‘Total Recall’ and Schwarzenegger’s Self-Parody

The Total Recall remake (which I can’t stop from calling Total Remake) might seem unnecessary, but it does have one key difference: Colin Farrell has replaced Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role of Douglas Quaid. Farrell might seem far removed from “everyman,” but he’s a lot closer to the protagonist of the original Phillip K. Dick short story (“a miserable little salaried employee”) than the Austrian Oak. Of course, save for the first act — average guy goes to get fake memories implanted only to learn that he already has said memories — the 1990 adaptation more or less becomes an original film. And nobody defined it more than its muscle-bound star.

Even director Paul Verhoeven admits that Total Recall is Schwarzenegger’s film, and not just because the actor personally chose Verhoeven to helm the film (the production company gave Schwarzenegger control on nearly everything, though he only appeared to exercise it in pre-production). The Austrian Oak’s presence dictated the kind of movie Verhoeven could make. As the director recently told Empire magazine:

The fact that Arnold was there in fact made me decide to make the movie much lighter than it was originally conceived… I felt with Arnold everything was already quite hyperbolic, just because of his presence. I felt that if I took the film too seriously, it would fall apart, it needed a light touch, a certain amount of playfulness was required. I changed it in that direction so that it would not be too heavy-handed, which it could have been very easily. It needed to be light and funny and kind of over-the-top. Everything should be pushed a bit.

Verhoeven pushed more than a bit, at least as evidenced by the prolonged eye-popping. The Schwarzenegger-inspired over-the-topness allows Total Recall to both engage in extravagant violence and mock it. The film simultaneously exploits and parodies the ridiculousness of 1980s action movies (many of which also starred Schwarzenegger). One early action set piece involves Quaid disguised as an obese woman; when the fat lady suit malfunctions, Quaid removes the head and throws it at the police. Said head promptly explodes – but not before delivering a zinger, of course.

Verhoeven’s best American films (RoboCop and Starship Troopers, in addition to Total Recall) have been expensive sci-fi action movies that also happened to be funny as hell. But where those two have a distinctly satirical edge, the only agenda Total Recall appears to have is entertaining its audience. Bodies are torn apart, but the jocular humor remains light-hearted. Total Recall might be a hyper-violent mind-fuck, but at least it’s a fun hyper-violent mind-fuck. That’s the Schwarzenegger guarantee.

The central “mind-fuck” of Total Recall (is this real, or is it all a dream?) becomes downright amusing thanks to Schwarzenegger’s classic action star behavior. According to Verhoeven biographer Rob Van Scheers, the many one-liners of the film were specifically written for the actor to make the “excessive violence of his persona digestible.” Thus Quaid murdering his wife becomes part of the lark after he quips “Consider that a divorce.” This sort of behavior might be typical for any dumb action movie, but even with its three-boobed hooker, Total Recall remains a lot smarter than most action movies. The film is canny enough to call foul on Quaid’s constant and logic-defying (except in an action movie) success. When a character tries to convince Quaid that everything has been a dream, Total Recalluses the moment to mock the cliché of the indestructible superstar:

What’s bullshit, Mr. Quaid? That you’re having a paranoid episode triggered by acute neuro-chemical trauma? Or that you’re really an invincible secret agent from Mars who’s the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he’s a lowly construction worker?

With this questionable commitment to its “action movie” reality, Total Recall ends up working as a cunning parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger while firmly fitting into his action-packed oeuvre. Van Scheers writes that in response to all the comments made about his personal achievements with Total Recall, Schwarzenegger would coyly respond, “It is all up to the director. I wouldn’t know.”

Interestingly enough, Schwarzenegger later starred in the outright parody Last Action Hero a few years only to see the film branded a flop. Audiences might not have been able to laugh at the movie star’s image, but at least Schwarzenegger has long appeared more than willing to make fun of himself. How else to explain Jingle All the Way?

Justin Geldzahler wonders how the advent of CGI will affect the “three boobed hooker” of Total Remake. Would that this film were in 3D!

‘Total Recall’ and Schwarzenegger’s Self-Parody