Thursday, July 23, 2009

Total Recall

Total Recall was Paul Verhoeven's second movie in Hollywood, following up on the blunt, ultraviolent satire of RoboCop with an even loonier, more abrasive vision of totalitarian control. The film, loosely drawing its inspiration from a Philip K. Dick short story, imagines a future in which Mars has been colonized as a mining colony, producing a metal that is much in demand on Earth. The whole operation is presided over by the power-hungry Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who maintains an iron grip on Mars by tightly controlling the air supply doled out to the inhabitants of the red planet, who live in specially controlled domes. If they want to live, they'll breath the air Cohaagen supplies — at a price, of course. It's a perfect situation for a would-be tyrant: complete control over people's very lives. His subjects need to bow to him just to survive, and there's no bargaining when it comes to a necessity like air, especially when Cohaagen's the only supplier.

As in RoboCop, Verhoeven is depicting a model for how a future authoritarian state might emerge — seizing control of natural resources, monopolizing the things people need, controlling the media to disperse only the information they want to get out, in this case propaganda about the "terrorist" rebels who resist. Not much information about Mars reaches the outside world, but one man becomes interested in the red planet when he begins obsessively dreaming the same dream over and over again, in which he is walking across the planet in a spacesuit with a mysterious woman. This man is Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he seems to be perfectly ordinary: he's a construction worker, he's got a pretty wife, Lori (Sharon Stone), and he's never been off Earth. But his dreams persist, and he begins to want a solution to this mystery. He suspects maybe something is up. Of course, the audience knows long before he does that something's up. One of the film's most brilliant maneuvers is casting Schwarzenegger as a secret agent whose mind has been erased and his identity changed to that of an ordinary working man. This is Arnold we're talking about here, with his Bavarian lisp and his bulging, elephantine muscles. He looks absurd as a normal guy. He looks out of place in normal clothes, without a gun in his hand. He looks vaguely ridiculous kissing his wife goodbye as he leaves for work, as though he was a sitcom husband going through his daily routine. Today, he looks absurd too as a politician, but that's another story. The point is, it's obvious from the moment we see him that Douglas is not just some ordinary guy. He looks like a secret agent in disguise, a brawler, and it's no surprise when he's attacked and fluidly demolishes his assailants with a barrage of countermoves.

It turns out that someone's been messing with his mind, and his former self was a government agent working on Mars, an agent who had apparently switched sides to the rebels at some point. This is when the fun really begins. As a satire of totalitarianism, the film has its moments, but Verhoeven doesn't go nearly as far with the ideas as he did in RoboCop. But as a totally crazy, goofy sci-fi action movie, Total Recall is pretty hard to top. The explosive violence and gore of RoboCop is carried over here, and each fight scene is basically a collage of inventive ways of dispatching people, with Arnold in typical action hero mode, racing around, pounding bad guys, and tossing off his usual ludicrous one-liners. (His best, because it's simultaneously the cheesiest and the nastiest, is directed at his faux-wife Lori: "consider this a divorce.") The action scenes are occasionally clumsy, and there are several scenes where it's obvious that stunt actors are simply throwing themselves around to give the impression of a frenetic fight that just isn't actually happening, while in another scene everybody vibrates spastically to make it seem like the ground is shaking. Verhoeven's occasionally awkward with stuff like this, the big epic fight scenes so central to the film, though he also stages much of the violence with panache.

A bigger hurdle to enjoyment (except of the campy variety) is the lame dialogue and inconsistent acting. No one expects a real performance out of Schwarzenegger — the guy's most famous for playing a robot, with good reason — but the rest of the cast mostly seems to be acting down to his level. Cox especially hams it up as the villain Cohaagen, though his theatrical mustache-twirling fits the film's over-the-top B-movie tone well enough. Out of everyone in the cast, only Sharon Stone turns in an actual performance, in the small but crucial part of Lori. Her sexy-bitchy mannerisms and stop-on-a-dime transitions from seductive to icy seem now like a rehearsal for Basic Instinct's Catherine Tramell, and it's obvious why Verhoeven cast her in the part for his next film. As for Total Recall, despite its generic, pulpy dialogue and weak performances, for the most part the film is a visceral action showcase, and that's really all it tries to be. Verhoeven's political subtexts are increasingly overwhelmed by the wildly entertaining surface, which makes it a rare Verhoeven film where, in the battle between surface and subtext that always takes place in his work, the surface wins.

