Thursday, October 01, 2015

Mars on Film: Total Recall (1990)

If you came of age watching sci-fi movies in the 1980s and 1990s, one fact was clear: Arnold Schwarzenegger had rapidly become the genre’s most valuable player.

The actor and future governor went from strength to strength in the form of The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987), Total Recall (1990) and T2 (1991). Rewardingly, he rose to the top of the action star pack by embracing the genre rather than shunning it. 

By contrast, Sylvester Stallone didn’t begin making sci-fi based films (like Demolition Man [1993] and Judge Dredd [1995]) until the early 1990s, and by then, Schwarzenegger had all but cornered the market. 

How did he do it?

In particular, Schwarzenegger seemed to have an authentic knack for picking good projects and good collaborators. Some would call this knack his “business” sense, but that isn’t entirely fair. It’s an artistic sense too.

But the actor also seemed to understand another significant fact: that his presence in a film was only one part of the successful movie equation.

The other piece involved serious science fiction concepts (like time travel), mind-blowing twists, and even embedded social commentary (The Running Man).

Total Recall, Schwarzenegger’s 1990 collaboration with Paul Verhoeven -- the auteur of RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) -- represents perhaps the trickiest and most twist-laden of those efforts, and is something of a high-water mark for the actor, post-Terminator.

Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short-story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, the film concerns a man who discovers that his whole life is a lie consisting of implanted memories…a lie which places him at the heart of an interplanetary conspiracy to keep the good people of Mars down, and keep cheap, clean air off the market.

Accordingly, Total Recall might be interpreted two competing fashions.

The film either exactly as it appears to be: a straight-forward (though left-leaning…) action/sci-fi film about a near-future fascist state in which profits matter more than people, and one man discovers the truth…and joins the revolution. 

Or the film is about a man suffering from a “schizoid embolism,” -- a psychological breakdown -- living out implanted memories that have no bearing on reality.

In the film, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) submits to a memory package called an “ego trip” that transforms him, essentially, into an outer space secret agent.

Afterwards, the adventure we witness is, therefore, a psychotic episode.

Indeed, virtually every development in the narrative from the physical appearance of freedom-fighter Melina (Rachel Ticotin), to the map of Mars’ alien pyramid, to the remarkable notion of “blue skies on Mars” appears both in Quaid’s travel agent/ego trip package and in the ensuing adventure.

Ultra-violent and yet ceaselessly entertaining, Total Recall thus plays with reality in a way that would forecast the decade’s big sci-fi action hit, The Matrix (1999), right down to a scene in a hero is implored to swallow a red pill and see reality for what it is. 

I suppose it’s tempting to witness all the blunt-faced, brutal, over-the-top violence of Total Recall and dismiss the movie outright. Yet even the film’s violence fits into Total Recall’s either/or dichotomy, representing a future of over-militarized police, or, contrarily, a world of the imagination where the death of innocent bystanders (as human shields) matters not…because they are just avatars in a fantasy, not real flesh and blood life forms.

“Take a vacation from yourself.”

On Earth, a lowly construction worker named Quaid (Schwarzenegger) dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman (Ticotin) there. He wants to relocate to the Red Planet, but his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone) doesn’t think it is a good idea.  Instead, Quaid goes to REKAL, a company that can implant two-week’s worth of memories into his brain.

Quaid selects the “ego trip” memory package, in which he visits Mars as heroic secret agent.  But something goes wrong during implantation, and Quaid grows confused about reality.  Is he a secret agent, or isn’t he?

Soon, Quaid’s wife, his best friend on the job, and shadowy pursuers all attempt to kill him.

Before long, Quaid learns that he was once Hauser, an agent working for Coohagen (Cox), dictatorial governor of the Federal Mars Colony.  Now, it is up to Quaid to take Hauser’s knowledge and save the people of Mars from Coohagen’s tyranny.

The only way to do that, however, is to create an atmosphere on Mars using an ancient, alien machine hidden in the sealed off pyramid mine….

“That’s a new one: blue sky on Mars.”

The science fiction films of Paul Verhoeven slyly go after the tenets of extreme right wing philosophy (and the Reagan eighties). There are other science fiction films, of course, which attack precepts of the left such as Statism (see: THX-1138) or communes (see: Zardoz) but that’s not the case here.

