Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1990)

9. Total Recall

Despite frequently authoring science fiction that is overly cerebral and sometimes even surreal, not the most friendly terms to movie producers, the works of Philip K. Dick has seen quite a few film adaptations. Though “Blade Runner” is the gold standard, “Total Recall” is usually the second Dick adaptation people think of. Adapted from the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the film had a long production history. Super producer Dino de Laurentiis wanted to make it back in the eighties, where it first crossed the desk of an intrigued Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Laurentiis thought Arnold was all wrong for the movie, by the way. He wanted Patrick Swayze to star.) When the movie was made, it was nearly directed by David Cronenberg, who worked on it for a year. Arnold had a heavy investment in the movie. After being impressed by “RoboCop,” he wanted to work with Paul Verhoeven. So once Cronenberg walked, the Dutch Madman was hired. “Total Recall” provided Verhoeven with another opportunity to create a hyper-violent action movie with sneaky, often overlooked intelligence hiding under the surface.

In the distant future, brain surgery is an in-and-out procedure, robots and holograms are everyday technology, and man has colonized Mars. None of this affects Douglas Quaid much, a normal construction worker with an average life and an average wife. However, Quaid dreams of a mysterious woman and adventures on Mars. He learns about Rekall, a company that will implant memories into the mind. Quaid purchases a secret agent adventure on Mars. When the chip goes in, however, Quaid start screaming about how he’s a really a secret agent. Soon, men are after him, trying to kill him. Quaid gets his ass to Mars, looking to uncover the mystery of what’s going on, all the while wondering if this is really happening or if it’s a memory transplant gone wrong.

With “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven sneaked a subversive satire of American politics inside a bone-crunching action film which doubled as an intelligent, personal science fiction film. “Total Recall” carefully walks a similar line. On the surface, it looks like just another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, another action adventure where the brawny Austrian murders a bunch of bad guys, albeit in even more brutal ways then usual. Some critics dismissed the movie as just that at the time. However, “Total Recall” is also a cerebral mind-bender, questioning the very nature of reality, identity, and memory. Throughout the viewers is left to wonder whether what Quaid is going through is actually happening or is an extended delusion. This leaves a viewer wondering about the malleability of memories and our perception of reality. The film leaves audiences thinking and asking question. All of this is accomplished without sacrificing the brutal, crowd-pleasing action.

As a science fiction film, “Total Recall” had an especially impressive pedigree. Look at this list: The director of “RoboCop,” the star of “The Terminator,” the writers of “Alien,” adapted from the author of “Blade Runner,” with the special effects guy behind “The Thing.” Unsurprisingly, the film has become a modern classic of the sci-fi genre. It certainly looks like a classic. The movie effectively creates a future world. Many of the sci-fi gadgets, like the holograms, silly future cars, or hilarious robot cabs, look a little campy today. However, the future of “Total Recall” is just close enough to our reality to be believable. The full body x-ray machines, an iconic image, are only slightly more invasive then our current airport security measures. Once the film gets its ass to Mars, the production designs ramp up even more, creating an appropriately unearthly orange glow and making use of some great miniatures.

With “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven made probably the goriest mainstream action film produced up to that point. With “Total Recall,” he topped himself. Every time someone is shot, enormous bloody holes are blown through their chests, their bodies flailing wildly as they die. But “RoboCop” wasn’t just a hideously violent action movie and neither is “Total Recall.” Through this lens, Verhoeven can satirize male power fantasies, so the faithful wife is actually an evil bitch and the bland day job is a cover for a glamorous life as a secret agent. Quaid, previously an average joe, is suddenly murdering goons with ease, cracking necks and blasting them to pieces. What would be an ordinary chase scene is undermined by the goofy robot driver making snide asides the whole time. The airport shoot-out features one of the film’s cleverest gag, including a woman literally big enough for Arnold to hide inside. A human shield is worked over so much, he resembles Swiss cheese. Verhoeven certainly had a good time making this one.

“Total Recall” was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time. That budget is all up on the screen, with excellent sets and special effects, not a one of which is dated. Let’s talk about Rob Bottin’s fantastic effects. When David Cronenberg worked on “Total Recall,” he added the very Cronenberg-esque element of a bunch of mutants living on Mars, cast-offs from the cruel mining company. Bottin was more then capable to create an entire colony of Martian mutants. The most famous of which is Kuato. He’s an inspired creation, a malformed, fetus-like creature with a wisp of greasy hair, growing from a man’s chest. In most any other film, Kuato would be a villain. Instead, he’s a soft spoken freedom fighter. The psychic incursion into Quaid’s mind is one of the more lyrical effects in the film. There’s Tony, a tough guy with a swirling tumor covering his face. He has a wife and daughter with a similar condition. One of my favorites is Benny, with his hidden, insectoid arm. And let’s not overlook Mary, the three-breasted hooker that would launch an entire genre of creepy internet porn. In brief, Bottin’s work is as excellent as ever and I admire the film for making mutant freaks the good guys.