Still, it's a pretty entertaining surface. A lot of the credit has to go to the special effects work of Rob Bottin, who crams the film with inventive plastic and rubber effects. Most of the film's most memorable images are a result of this effects work: the bulging, cartoony eyes of Douglas as he flails about on the surface of Mars, gasping for air; the special robot suit that allows Douglas to disguise himself as a woman; the infamous three-breasted prostitute; the various deformed "freaks" who inhabit Mars' Venustown. These images have a sense of wonder, not because they seem futuristic, because they really don't, but because they're so tangible. They're not realistic by any means — in fact they're grotesque and deliberately exaggerated — but they nevertheless feel real. In that respect, the effects are reminiscent of the equally potent gore and viscera in David Cronenberg's 80s horror films, which seem like an important touchstone here. As in Cronenberg's work, the use of plastic effects rather than CGI grounds the film in a real, lived reality, even if in this case it's an absurd alternate future where three-breasted women and freakish mutants coexist, and where a mask of a woman's face can unfold itself like a flower opening to reveal Schwarzenegger inside.

These images provide much of the film's energy and vitality, particularly when Douglas finally comes face to... uh, faces with the rebel leader Kuato (Marshall Bell), a seemingly ordinary man who's hiding a baby-like tumor under his shirt, growing from his chest. This creature, which has psychic powers and leads the rebel army, is a stunningly grotesque puppet, slimy and very organic-looking. Such striking and memorably horrific images are a big part of the film's enduring appeal. Certainly, the creature and makeup effects have dated a lot better than the crude work done to create the surface of Mars itself; the red planet sometimes looks like an Earth desert tinted red, and sometimes looks like a blatant studio set with a painted backdrop. In a way, though, this artificiality only enhances the film's sense of unreality, as its protagonist tries to untangle his fractured mind. The plot races through multiple reversals and false detours, suggesting at various times that Douglas is delusional, that he's really a secret agent, that he's stuck in a virtual memory simulation gone wrong, that he just needs to swallow a red pill in order to wake up — presumably into The Matrix, which would eventually run with that particular idea. At the very end of the film, Douglas' last line even casually, jokingly suggests that maybe all of this was simply a dream, and he's about to wake up, at which point the sun flares in the distance, whiting out everything.

It's a telling little joke, because ultimately it doesn't really matter what's going on here. All of the material about multiple identities and the mind and memory are essentially red herrings, distracting from the real point. The film could be a paranoid delusion, it could all be happening in Douglas' head, but even if it isn't, it's always clear that the film is a fantasy in somebody's head, that it's unreal and ridiculous from the very beginning. It's Verhoeven's fantasy, basically, in which a capitalist nightmare — a monopoly run amok — is defeated through the efforts of freaks, outcasts and deviants. Verhoeven's touch shows through most clearly in the portrayal of these outcasts, who are both ogled as freaks — including a real dwarf mixed in amongst the makeup-enhanced mutants — and simultaneously treated as the only decent people in the film besides Douglas and his rebel girlfriend Melina (Rachel Ticotin). It's surely no coincidence that the film's rebels dwell in a section of Mars given over to sex clubs and exotic pleasures of all kinds. Even here, in probably Verhoeven's most impersonal film, the evidence of his overblown sensibility is everywhere. The film might be just a silly action movie at heart, but its anything-goes aesthetic propels the action along and gives the film its verve; Verhoeven is never content to simply show an image when he can rub it in the audience's face.


Tony Dayoub said...

No apologies here. This is a fun movie. As you explained, part of the fun is the discovery that the events of the film pretty much lineup exactly to the dream he chose to purchase at Rekall:

Bob McClane: It's something new. We call it the Ego-trip. You can take your vacation as being somebody else. So, why go as a tourist when you can go as a businessman, or a famous jock or...
Douglas Quaid: Secret Agent. How much is that?
Bob McClane: You're gonna like this, Doug. You are a top operative. Back under deep cover on your very important mission, people are trying to kill you left and right, then you meet this beautiful exotic woman.
Douglas Quaid: Go on.
Bob McClane: I don't want to spoil it for you Doug, but rest assured that by the time you wake up you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet.

Great Poledouris-like score from Goldsmith, also.

Craig said...

My all-time favorite Arnie line, quoted endlessly by my college buds, is "Give dose peeple airrrhhhh!" Ha ha! Oh, yeah. That'll hold me.

Unknown said...

I dunno. I think that PREDATOR has Arnie's best line deliveries. How can you top, "GET TO DA CHOPPER!!!"? Classic...

As far as TOTAL RECALL goes, I remember it being the first and only R rated film I snuck into with a buddy of mine and we just thought it was the coolest film. Sadly, it hasn't aged all that well but is still pretty damn entertaining.

Joe Valdez said...

Drew McWeeney once called Total Recall the cheapest looking big budget movie he'd ever seen. I kind of have to agree with that, but it's still tons of fun.

Jerry Goldsmith's score is fantastic and in terms of killings, the movie definitely does not disappoint, even if I found your plot description much more compelling than anything that made its way into the finished film.

Joshua said...

