nostalgia fact-check

How Does Total Recall Hold Up?

Photo: Carolco International

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider the original version of one of this Friday’s big releases: Total Recall.

Background: Arnold Schwarzenegger was no one’s first choice to play accountant turned superspy Douglas Quaid in the big-screen adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” — except Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. The future Governator campaigned for the role throughout the eighties, even though producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted he was wrong for the part. It’s easy to see why Dino was skeptical. Schwarzenegger spent the entire decade playing just two types of characters: figurative killing machines (Conan the Barbarian, Predator) and literal killing machines. De Laurentiis preferred actors with a bit more range and box-office clout —Schwarzenegger’s first $100 million hit, and his first role as a recognizable human being, didn’t come until 1988’s Twins.

In the meantime, Total Recall went through an endless series of creative permutations: Jeff Bridges was attached, then Richard Dreyfuss signed on, then David Cronenberg came onboard as director and campaigned for William Hurt to get the Quaid role. Eventually the project was handed to Bruce Beresford and Patrick Swayze, but when De Laurentiis’s company went bankrupt, Total Swayzecall fell apart at the last minute. That’s when Schwarzenegger swooped in, securing the rights and hiring RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven. Quaid the meek accountant became Quaid the inordinately burly construction worker, and the rest was box-office history. Total Recall earned $119 million in the United States, Schwarzenegger’s second $100 million hit in a row after Twins, cementing his status as one of the most popular movie stars in the world.

Nostalgia Demographic: action fans and science-fiction nerds who came of age in the late eightiess and early nineties; breast fetishists.

Fact-check: In my hazy childhood memories, Total Recall seems like some kind of wonderful dream: A sci-fi action movie that works as a mindless adventure and a subversive mindfuck? A vision of the future that’s chilling and exciting? Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a regular guy and doing it convincingly? Surely it couldn’t possibly be as good as I remember it.

Granted, when it comes to Schwarzenegger, I’m not exactly the most objective judge. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, and from the moment Arnold blew away Robert Patrick with the line “Hasta la vista, baby,” I was hooked for life — on movies and on Schwarzenegger. In the months that followed that first viewing of T2, I obsessively watched every Arnold film I could get my hands on: The Running Man, Commando, and the first Terminator were all favorites. I only saw Total Recall later — my protective parents deemed its outrageously excessive violence and three-for-the-price-of-two topless shots too risqué for a 10-year-old — but when I finally caught up with it in middle school, it blew my mind.

Fifteen years later, it still does. True, a few parts already look dated some 60 years before they’re scheduled to actually take place. The scientists of Earth circa 2084 have figured out how to colonize Mars and implant false memories in people’s brains, yet the concept of portable phones seems to have completely eluded them (the characters use hilariously clunky video phones instead). Otherwise, Total Recall looks just as good as it did in 1990 — maybe better. The film was made right on the cusp of Hollywood’s digital revolution, during the last hurrah of old-school analog special effects. It took decades for computers to approach the level of photo-real detail and sophistication exhibited by practical makeup artists like Rob Bottin, whose grotesquely featured Martian mutants — including the infamous three-breasted woman — represent one of the high-water marks of the period (and my pubescence).

As a kid, I recognized Total Recall’sis this the real life or is this just fantasy?” duality, but mostly I just liked the fact that it was a relentlessly paced chase movie with a cool sci-fi twist. As an adult, I’m blown away by how completely Verhoeven and screenwriters Dan O’Bannon (Alien), Ronald Shusett, and Gary Goldman commit to the narrative’s central ambiguity. From the moment Schwarzenegger visits the artificial-memory-makers at Rekall and buys their all-inclusive Martian secret agent package, nothing and no one can be trusted. Quaid, the simple construction worker, discovers he’s actually a mind-wiped spy named Hauser. His seemingly devoted wife Lori (a pre–Basic Instinct Sharon Stone) turns out to be a devious killer planted by the villainous dictator of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), to ensure his former persona doesn’t return. Everyone and everything has two distinct identities — right down to the film itself, which is either Quaid’s real-life adventure after the botched Rekall procedure or the implanted getaway he bought (he did spring for the secret agent package, after all) with a few serious glitches. The viewer’s perception of the events as either reality or fantasy opens Total Recall’s ending up to two totally different interpretations. Does Quaid triumph or die? Boldly, Verhoeven never resolves the issue.

The special effects, which won a well-deserved Special Achievement Oscar, further blur the line between the genuine and the imaginary; it’s often impossible to tell where the actors end and their animatronic stunt doubles begin. When Arnold extracts a tracking device from his nose, a puppet takes the worst of the nostril-stretching; the same goes for his eye-bulging bout of decompression sickness. The effects were so convincing, according to Verhoeven on the Total Recall DVD, that people often ask whether Kuato, the slimy, vestigial leader of the Martian rebels, was a genuinely deformed Siamese twin.

Though Schwarzenegger was certainly an unlikely candidate, he was right to push for the part of Quaid; it’s one of the best he ever had, and despite his bulky frame, he’s perfect for it (his muscles makes the character’s instantaneous transformation from schmo to superhero completely believable). Quaid showcased the full range of Schwarzenegger’s physicality and demented sense of humor; who else but Ahnold — whose ridiculous puns and one-liners were already becoming legendary back in 1990 — could shoot his onscreen wife in the face while quipping, “Consider that a divorce”? Patrick Swayze? I don’t think so.

Time and hindsight have only enhanced Total Recall’s impact. The Martian mutants’ revolt against their greedy, resource-hoarding corporate overlords now brims with Occupy Wall Street overtones while the “consider that a divorce” gag carries weirdly poignant weight in light of Schwarzenegger’s recent separation from his real-life wife, Maria Shriver. The film went on to inspire its fair share of knockoffs (including one, The Sixth Day, starring Schwarzenegger) and it was a clear inspiration for The Matrix, particularly the scene where a Rekall doctor tries to convince Quaid to swallow a red pill in order to acknowledge that he’s living in a fantasy world. Regardless, there’s something about Total Recall’s blend of vicarious thrills and troubling themes that still feels unique, a throwback from a time when giant Hollywood blockbusters were allowed to take risks, when they weren’t all sequels, rehashes, or remakes.

Now we live in different times, times in which a remake of Total Recall opens this Friday with Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale in the Schwarzenegger and Stone roles. If this new version feels completely unnecessary in light of the original’s enduring appeal, it does make a certain amount of sense. Total Recall was always about doubles and doppelgängers — is Quaid the nice guy from Earth or the deadly assassin from Mars? — and now we’ll have even more versions of the character to further muddle the issue. If the remake is terrible, we’ll just swallow the red pill and dismiss the whole thing as a wonderful dream gone horribly wrong.

(Total Recall will be playing at New York City’s Film Forum from August 10-16)

How Does Total Recall Hold Up?