RoboCop imagines a world in which everything -- even the police force -- is run as a private business or enterprise and corporations run amok, literally stomping on the little guy on the way to shoveling in the profits. 

Meanwhile, Starship Troopers is set in a world of mindless nationalistic propaganda in which nuance and reason can find no purchase in the head of any pretty (male or female) soldier during wartime.

Total Recall is not far afield of these films in terms of its philosophical underpinnings. The future here is one in which corporate logos dominate the landscape, both on Earth and on the Federal Colony on Mars. 

And wall-sized TV screens constantly report biased news stories (coming from the mouths of beautiful women…) about the “terrorists” on Mars who are disrupting the flow of minerals, and therefore both the Northern Bloc’s war effort, and the flow of commerce.

Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) is the governor of Mars and he is responsible for the business practices that sold “cheap domes” on Mars, and turned a whole sub-set of colonists into genetic mutants or freaks.  Cohaagen reveals terrible disdain for them and notes that the “lazy mutants” think they “own the mine,” when of course…he does.

Even worse, Cohaagen charges money for air, a resource that ought to be free to any living being.  He declares martial law and heavily polices Mars so that business is not interrupted by people demanding more liberty. He also makes the people of Mars work for sub-par wages, so that they can’t escape their economic enslavement. 

The mutant nature of the underclass in Total Recall is specifically designed as a visual allegory for ethnic minorities and the poverty-stricken. The word “lazy” as applied to mutants is a code word often adopted by racists.

Quaid joins the revolution of freedom fighters, led by Kuato (Marshall Bell), and activates an alien generator that will provide free air to everyone on Mars. Make no mistake or misreading: this act represents a re-distribution of resources from those in power to those without power.  The whole corrupt system -- built on cheap domes and expensive air -- is brought down by this act or rebellion, and the worker is the one who benefits.

Again, I seek not to litigate the politics of this issue, or to state that I agree or disagree with the movie’s viewpoint.  I only note the many visual and verbal cues in the film support the philosophical framework I diagrammed above, from the surfeit of corporate logos on the city streets, to the propaganda-heavy news reports, to the many shots of poor-families gathered together, choking to death for lack of free air. 

Indeed, Total Recall fits precisely into the world-view one can detect in both RoboCop and Starship Troopers, where wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the masses.  The film knowingly refers to Kuato as both a terrorist and a George Washington figure (fighting for liberty and independence), but it is clear where Arnie’s character falls on that spectrum of thinking.  He takes the side of the rebellion, not entrenched authority, and never looks back.

What I find endlessly intriguing about Total Recall, however, is the “mind fuck” or “ego trip” aspects of this work of art.  Quaid goes to Recall (REKAL) and either learns the truth about himself  and his identity (Story A), or slips hopelessly into delusional psychosis and experiences a “free form delusion” (Story B).

If we consider Story B for a moment, it’s amazing to see how much it makes sense in context.

Quaid goes to REKAL and is offered the “Ego Trip” package by the slick salesman there. He shows Quaid a package in which he becomes a “secret agent” operating on Mars. 

When Quaid is about to be implanted with the “Ego Trip”, the doctor shows him some new upgrades to that package. It includes, explicitly, material about alien civilizations on Mars. A screen nearby toggles through imagery of alien beings and architecture. One such image is of the Air-Generator in the Pyramid Mine. 

Indeed, it is exactly that generator, as we see in the last act of the film. 

So ask yourself, how does REKAL have access to the interior of a closed (and guarded) Martian mine, and know about a top-secret machine that could alter forever the balance of power on the Mars Colony? 

The answer is simple, REKAL couldn’t have that info. Instead, it has implanted this imagery in Quaid’s memory. He then experiences a schizoid embolism, and then his mind takes him on a tour of said implanted imagery. The mine is never real. It exists only in the program, and then in Quaid’s schizoid mind.

In the same scene, Quaid is asked to pick a “type” of lover he would like. He says his orientation is “hetero” and the doctors begin programming a woman for him to romance on his ego trip.  She is not just any woman, we see, but the operating room’s screen actually shows footage of Rachel Ticotin’s Melina.

Again, not a lookalike, not a doppelganger, actually her.  And then, after the embolism event, Quaid encounters her.  But she exists not in the real world, only in the program and in his messed up head.

