. 2013)