Total Recall (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Total Recall is not a typical Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-'em-up. Yeah, there are a lot of explosions and gun fights, but the storyline eschews the direct route, preferring a more interesting path. This is one of those futuristic action films that expends a little effort developing some of its science fiction elements.

In an era when it has become scientifically feasible to implant false memories directly into a person's mind, wipe out a previous identity, and create a fictitious personae so real that the subject believes it to be genuine, how does one know what is and what isn't authentic? This is the question that Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and, to a lesser extent, the audience, must ponder. How much of his life is real? How many of his memories actually happened and which ones have been manufactured?

Doug has an obsession with Mars. Despite the best efforts of his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) to distract him, the desire to travel there is unquenchable, even considering the dangers posed by certain "terrorist" activities. Finally, in search of a cheap alternative to an interplanetary flight, he goes to Rekall, Inc., which provides memories as good as the actual thing, and asks for a fantasy in which he's a secret agent on Mars. During the implantation procedure, evidence of previous tampering is revealed, and the fantasy is aborted. Then, following the visit to Rekall, several attempts are made Doug's life... but are these attacks real or the delusions of someone trapped in a dream world?

Paul Verhoeven, the director of Robocop (and later Basic Instinct), brings his characteristic gory stylishness to Total Recall. The film is bloody yet chic, with crisp camerawork of gruesome sequences. Verhoeven does not display the artistry of a John Woo; he is merely someone who has mastered the techniques necessary to create a film that looks good.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not an accomplished actor, nor is he likely ever to be, but he has a tremendous screen presence and as long as his roles require a minimum range of emotion, he's enjoyable to watch. In the case of this film, the few brief dramatic moments have been entrusted to the likes of Ronny Cox (as the villain Cohagen) and Michael Ironside (as his sidekick).

Total Recall likes playing games with the audience. We're never sure if what we're seeing is reality or part of an implanted fantasy. This element has earned the movie the label of an "intelligent" action film, because it presents the viewer with an opportunity to puzzle things out rather than sit mindlessly and watch people get blown to pieces.

The ultimate resolution of the Martian uprising is banal. For a movie that had delivered a fair share of surprises up to that point, the routine conclusion is discouraging. Nevertheless, since the bulk of Total Recall offers a reasonably balanced mix of clever plotting and hard-hitting action, it's easier to gracefully except the ending than if that sequence was representative of the entire production.

Neither Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Paul Verhoeven have stretched their talents here. With both the lead actor and his director working to their strengths, the film's entertainment value is never in question. Whether such violent fun is to a viewer's taste will be largely determined by individual preference. However, with a script that's occasionally as smart as it is energetic, Total Recall offers a little more than wholesale carnage.

Total Recall (United States, 1989)