The mitigating evidence here, perhaps, is that the film opens with a dream sequence in which Quaid and Melina are seen walking on the canals of Mars together.  He slips, she screams and tries to help him.  So it is established that he is thinking of Melina -- a mystery woman -- before implantation, and therefore it cannot be a fiction created by the ego trip programmers. 

Yet it is not impossible to believe that Quaid has already been implanted as the movie starts, but has no memory of it. 

In other words, his trip to REKAL is included, actually, in the ego trip and the “secret agent” package. 

Think about it for a moment: a trip to REKAL is the perfect place for a construction worker to determine that he is actually the savior of the solar system. So REKAL might be incorporated as part of Quaid’s movie-long fantasy, which commences not with the trip to the company in the body of the film, but occurs before the opening dream that awakens the inner secret agent.

By the same token, the doctor informs the salesman that she has not yet “implanted” the secret agent portion of the memory program. But, if the entire movie is an implanted memory, her comment means nothing.  It is simply the mind’s way of rebelling against the idea that it is living in a fantasy.  Remember, when Quaid asks if the memories feel real, he is told that his “brain will not know the difference.”  So, to seem real, perhaps he must believe that he was a secret agent all along and REKAL never implanted anything.

In the same implantation scene, a doctor’s assistant looks at the ego-trip architecture and quips. “That’s a new one…blue skies on Mars.” A highly implausible Hollywood happy ending, right?

Yet the film ends, of course, with blue skies on Mars, the end point of the two-week “ego trip” memory implant. 

A second scene, later in the film, finds Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) on Mars, attempting to talk Quaid down, because he is having a psychotic break (schizoid embolism). Notice the visual symbolism of this scene. The mise-en-scene is important. 

Quaid is stationed on the left side of the frame, Edgemar in the middle, and a distorted reflection of Quaid (in a mirror) is on the right. This visualization represents the core of the Story B narrative. "Schizoid" means doubling or fragmenting of the mind, and this image shows us two Quaids, attempting to broach reality, with Edgemar as the mediator.

Edgemar tells Quaid that if he doesn’t ingest the red pill, he will lose all touch with reality. He will be a savior one moment, a betrayer the next. This “free form delusion” will even include “fantasies” about an “alien civilization.” 

He’s a villain and a faker in Story A.  But in Story B, every single one of Edgemar’s theories comes true.

Melina finally trusts Quaid, and then learns that he is actually Hauser, working covertly against the rebels.

And, in the end, Quaid countenances the tools in the pyramid mine, artifacts left behind by an alien civilization.

Total Recall plays drolly with this idea that there are parallel tracks at work in the film (Story A/Story B), and ends with a moment of incredible playfulness that honors both possibilities.

Quaid stands under the blue skies of Mars with Melina and says that the whole experience is “like a dream.”  She replies that he should kiss her before he wakes up. 

At this juncture, Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into a different mode, one that suggests tension and anticipation, as if Quaid is about to wake up.  The ego trip two-week vacation is ending, and real life -- as a construction worker -- is about to come crashing back down on him.  You can’t miss the menacing quality of the soundtrack at this juncture, as if the carpet is about to pulled out from under us.

The self-reflexive aspect of this ending is plain. We -- the audience -- have been “dreaming” with our eyes open for two hours, watching the film. And now, it too is about to end. 

Back to real life!

So Total Recall may merely be a story of revolution against the wealthy and powerful on Mars, or it may be a story of a man undergoing a hallucination because of a trip to the “brain butchers.”  Either way, it is our dream at the cinema, captivating our attention, and finally, ending with a return to reality.

I remember when Total Recall first premiered, many critics complained about the level of violence depicted on screen. There is a scene here of extreme violence worth mentioning. Quaid is pursued through a train station. He goes up an escalator, and runs into a trio of agents. They shoot at him, but miss, hitting another man on the escalator. Quaid uses the man’s corpse as a human shield, and then kills his attackers. Next, he throws the corpse down the escalator, onto Richter (Ironside) and another pursuer. After they all get off the escalator, Richter steps over the bloody corpse of one of his men without a look back.

This is a pretty bracing scene, for certain, and yet it is not gratuitous. In some ways, it is one of the most important scenes in Total Recall. If we are following Story A, this violence is an indication, like the ubiquitous corporate logos, of the overwhelming fascist state. Militarized police kill citizens without warning, without regret, and without legal repercussions. This is Coohagen’s preferred world, where the little people live and die by his whim.

