Film Reviews:

Total Recall

(Paul Verhoeven, US, 1990)

As a source novelist, Philip K. Dick has to be one of the richest veins of inspiration that science fiction screenwriters can draw upon. Dick's troubled life gave rise to his ingenious if paranoid ideas. When Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was filmed by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner, people found fault in the film but the story underpinning the stunning visuals was widely regarded as sound. It is much the same with Total Recall (a very loose adaptation of Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) it has its faults but the story is not one of them. Indeed, it is its best feature. In the far future, all construction worker Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger) wants is a break, a nice virtual holiday. But after Rekall Inc. play around inside his head, he gets far more than he paid for when he begins to recall memories of being a freedom fighter on Mars; a calling he cannot resist, especially after his friends start trying to kill him.

When director Paul Verhoeven decided to work on Robocop, he was not a science fiction film director, and had no ambitions to be such. However, what he realised then (and many still fail to) was that it is possible to tell a human, emotional story based around strong characters, with the science fiction elements acting merely as a sounding board. With the script for Total Recall, it was the lead character's struggle to find himself after his perception of what is reality is dramatically altered that appealed to Verhoeven. The future setting was secondary.

Total Recall is an okay film. Schwarzenegger is given the opportunity (in the first few reels at least) to act a little more than he had up to that point in his career - a diversion that he handles reasonably well. Each of the major characters is given a good proportion of screentime even if they are mostly painted with a broad brush. Two strong female characters, including a pre-Hollywood A-list Sharon Stone, give Arnie's character a run for his money; but it is Michael (Scanners) Ironside the lead villain of the piece who stands out - a role he characteristically takes on with gusto.

The (at the time) much-touted special effects are good, although some of the animatronic heads are far too rubbery even by 1990 standards, sharper editing would have helped a lot. Most of the model shots look just like model shots, and the majority of the optical effect have the dreaded wobbly outline. The best special effects are the physical ones staged on set. The explosions (lots of flying glass reminds one of The Towering Inferno), the stunts and general set destruction effects are all first rate. However, one aspect that doesn't shine through all this strongly enough is Verhoeven's direction. In Robocop his style shone, perfectly manipulating the genre. In Total Recall, it appears to be the other way around - the material getting the better of the director. By most standards Total Recall is a great popcorn action SF movie. By the standards set by Verhoeven himself three years previously on Robocop, this looks decidedly sub-standard.

Rob Dyer

See also:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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