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Total Recall

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Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

One of the most popular concepts in 1990s science fiction is virtual reality. Rapid development of computer technology is most evident in more and more realistic special effects in Hollywood movies and television. Future world where computers would be able to fool other human senses doesn't require much imagination. In such world it would be very hard, almost impossible for humans to distinguish real world from those created in computer simulations. There were many novels, comic books, movies and TV shows based on such concept, MATRIX being most successful of them. However, such concept isn't new; it used to be explored many decades ago in the works of Philip K. Dick, one of the most important and influential science fiction writers of 20th Century. Dick in his stories and novels often wrote about different realities created with supertechnology of the future, and consequent loss of the identity among human beings. Some of those fears found the way to manifest themselves into extraordinary films. Dick was one of few giants of science fiction literature lucky enough to have not one, but two great science fiction films. First one is BLADE RUNNER, 1982 cult classic, and another, that stood in its shadow for the past ten years, is TOTAL RECALL, 1990 film directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Plot of the film is loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale". The year is 2084 AD and Doug Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) seems to have everything he needs in life - a good home, steady job of construction worker and beautiful wife Lori (played by Sharon Stone). However, his idyllic life is troubled by dreams he has each night; in those dreams he is on Mars, in company of beautiful and mysterious brunette. Because of such dreams, he wants to travel to Mars, but he can't afford it. Such problems are usually solved by "Rekall", company specialised for inserting false memories into people's minds. Quaid goes there and orders two weeks of false memories about his being on Mars. Routine procedure goes terribly wrong because somebody had already implanted false memories into his mind. Quaid is suddenly being attacked by his friends, co-workers and even his wife; they are all operatives of all-powerful Agency, whose top official Richter (played by Michael Ironside) spares no effort to kill him. It seems that Quaid used to be secret agent of Vilos Kohaagen (played by Ronny Cox), ruthless governor of Mars colony, and had his memory erased after betraying him for the sake of Mars freedom fighters. Quaid must travel to Mars in order to solve the mystery of his own identity and find the girl of his dreams.

Filmmakers took great liberty with original story, but, luckily Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, experience writers of science fiction cinema classics, were members of script-writing team. As a result, TOTAL RECALL has an original, exciting, intelligent and thought-provoking script, one of the best produced in Hollywood in the last few decades. Most interesting aspect of the film is the idea that the sufficient level of technology can erase any difference between objective reality and subjective perception of the world. For most filmmakers today, the best mechanism is virtual reality. For Dick in the story, and screenwriters in this film, such mechanism was somewhat more primitive technique of implanting false memories. Such technology, although crude, exists today (at least, if we are to believe reports about alleged alien abductees being manipulated into fabricating their stories under hypnosis), so it isn't hard to imagine its widespread use in the next hundred years. Suspension of disbelief is even easier when it comes to that technology being misused for some nefarious purposes, like in this movie. But the most disturbing consequences of such practices is human inability to distinguish reality from fantasy - if memory can be manipulated, and people can't trust their own past, they consequently can't trust their present. The hero of this film is constantly faced with such dilemma - are all-important events in this film real or just his fantasy? Movie leaves this question unanswered, forcing the audience to watch it many times in order to find subtle clues. This unanswered question could have spawned the very same endless debate as the Android controversy in BLADE RUNNER.

Unfortunate thing for the reputation of TOTAL RECALL (and good for its quality), was the fact that execution of this script had been left to Paul Verhoeven, author of ROBOCOP, another hidden gem of science fiction, made three years earlier. Verhoeven was never associated with cult science fiction, at least not with science fiction as infantile entertainment, dominant trend in 1980s. Verhoeven always used Hollywood resources to paint subversive picture of some disturbing trends of contemporary America, always disguised as standard commercial films. TOTAL RECALL, perhaps, wasn't so radical or obvious like ROBOCOP. However, some elements of 1980s are still present in Verhoeven's vision of the future - some unknown yet recognisable variation of Cold War is still fought somewhere in the background, corporate greed at the utter expense of Have Nots still dominates the economy, raw consumerism still dominates the culture and the killing of helpless civilians and summary executions are normal modus operandi of the legitimate government. This grim picture is, on the other hand, well hidden with the huge amounts of action, and consequent huge amounts of violence. That violence is most graphically depicted - few films are able to show people literally stepping over dead bodies to achieve their goals. Verhoeven even manages to insult feminists with scenes of nudity and with almost all-important female characters being portrayed as whores. The audience, however, barely has time to think about that, because Verhoeven turns the film in one big roller-coaster ride, using non-stop action through superb editing.

Verhoeven did great job not only in directing very good and memorable action scenes, and neatly tying them with thought-provoking and intelligent plot. He also managed to create specific atmosphere of the film, which was supposed to make huge Dickian contrast between bright supertechnological future and its grim consequences for human beings. Production settings of futuristic Earth and Mars colony are quite believable, and special effects, still good after having to compete with CGI for almost a decade, provide many memorable scenes, especially at the spectacular end of the film. Verhoeven obviously took great care about details, providing some amusing product placements (ads for "Mars Today") and interesting in-jokes and pop culture references. Always reliable Jerry Goldsmith provides another very good musical score, quite appropriate for this film, quite in rank with his previous classics like ALIEN and STAR TREK.

Some critics were led to disregard TOTAL RECALL because its lead actor was Arnold Schwarzenegger, until that time always associated with brainless action films (or, to be more precise, what mainstream critics used to call "brainless action films"). In this film he again plays unstoppable killing machine with almost superhuman abilities, but there is difference; this time the machine happens to be very human. Quaid is man who is suddenly forced to swap his boring, but safe existence with constant life for life and the struggle to find his true identity, and, above all, he is never sure whether he lives in a dream. Such trials and tribulations were nice opportunity for Schwarzenegger to show some of his, usually unused, acting abilities. His role shadowed everyone else, mostly because they had limited screen time. That happened even with great character actors like Ronny Cox (who actually replayed his role of corporate villain in ROBOCOP), Michael Ironside and even with his nominal partner Rachel Ticotin. Some, on the other hand, provided great episodes - Ray Baker was nice as sleazy "Rekall" executive and Mel Johnson Jr. gave quite humorous performance as Martian cabby. But the most memorable supporting role was played by Sharon Stone; her portrayal of Quaid's treacherous wife prepared her very well for the role of Catherine Trammel in BASIC INSTINCT, the most ultimate Bad Girl of 1990s cinema.

Of course, there are some that aren't pleased with TOTAL RECALL for quite different reasons. Most obvious flaw in the movie could be found by subjecting the movie to the basic scientific nit picking. The ending, although spectacular, seems unrealistic and as well as some scenes in Mars colony. However, those who like to defend TOTAL RECALL might disregard those nit-picks by seeing scientific implausibilities as quite believable in the context of Quaid's dream. All in all, TOTAL RECALL is well paced, entertaining and thought-provoking piece of science fiction cinema, a truly superb, yet disregarded gem of that particular genre.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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