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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Total Recall (review)

Mars Ho!

There’s a theme restaurant in New York City called Mars 2112. It’s one of those overpriced tourist traps where they can get away with charging $15 for a sandwich if they call it a Rocket Burger and $7.50 for a drink if it’s called an Atomic Blast, but I have to admit that the decor is extremely cool. In fact, it feels just like you’ve walked right into the world of Total Recall.

Total Recall is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s not a great movie. It’s not even the one really good science-fiction movie director Paul Verhoeven (Hollow Man, Starship Troopers) has made — that was Robocop. But it’s a helluva lot of fun, and it moves fast enough that you never notice how silly it is till later.
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger: End of Days, Jingle All the Way) is a mild-mannered construction worker who dreams of traveling to Mars… and this is not the impossibility it would be for us today. It’s sometime in the nearish future, and federal colonies on the red planet are doing well, with mining and tourism the big industries. But there’s unrest as well — a group led by a mysterious revolutionary named Kuato is demanding independence from Earth. Kuato is George Washington to the little people, and a “terrorist” to Mars administrator Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox: Deep Blue Sea, Murder at 1600). Things are heading south on Mars, so Doug’s wife, Lori (Sharon Stone: Simpatico, The Muse), tries to talk him out of a visit.

So Doug instead visits Rekall, a company that implants virtual memories in the brains of its customers, and signs up for an “ego trip,” a secret agent fantasy vacation that will happen entirely in his head. But Something Goes Wrong, as is wont to happen in SF movies — Doug suddenly has real memories of Mars, and he’s being chased by Richter (Michael Ironside: Nuremberg, The Perfect Storm), a nasty operator who likes machine guns and doesn’t mind taking potshots at any civilians who come between him and Doug.

Why are secret agents trying to kill Doug? The answer comes in the most unexpected way: from Doug himself… except the man in the video recording calls himself Howser, and says he’s Doug — or, rather, Doug is actually Howser. Doug’s memory of being Howser has been erased, and what Doug remembers as his past, like 8 years of marriage to Lori, is all implanted, like a Rekall vacation. Howser tells Doug to “get your ass to Mars” to find the answers to all his questions, which of course will involve Cohaagen, Kuato, and the incipient revolution. So it’s hasta la vista, Earth.

Total Recall is full of patented Verhoeven schtick. There are three-breasted mutant prostitutes, hot girls beating the crap out of each other, and bloody carnage complete with corpses riddled with machine gun fire. And since this is a Verhoeven movie, there’s lots and lots of breaking glass. The ending is completely absurd and Mars is fakey looking, but Verhoeven is good for throwing in lots of fun details that reward reviewing, like the Mars Today newspaper kiosk in the background of one scene.

Schwarzenegger has enough inherent charm and likeability that he’s better off when he just lets the story pull him along, as he does here, rather than attempt to Act (as he does, terrifyingly, in End of Days). And what pulls us along with his Doug is the unraveling of the existential questions his situation raise. Total Recall is based on a story by Phillip K. Dick, so there’s some freaky, mind-bending stuff going on here, though Verhoeven never lets it interfere with the carnage. How can we tell the difference between reality and dreams? What makes us us: our memories, whether they’re genuine or not? our past, even if we don’t remember it? or our actions and feelings in the here and now? Are our bodies just vehicles for our personalities, and can we change those personalities like we change our clothes?

If only Keanu Reeves were here to say “Whoa.” Total Recall does, in fact, raise some of the same questions The Matrix did nine years later, but can The Matrix measure up to Total Recall for pure trashy fun? Nope.

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MPAA: rated R

viewed at home on a small screen

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