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Summer of ‘90: Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall at 25

Rarely has the question “What if this is a dream?” been fraught with such bitterly ironic implications.

Summer of '90: Total Recall
Photo: TriStar Pictures

Some of the first things about Total Recall I latched onto as a young cinephile were its dazzling production design and special effects, its breathless action sequences, its over-the-top violence—in short, its surface. And, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to come off as a normal guy despite his superhuman physique, heavily accented English, and increasingly ubiquitous one-liners. Today, though, my appreciation for Paul Verhoeven’s mind trip goes beyond simple nostalgia, and hinges on how its seductive look and immediate visceral pleasures are wily in their concealment of grand themes.

Certainly, the film’s Philip K. Dick-inspired plot is rife with elements revolving around images and their sinister undercurrents: Douglas Quaid’s (Schwarzenegger) obsession with Mars as a deliverance from his empty idyllic existence on Earth; his gradual discovery of a supposed secret past as a spy named Hauser; Lori (Sharon Stone), the blond bombshell of a wife who turns out to be an operative for villainous henchman Richter (Michael Ironside); the seemingly normal resistance fighter (Marshall Bell) whose torso houses the legendary mutant leader named Kuato.

But, of course, with the catalyst for the film’s high-octane intrigue being Quaid’s decision to purchase a packaged-memory vacation from Rekall Inc., not even the plot’s most shocking twists and turns can necessarily be trusted as “real.” Verhoeven and screenwriters Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman toy with the possibilities from the get-go. A shot of Quaid’s construction co-worker, Harry (Robert Costanzo), giving him a hard look after Quaid asks him about Rekall pays off not long after Quaid’s “trip” begins, when he reveals himself to be a traitor—but was he always hiding this secret, or is this a part of Quaid’s package? And the fact that many of the plot developments eerily echo Quaid’s virtual-vacation specifications—the spy revelations, the brunette/demure/athletic love interest, and so forth—is enough to cast a doubtful pall over how much of the film should be taken at face value.

The key scene that best articulates the film’s dominant concern with reality and its illusion comes when Rekall head honcho Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) seemingly enters into Quaid’s adventure in order to try to shake him out what he claims is his schizoid embolism. Throughout Dr. Edgemar’s plea, he dismisses everything Quaid—and by extension, the audience—had accepted as “real,” chalking it all up to his packaged fantasy, and implores him to basically snap out of it. “Stop punishing yourself, Doug,” he says. “You’re a fine upstanding man, you have a beautiful wife who loves you, you have a whole life ahead of you. But you gotta want to return to reality.” Just before Quaid is about to take a pill to aid in his return to reality, however, he notices a bead of sweat rolling down Dr. Edgemar’s face and, interpreting it as a sign of the inauthenticity of his pleas, shoots him dead.

The thematic reverberations of this highly suggestive scene are enormous on two levels. Earlier in the scene, Dr. Edgemar explains that one of the symptoms of Quaid’s ostensible current state of schizoid paranoia is a feeling that the victim is making things up as his episode goes along. Considering just how much Quaid had yearned, in the film’s opening 15 minutes, to flee from his current settled life, the implication is strong that perhaps, deep down, he doesn’t want to return to reality. Being that, by the end of this adventure, he’s fulfilling that innermost desire he voiced early on in the film to participate in something bigger than himself—namely, saving a whole race from extinction—for all the hell he has to go through, who could blame him?

There is, however, deeper and more disturbing meta-cinematic ramification that arises from that scene. As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in his Chicago Reader review of the film, “The whole premise of a company like Rekall can be read as a metaphor for moviegoing, and Quaid’s martian dreams, his prerecorded instructions to himself, and various gadgets in the story—like the wall-size TV screens in Quaid’s kitchen and a device that allows him to project his own video image into the air like a simulacrum—all suggest various other aspects of the moviegoing experience.” But if we take Quaid to be a representative of the movie-going public, then Total Recall’s mirror toward us, the viewing audience, offers a none-too-flattering reflection. Really, what is it that we’re accepting as entertainment here? A desperate, unfulfilled male’s decadent power fantasy, complete with increasingly cartoonish violence, cheesy wisecracks, and unchecked misogyny (Ticotin’s previously empowered Melina, after all, eventually become a standard-issue sidekick at the mercy of Quaid’s physical prowess)?

There’s more than a clue to the film’s strategy in the fact that, for about an hour, the film is bereft of Schwarzenegger’s usual one-liners, focusing instead on his character’s confusion and paranoia; it’s only as he wades deeper into his fantasy that Quaid fully becomes a prototypical ‘80s Schwarzenegger character, jokes and all (“Consider that a divorce,” he says after he kills Lori; “See you at the party, Richter,” he yells as he throws his nemesis’s ripped-off arms away). Verhoeven and company pull a neat trick here, inviting us to enjoy this spectacle while constantly allowing that underlying ironic layer to taint our experience. Rarely has the question “What if this is a dream?”—which Quaid asks in the film’s ostensibly triumphant final scene—been fraught with such bitterly ironic implications.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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