I don't mind Total Recall, but I have to say I wish Cronenberg had gotten to do it lik planned.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Seems like the consensus is, it's fun but not particularly weighty, which is about right. I mean, it's got Arnold in it, there's really no getting around that to make a serious movie. He's got some great line deliveries here, no doubt.

Joe, you're right that it's kind of cheap and cheesy-looking, but that's part of the appeal I think. I doubt I'd like it quite as much if it was slicker. I especially love all those obvious plastic effects.

Joshua, it would've been nice to see Cronenberg make this, I think the material is probably better suited to him than it was to Verhoeven. (Assuming Cronenberg wouldn't have made it with Arnie, anyway!)

Anonymous said...

I remember when after watching Starship Troopers, the boyfriend sighed "it's too bad Verhoeven never made a film with Arnie". It made me so happy, because it meant that aside from introducing him to many classics, I could also show him the awesomeness that is Total Recall.

He loved it, of course, as do I: yes, it looks cheap. Yes, Arnie's acting is terrible. But it's so much fun! And I love how the references to whether it's real are delivered in such a jokey fashion, and not as solemnly as is the trend today. The Cronenberg version would certainly have been a better film, with more in it to think about, but I doubt it would have been as entertaining.

PIPER said...


It's interesting you bring up Cronenberg, because he was initially tapped to make this film with Richard Dreyfus starring. I always wonder what that film would have been.

It's no doubt that when they cast Arnold here, the movie had to be written to him. Verhoeven took that and ran, but I still wonder what the movie could have been without him. Kind of A History of Violence set in Mars with more of an everyday kind of guy in the lead.

All that said, I still love it. It's great Sci-Fi because it has all the elements one craves when one craves Sci-Fi. And Bottin's effects still hold up. It's funny to go back and watch how realistic the eye popping stuff is versus, the model head used when Arnold takes off the Fat Woman Mask. I never really understood why that looked so bad.

It's interesting you wrote this review when you did, because I believe I'm going to premiere Total Recall this evening to my son, who has never seen it.

Jon Hastings said...

I suspect that this movie has more neck-breaking and neck-injury-in-general than any other American action movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ooo! A fun review and nominations for favorite Arnold lines. Awesome! I'll get to the latter in a second. First ...

* ...there are several scenes where it's obvious that stunt actors are simply throwing themselves around to give the impression of a frenetic fight that just isn't actually happening...

It's been more than a decade since I've seen this movie, so I can't remember the scene you're referencing, but I know I have seen similar scenes in other films. Good observation.

* As for the three-breasted woman ...

Total Recall came out when I was in middle school. All the guys were whispering about this three-boobed woman -- back in an era when young boys still needed R-rated movies to see boobs, before the Internet took away the challenge. We couldn't wait to see her.

As I think about it now, what cracks me up is that we were sure this was going to be more erotic. I mean, it had to be. We were already going crazy thinking about two boobs, so three!?! It was going to be the Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory of nudity.

But then you see it and, even as a hormonal youngster, it just ... doesn't ... quite ... look ... like ... we ... imagined. Alas.

* OK, favorite Arnold line from any film. Mine is a cheat because he never actually says it. Stick with me, it works.

In Eraser there's a scene where James Caan's villain is chasing Arnold and says something beautifully absurd like, "I want this city locked down so tight that his balls ache." I saw the movie on VHS and my friend and I immediately burst into laughter. In unison we did our best Arnold impressions and started saying, "My balls ache! Aaaarg! My balls ache!" This was hours of entertainment. And, yes, we still use the line whenever possible. Slip into your Arnold voice and try it. It's fun.

Craig said...

In Eraser there's a scene where James Caan's villain is chasing Arnold and says something beautifully absurd like, "I want this city locked down so tight that his balls ache."

This illustrates a theory of mine, which posits that the more challenging the syllables, the funnier Arnie will be. An example Ebert once cited is from Raw Deal, where Arnold observes that a character has been "murdered, molested and mutilated."

Ed Howard said...

Sarcastig, I agree, I love the jokeyness with which the film treats its own premise. It's rather disarming; hard not to appreciate a film that's so laidback even about its own core ideas.

Piper, yeah, I always forget this was originally going to be a Cronenberg project. Obviously, doing it with anyone other than Arnold would automatically change it quite a bit -- it'd be a totally different, possibly more serious, movie just on that basis. But I imagine the effects would have had a similar feel since they're already so Cronenbergian.

Jon, you're probably right: also, more machine-gunning midgets than any other action movie.

Jason & Craig, it's definitely a lot of fun doing an Arnold voice -- anything you say instantly becomes funny if you just imagine Arnold trying to simultaneously pronounce the syllables and make it sound badass.

hitokirihoshi said...

i watch the latest version of total recall, but in my opinion the original film version of it starring arnold is still better in terms of screenplay and execution.