Sci-Fi Nerd: Commentary, reflection, and accolades from a fan’s point of view on all things sci-fi and fantasy.
1990 marked the beginning of a great decade for science fiction movies, and why not start with an all-star cast in one of Schwarzenegger’s best?
Total Recall is a great movie and a memorable classic, and one of the reasons it is such a classic is the cast. Besides Arnold Schwarzenegger, the all-star cast included Sharon Stone as bad-ass femme fatale Lori Quaid, and Rachel Ticotin as the equally bad-ass Melina (did someone say catfight?). Add genre favorites Michael Ironside as the violent and homicidal Richter, and Ronny Cox as Cohaagen, the personification of the stereotypical heartless corporate sociopath he became famous for portraying in films, and on tv.
One of the things that are delightful about revisiting this film is seeing the cast 25 years ago. They all look so young, and If you have forgotten what an impressive specimen Schwarzenegger was, this is all the proof you need to remember.
The film, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is loosely based on the Phillip K Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966) and revolves around a story that takes place in the not-so-distant future. In the story’s future, humankind has established a colony on Mars, run by an authoritarian corporate entity which runs a mining operation there. It bears relevance to corporate run reality we live in today.
At the time this was one of the most expensive films ever made, and it is resplendent with reminders it takes place in the future. From Jonnycab, a futuristic automated taxi of the future with a robotic driver (meant to be amusing, but the results are pretty creepy), along with other examples of future tech like a security device that x-rays passengers for public transportation and displays the results on a large screen. To the more common upgrade of transforming a wall in your home into a video device capable of showing tv broadcasts and mood enhancing displays. The scene depicting Quaid’s arrival on Mars is a memorable one, when his “mask,” as part of his disguise as an older woman, malfunctions, and causes a scene in the spaceport. One thing these movie depictions of the future never seem to succeed at is the representations of future cars; they rarely seem futuristic, just odd. Total Recall’s special effects are almost entirely practical.
The story revolves around a construction worker Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) who reacts to troubling dreams he is having about Mars. Against the advice of his coworker friend and wife, he decides to pay a virtual visit to the red planet by way of a service called Rekall that provides memory implants in place of real vacations. He opts for an additional option called an ego trip as a secret agent, a form of fantasy role-playing, to spice things up.
Things go wrong when it turns out he has already had a fake identity imprinted on his psyche very much like the one he has purchased. Things get crazy and violent as Quaid finds himself plunged into a world of paranoia and violence. He faces the dilemma of not knowing what is real and what is not as the lines begin to blur between fantasy and reality. His survival is on the line when doesn’t know who to trust or turn to, to solve the mystery of his existence and who or what his real identity is. When he gets attacked by a small group of people that includes someone he thought was his friend Quaid suddenly discovers a skill set he was unaware of previously and kills his attackers.
Things escalate and get crazier, including being attacked by his wife who tries to kill him. With his new skills and some help from a stranger, the mystery of his real identity eventually leads him to travel to Mars for real in search of answers.
It’s the mystery of Quaid’s existence that get’s this story moving, but at its core, make no mistake, this is an action movie, and from the beginning, the violence is nearly relentless. It seems custom made for Schwarzenegger, who is still in his prime as the reigning king of action movies at the time. Arnold is still working on his acting chops, but in hindsight, his attempts at acting are part of the charm of his early films. There’s not much time to notice as the story charges ahead to its conclusion.
After Quaid arrives on Mars, the story shifts its focus from mystery to a tale of rebellion. It’s the working class mutants and freaks fighting for justice and freedom from a totalitarian corporate rule and the soldier/cops that enforce it led by Richter. It turns out this is what the story was about all along, and the climax involving an alien contraption that creates breathable air for the denizens of the harsh world is both satisfying and memorable.
This modern classic is timeless in its depiction and still engaging to watch. It is a remarkable, unique, and fun ride that should hold a place of honor in any fan’s science fiction hall of fame.