In the general critical conversation surrounding the films of Dutch master/maniac Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall often gets the short shrift. Granted, it may not reach the satirical pitches of the director’s other sci-fi masterpieces, RoboCop and Starship Troopers, nor the dripping, camp-curio excesses of Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Or rather, Total Recall’s satire becomes harder to reconcile with its status as a massively budgeted blockbuster (widely reported as the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its production) built around the bankable Hollywood movie star of the era: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Draped in corporate wallpaper—Coca-Cola, Sony, and Fuji Film are just some of the brands that have apparently endured into the film’s stuffy, mini-mall version of late 21st-century America—and marked by its very bigness, Total Recall seems to test the boundaries of Verhoeven’s own satirical scale. Surely the filmmaker’s puckish impulses and wincing skepticism of American culture couldn’t weather the transition to such a bulbous, corporately tooled studio product.
Like most films adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s source material, Total Recall takes as its subject the pseudo realities that at once cloud, and surreptitiously determine, our conception of the world around us. Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, a hulk of a man laughably employed as a construction worker, who dreams of ascending the mountains of Mars with his exoticized dream girl (Rachel Ticotin). He visits Rekall Incorporated, a business that grafts tailor-made “memory implants” of vacations for would-be travellers too cash-strapped to afford the real thing. As an add-on to his Mars getaway, Quaid opts for the secret agent “ego trip” package, outfitting him with high-octane false memories of leading a Martian uprising against the underhanded planetary administrator and oxygen baron Vilos Cohagen (Ronny Cox, reprising his arch-asshole bad-guy grimace from RoboCop). He’s told the souped-up options cost extra, as they necessitate “a deeper implant.” “Don’t worry,” a technician feebly reassures him while beginning the procedure, “Things hardly ever fuck up here.”
Sure enough, the routine memory implant goes south when the workaday Rekall staffers discover a previous embed imposed by Cohagen to make Quaid (whose real name is Hauser) forget that he really is a secret agent embroiled in an extraterrestrial revolution. After dispatching his pony wife (Sharon Stone) and eluding Cohagen’s goons (led by Michael Ironside), the reawakened Quaid returns to Mars to cap off his mission, get the girl, and save an underclass of mutants from the perils of off-world American corporatism. “You are not you, you’re me,” a prerecording of Hauser tells Quaid early in the film, inviting his alter ego—and, in turn, the viewer—to play along with the superheroic flights of fancy.
On its diegetic surface, Total Recall’s politics seem classically conservative. It’s superficially of a piece with post-colonial actioners like Rambo II or Commando, which see buffed-out American super-soldiers restoring order to some far off land living under some post-junta tyranny. Yet Quaid/Hauser’s arrival on Mars as hyper-masculine conqueror/liberator is undermined by the film’s most characteristically Verhoevenian wrinkle—that the memory implant short-circuited Quaid’s brain, and that the bulk of the film’s action is really just a schizoid fantasy playing out behind the blue-collar shlub’s dead-eyed gaze.
The 21st-century America of the film has little in the way of a visual culture: sports, holographic tennis instructors, calming wall-to-wall screensavers, and an inescapable network of TVs broadcasting commercials and rigged news. What Rekall offers is a kind of evolved cinema. The company cooks up psychic holidays and escapist fantasies that are realer than the real thing, totally collapsing the virtual into the unreliable mesh of memory—the ultimate Dickian pseudo reality. Fitting then that the film’s emancipating Übermensch is lashed, Ludvico-style, into the Rekall operating chair like a slack-jawed viewer strapped into a movie theater seat. Verhoeven’s first real-deal stab at massively budgeted, star-vehicle blockbuster cinema takes roots as a bottom-up burlesque of its own form.
The process sees Total Recall’s star gamely suffering all manner of goofy perversions. Certainly, Schwarzenegger’s no stranger to irony. Total Recall was released the same year as Ivan Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop, which self-consciously upset Arnold’s hardened star text by having him pull face opposite a cast of preschoolers. The difference is that Verhoeven’s film renders him hilarious (and patently ludicrous) within the confines of a sci-fi actioner, a genre he’d come to define throughout the 1980s (Terminator, Predator, The Running Man, et al.), through various deformations (asphyxiating bug-eyed in the opening dream sequence) and silly degradations. In one scene, he wraps a wet towel around his head to jam a tracing beacon; in another, his nostril stretches absurdly wide as he wrenches that beacon from his skull; later still he sneaks onto Mars (almost) incognito as a heavyset woman in an unflattering mustard yellow dress.
Total Recall’s caricaturing of Schwarzenegger, its flip ribbing at his stocks of action-hero cache, signal the deep, almost atomic level at which its satire functions. (See also: the famous three-breasted prostitute, a man in a brothel canoodling what appears to be a severed leg, the Don Knotts lookalike robot cabdriver who might as well be working for Uncanny Valley Taxi Co., and so on.) It may not bear the more obvious spoofing of RoboCop, with its spot-on skewering of American commercial culture, or Starship Troopers, with its refined mock-fascist chest-beating. Yet like both those films, Total Recall’s revels in its excessive, “realistic” violence as a way of rupturing the rollicking sci-fi rhythms, effectively making Swiss cheese of any delusions of wholesome blockbuster fun of the sanitized, Spielbergian variety.
Such bloody touches, and such casual cynicism—“Consider this a divorce,” Quaid says coldly after blasting his wife through the head, a disaffected riff on Schwarzenegger’s classic one-liners—push the film closer to the kind of playfully pitch-black comedy Verhoeven’s made his stock and trade. It effectively does for popcorn cinema what The Fourth Man did for Catholicism. Total Recall proves thoroughly Verhoevenian not despite, but precisely because of its inflated price tag and blockbuster accouterments, its irony and cheekiness burrowing down into the film’s DNA—a deeper implant.