Today: February 26, 2024

Total Recall (1990)

The lifespan of your average big budget Hollywood movie seems to be getting shorter and shorter.

The lifespan of your average big budget Hollywood movie seems to be
getting shorter and shorter.
First, there are the months and months of
hype, then there is the time it spends in theatres, then there is the wait for
the DVD and, before you know it, the film has faded from view and exists solely
as part of one of those 3-for-2 deals you used to get in big high street media
barns like HMV. On one level, this lack of cultural traction is entirely
unavoidable as most Hollywood films are literally forgettable but, on the other
hand, there is something completely bizarre about the fact that these films
cost millions to make, employ hundreds of people and generate thousands of blog
posts only to be forgotten in a matter of months. Given the ever-shortening
lifespan of the Hollywood blockbuster, it is almost surreal to find yourself
getting quite excited about the re-release of a Big Dumb Action Movie that
first appeared over twenty years ago… but then that film is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and it is as fresh and as awesome as the day it was
first released.

Based on a typically mind-bending
short story by Philip K. Dick (the
author whose twisted brainpan provided the seeds for mighty oaks such as Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly and The
Adjustment Bureau
), Total Recall downplays the tripper elements of the
source material in favour of chest-beating action. Indeed, the most striking
thing about Total Recall is how astonishingly violent it seems compared to
today’s action movies that straddle the 15-to-PG brackets in an attempt to
maximise cinematic revenue. Right from the start, Total Recall has Arnold
Schwarzenegger swearing and shooting people in the face. When people are shot,
they do not just collapse in a pile, they explode into a mist of blood and
gore. Surprisingly violent but also astonishingly well directed, these action set
pieces provide the backbone for a film that is filled with memorable moments
and peculiar ideas.

One particularly wonderful element
of the film is the relationship between Schwarzenegger’s violently bulging
everyman and Sharon Stone’s pouting
secret agent. Indeed, Stone plays the roll of a woman who is either a loving
wife to Schwarzenegger or deep-cover operative assigned to keep him under
surveillance lest his secret identity as a Martian freedom fighter begin to
reassert itself. Rather than pitting these two personae against each other and
musing as to which is the ‘real’ one, Verhoeven simply runs them together
meaning that Stone’s character comes across as a lovingly traitorous wife who
wants to kill her husband and have sex with him, quite possibly at the same
time. Victims of actual domestic abuse might squirm as Schwarzenegger and Stone
flit between flirting and kicking each other across the room but Verhoeven
fully embraces the tension and presents it almost as a form of sadomasochistic
play. Tellingly, when Schwarzenegger decides that he can no longer trust his
wife, Stone’s character makes one last attempt to win him over by offering to
let him tie her up. Verhoeven’s bizarre sexualisation of domestic abuse is both
intensely unsettling and utterly compelling.

Equally wonderful is the general
look and feel of the film. Despite being over twenty years old, the scenes set
on Earth feel disarmingly prescient from the ubiquitous advertising, the big
screen TVs and the alarmingly intrusive security instruments that litter the
landscape. Conversely, the scenes set on Mars are lurid and gritty in a way
that perfectly captures the film’s implication that Mars is some kind of vast
frontier where fortunes are made and Big Men battle it out for control using
any means necessary. The wonderful Ronny
pre-empts his role in Robocop by playing a Big Fish in a small pond but
one could just as easily imagine that part being played by someone like Ian McShane. Mars is basically Deadwood but the prostitutes have three

The BD re-release of Total Recall
is based on the high definition DVD release that appeared a number of years ago
but the quality of the restoration and the crispness of the picture are
nonetheless astonishing. Frankly, there are action films that were released
last year that do not look anywhere near as good as this re-release. Also
excellent are the suite of extras including interviews and commentary tracks by
Verhoeven and some interesting bits and pieces about the production process.

Total Recall is not only a
wonderfully silly and entertaining film that looks just as good as it did in
1990, it is also an example of a type of film that rarely gets made anymore: an
action movie aimed squarely at adults. Don’t buy this film because you’re
nostalgic for the films of your youth, buy it because it is a legitimately
awesome example of what can be accomplished when a sleazy madman like Verhoeven
is set lose with a massive budget and some of the 80s most bankable stars.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email:

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