Contrarily, if we follow Story B -- the “ego trip” -- there is no real violence in the scene at all, and part of Quaid’s mind must realize that. The action is a vacation “.fantasy,” like Call of Duty video-game, and the people who get caught in the cross-fire are not real, mere avatars to make it all seem real.

The screen is covered in blood in the film, and this is an intentional thing. Verhoeven even gives us a scene in which chunky rat blood pools on a view-screen, obscuring Quaid's visage.  The screen then turns to the blood red of the Martian surface. This transition could be the trademark inage of the film (and Verhoeven's Story A/Story B parallel approach.)

Total Recall may be an action film on the surface, but it actually carries social commentary (about the dangers of a fascist/corporate-controlled state), navigates carefully and consistently a science fiction premise concerning the nature of reality, and features probably the best cast of all Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi films. 

Ronny Cox is ruthless and terrifying as Coohagen. And Ironside is perfect as Richter, showcasing the idea that menace comes from attitude and screen presence, not from height or muscle mass. And Sharon Stone absolutely steals the first half of the picture, vacillating expertly from “loving wife” mode to “fierce assassin” mode.  She switches back and forth adroitly, sometimes between breaths.  And she is absolutely physically convincing in the fight sequences. 

Only Rachel Ticotin seems a little out of her depth here, as Melina, and that may be intentional too. She is hemmed in by Quaid’s description of his perfect woman: sleazy and demure. There’s not a big range she can travel between those two adjectives. Her role feels like a commentary on female romantic leads in action films.

Witty and wicked, smart and subversive, Total Recall might just qualify, in Quaid’s colorful terminology: “the best mind-fuck yet” in Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi catalog.


  1. I love how the film plays with your head in terms of was it an implant or not? You analyzed it very well, and I agree with you, I lean towards that it was an implant, a dream. He gets everything he asks for, exactly the way he asks for it and exactly the way the salesman sells it to him. He saves the planet, the girl...and then then we see a blinding light flashing in the sky which suggests Quaid is waking up from the dream.

    But be it a dream or not, what matters is the message the film puts across, the fight vs. big corporations who seek to sell us even the air we breath, the water we drink...

  2. Anonymous3:22 PM

    An excellent scifi action film. I think it is undervalued because everytime I see it, I think: "Man, this is so cool, how didn't I remember it from the last time?"


  3. Yes, that final scene and the pan up as Jerry Goldsmith's score transitions into the dream cue is why I have always leaned toward the implant/dream/vacation. It is interesting to not that "Basic Instinct" has a similar dual-competing tracking screenplay structure and again it Goldsmith's music as we fade the black that gives the answer.

    Man, I miss Verhoeven. His trilogy of "Robocop", Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct" is as good a threesome as any genre director. He made what Clarence from "True Romance" would call "movies with balls", the kind of big budget films you will never ever see again in today's sanitized PG 13 cinema. Just compare the acerbic, witty dialogue in "Total Recall" or "Robocop" to the competent but bland remakes.

  4. raito1:27 PM

    I disagree with the redistribution of resources thing. The alien pyramid manufactures air. So what's really happening is that the system is going from scarcity to abundance, and has enough wit to let the audience figure out that the current regime, based in scarcity, cannot survive when there's abundance.

  5. Great write up of my favorite of the Verhoeven sci fi trilogy. I really noticed how much red there is in the visuals during my last viewing of the film for the review on my blog. It is an over saturated red, especially the sky on Mars, not at all like what the real sky of Mars would look like. It is what someone would imagine the sky of Mars to look like (further evidence of the whole film being a dream maybe).

    Love the shout out to Goldsmith's amazing score. This is one of his best action scores period (and this is the same guy that gave us classics like "First Blood"). But his little hint with the dream motif is either a sly wink or a hint. Either way, Goldsmith was one of the greats.

  6. Anonymous7:20 PM

    Reading this review reminded me of a very interesting (if not exactly new) article that I came across recently:

    It's well worth a read for people who enjoy Schwarzenegger's work.

    Ratko H.

  7. And in the first go-round, I see you seem to miss one of the movie's (and the story's) big points. You 'are' who you believe you are. Change your mind and change yourself.

    This would follow from a 'truth' in which Quaid is actually a bad guy, who gets mindwiped and sent to Earth so that he can then infiltrate the Martian rebels. He becomes the good guy because what he believes has changed.