Aside from Kuato and his band of freakish cohorts, the second most memorable effects gag from the movie are what happens to people’s heads in the atmosphere of Mars. Their skin stretches, their eyes bulging out of their heads, tongues bobbing back and forth like a bloated tick. It’s cartoonish, grotesque, and unforgettable. It’s not the only stretchy skin featured in the movie. A high-light of the film is the conversation Arnold has with himself. Taken instructions from a recording of Hauser, Quaid pulls a bright red tracker out through his nose. This is “Total Recall” at its funniest. Along with the hilarious, circular dialogue, the image of Arnold pulling a big red bulb out of his nose is intentionally humorous. 

The film’s blood-splattered action doesn’t run low in the last act. There’s a suspenseful chase through the Martian tunnels, which concludes with a giant drilling device and Arnold cracking a bad pun. The final third has Arnold blowing away dozens of identical henchmen, their blood and guts flying everywhere. The Austrian superstar is as jovial as ever, cracking jokes and making good use of a hologram machine. The ending of the film, where our hero fulfills his destiny and saves Mars is especially satisfying. And the blue skies on Mars is certainly an unforgettable image.

Which brings me to Arnold Schwarzenegger. By the time of “Total Recall,” the former Mr. Olympia was the biggest movie star in the world. Arnold had been wildly successful enough and properly iconic enough to start playing with his own image. As the film begins, Quaid is a seemingly normal guy, despite looking like Arnold and being married to Sharon Stone. Part of the plot has him discovering that he’s actually a secret agent. However, as he sees more of Hauser, his true identity, via pre-recorded message, he decides Hauser is a “fucking asshole.” During moments like this, I begin to wonder: Is Arnold making fun of himself? Think about the way Quaid tosses around perfect one-liners like “Consider dat a divorce!” or “See you at da party, Richta!” Look at the sheer severity of the violence, as Verhoeven pushes the film’s content as far as it can go. Under the right light, “Total Recall” is actually a full-bloodied satire of the kind of movie’s Arnold usually makes. And because Arnold has always been more self-aware then some give him credit for, he has a ball in the part. “Total Recall” is a great Arnold Schwarzenegger movie but also an interesting variation on the actor’s stock roles.

As in “RoboCop,” Verhoeven also creates an impressive cast of bad guys. Ronnie Cox plays Cohaagen, a similar role to Dick Jones. Both are corrupt corporate bosses, abusing their powers for nefarious deeds. Cohaagen wants to control Mars and crush the radicals. Oddly, he’s also partially motivated by protecting the planet, as he believes activating the Martian reactor could destroy all life. Cox is great but is almost overshadowed by Michael Ironside as his primary henchmen, Richter. Ironside brings the steely-eyed intensity to the part you’d expect, playing Richter as a blood-thirty psychopath more than happy to kill for his boss. It’s probably the ultimate Ironside part, a distillation of the many villains and hard-asses he’s played before and since. Rounding out the trio of bad guys is Mel Johnson Jr. as the turn coat Benny. Despite being a rat bastard, Benny is likable, mostly because of his repeated references to his multiple children and his matter-of-fact opinion towards employment.

The film also presents Arnold with two love interests. The first of which is Sharon Stone as Lori, Quaid’s wife. The part plays to Stone’s strengths as an actress. Lori is vindictive and gleefully evil, taking great pleasure in turning on her “husband.” Despite being a treacherous bitch, Stone still has more chemistry with Schwarzenegger then Rachel Ticotin as his actual love interest. This is partially by design. Ticotin plays Melina, Quaid’s literal dream woman. She’s the perfect partner for him, as heroic as Quaid is but also in end of a man’s assistance. However, she’s scrubbed clean, without much grit or character to her personality. I guess it goes to show that a dream woman is probably boring to anyone not having the dream.

“Total Recall” ends on an ambiguous note. The true ending of the film is up to the viewer. Either every thing that happened is real or Quaid is imaging the whole thing, part of his Rekall trip gone wrong. If you believe it, after the final fade to white, he has a seizure and dies. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to the question of whether the story is a dream or a reality. The ambiguity is the point. However, here’s my take on things. Before the mental implant is injected into Quaid, the lab tech mentions how the program ends with “Blue skies on Mars.” You’ll notice, this is how the actual movie ends. Before Quaid is injected, he’s in every scene, living his ordinary life. After he’s injected, the camera cuts away for the first time. Suddenly, we’re following other characters. Almost as if we’re watching a movie… Or the movie-influenced dream of someone imaging what it’s like to be a spy and a Martian freedom fighter. Things get increasingly more outlandish from here, with the mutants and the bloody explosions. And then Quaid literally meets the woman of his dream. Now, maybe he was dreaming about Melina because he had already meet her, in his life as Hauser. Or maybe this is another part of the Rekall program. I, for one, believe most of the movie is a fantasy, ending with our hero having a deadly seizure. But feel free to interrupt another way.

“Total Recall” would become a big hit, one of the last edgy, R-rated action flicks to hit big with audiences in the nineties. It’s another classic for Arnold, featuring the actor doing what he does best. However, it was also a success for Verhoeven, proving that the Dutch auteur had a future making action/sci-fi flicks that double as perfect example of that genre and savvy deconstructions. A classic like “Total Recall” was bound to have an afterlife. There was a forgotten TV show and a flaccid remake. The original, however, towers over both, the insistence to get yer ass to Mars still echoing through the pop culture sphere to this day. [Grade: A-]

No comments: