Friday, January 31, 2014

My Favorite Era: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall, though it isn't my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger film (top ten easily though), it does feature what might be the only instance of Arnold giving a legit good performance.  Based on the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale", it tells the story of Doug Quaid (Quail in the short story), a bored blue collar worker living in the future who goes to a company to have a fake memory installed of a trip to Mars.  Something goes wrong (or does it?) and Doug ends up in a spy caper with people trying to kill him.

The film went through a long, long pre-production process with many stars, directors and writers until finally, Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up making it for a summer, 1990 release.  We get a great cast, loads of bloody violence and tons of fun, let's take a closer look.
  • Great start to the film with Jerry Goldsmith;s thunderous main title theme.  He really went all out for this one, putting together a fantastic musical score.  The screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, Ron Shusett and Gary Goldman is pretty awesome too.  It might not be the purest Philip K. Dick adaptation (in fact, it's fairly loose), but it's still a really great piece of screenwriting.
  • The great thing about the script is how it plays around with the  concept of what is real and what is not.  Doug goes to Rekall and gets the beginning of an implanted memory of a trip to Mars where he is a spy but suddenly, things go haywire and it appears that he actually is a spy.  The film does a very smart thing in not telling you exactly what is going on.  It could all be happening, or it could all be a vivid hallucination Doug is having after the implant goes wrong.
  • The cast is simply fantastic with everyone, even Arnold turning in first-class work.  Arnold does pretty damn well for himself, showing Doug's utter confusion as to what is going on, mixed with the usual awesome ass-kicker Arnold usually plays.  It's not going to give DeNiro or Pacino reason to sweat but considering the man's talent level, it's pretty damn impressive.
  • Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin are good as Doug's wife Lori/the femme fatale and Melina, a woman he either dreams about or knows from Mars respectively.  Stone is both sexy as hell (I know, shocking) and tough as hell when it turns out she's a bad guy.  Ticotin is also quite lovely and her rebel freedom fighter character is fun.
  • The main villains are good as well with Ronny Cox turning in a nicely slimy performance as Cohaagen, the nasty Mars administrator and personal favorite Michael Ironside as Richter, main henchman for the evening and of course, a total psycho.  Ironside can do this sort of role in his sleep and he's really, really good here.  Snarling, growling his lines out in as menacing a tone as possible, he doesn't ham it up either.  Just good, solid, low key villainy of the highest order.
  • Love the production design of the future Earth and Mars.  Earth has some high-tech stuff like holograms and cool x-ray scanners but for the most part, it's nothing too out there.  Mars is pretty cool too with pressurized domes to protect the people from the atmosphere, a neat subway system.  It looks pretty much like what you would expect a Martian colony to look like.  Cool but sort of grimy and dirty.
  • Naturally, being the James Bond fan that I am, I wholeheartedly support Doug's choice for the secret agent fantasy.
  • Great foreshadowing in the initial memory implant sequence.  Melina, the dream girl is the woman he described when asked to essentially pick his Bond Girl for the fantasy and a few later plot elements come up too like a blue sky on Mars.  Little things like this make the movie very, very rewarding on repeat viewings.
  • I love that in the future, cabs might be remote controlled with robotic drivers, but everything else is basically the same.
  • As this is a Paul Verhoeven film. the violence is naturally turned up to eleven... After which it is then ramped up even more.  For instance, while is it common enough for Arnold to snap necks in his films, the sound team must have really had it in for that poor box of celery they were using if the neck snap sound effects are anything to go by.  Either that or they poured some water on it before hand.  Regardless, the snaps are nice and juicy, as are the blood squibs.  They make Renny Harlin's preferred squibs look dainty.
  • Related to that, I love what an absolute bloodbath most of the action scenes turn into.  Every single one of them has at least one horrifically gory bit of business: an innocent bystander being shot, used as a human shield, tossed at the bad guys and then being stepped on; every one shooting is about sad gory sad most horror film's entire body count, like Robocop it just ends up being darkly hilarious.
  • The best stuff comes towards the end when Doug breaks free as the bad guys are about to wipe his memory and replace it with that of the spy he apparently really is (also played by Arnold).  What he does to those lab techs is just horrible, gory and damn funny.  One guy gets a huge metal tool-thing shoved through his nose and out the top of his head.  It really has to be seen to be believed.
  • Not too often you get to see Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially picking his nose as a plot point.  Still, the fake head used for the scene is a damn sight more convincing than the one from The Terminator.  It's a wonder what six years of improvements in special effects can do, isn't it?
  • Speaking of the f/x, Rob Bottin does another great job here with some nice mutant designs on Mars, the aforementioned fake Arnold head and some other stuff that is just top notch.
  • Once the film gets to Mars, it chugs along at a nice pace with Doug and Melina reuniting in Venusvuille, the planet's red light district and we get a nice idea of how crummy the planet is with the mutants caused by poorly made radiation shields.  And yes, the three-breasted hooker is something you never forget.  Having Richter kill her is probably a little over the top.  Though oddly enough it ends up giving the audience more of a reason to want to kill him than Quaid has in the film.
  • An amusing bit of casting is little person actress/stuntwoman and former Ewok Debbie Lee Carrington as the aptly named Thumbelina.  She's pretty good in the role, though it's not like she has a ton to do.  She certainly is memorable, though. 
  • I can only imagine the call her agent made when the offer for the role came in.  "Well, there's good news, bad news and good news.  The good news is that you won't have to be in a sweaty, uncomfortable costume for the part.  Bad news is that the role is of a hooker so it's not exactly a feminist's dream role.  On the bright side, you do get to stab  a guy in the groin and shoot up a bar.  So, you in?"
  • The best example of the film playing with perception comes about an hour in when Doug is visited in his hotel room by Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith), a rep from Rekall who has brought Lori along to try and convince him he is simply imagining the entire thing, noting things that will happen later in the movie.  The brilliant thing is that though Doug sees a bead of sweat rolling down the man's cheek that apparently proves he's lying, the way the scene is shot it could just be him wanting to see that sweat in order to continue the fantasy.  It could go either way and it's surprisingly complex for a big summer action movie.
  • Lori trying to talk him down works well too as Sharon Stone wasn't quite a good enough actress to make it entirely convincing which works to the scene's advantage regardless of how you view the movie.  The entire scene is shot perfectly so that it can be seen either way.  This might be the best staged scene Paul Verhoeven has ever directed.
  • Making it even more brilliant is that everything Edgemar describes more or less happens: Quaid's old self (Hauser) was once friends with Cohaagen and apparently still is, Martian artifacts come into play, and it all can be seen either as reality or the delusional fantasy of a man who is about to be lobotomized.
  • The stuff with rebel leader Kuato is pretty cool.  First off, the f/x are nicely odd and freaky.  Second, I'm a sucker for actor Marshall Bell.  He's sort of like a less insane Randy Quaid.
  • The last twenty five minutes are a great, gory blast of action cinema at its finest.  Tons of random guards are killed, Richter gets a nice gory sendoff and the finale is nicely spectacular with Mars getting a breathable atmosphere and Cohaagen being exposed to the air beforehand in a nice bit of nastiness.
  • The final shot is nicely ambiguous too with Doug and Melina kissing as the screen whites out.  Could be the lobotomy, or it could simply be a classy way to end the movie.  Either one works.
Total Recall is a fun, wonderfully violent and surprisingly smart action/sci-fi thriller with a great script and cast.  It's a real winner and still holds up pretty well today.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.