Saturday, May 8, 2021

Total Recall (1990)

Director: Paul Verhoeven                             Writers: Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                         Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox

Total Recall is based on a story by science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, and whatever merit there is in the original story was lost by the time it made it to the screen. Screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who had already penned Alien, were apparently attempting to write some kind of space-comedy-action-drama and failed miserably on all counts. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, considering that Shusett admitted they were trying to make “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” The real death knell of the film, however, came when it failed to materialize after several attempts by several studios and several directors, including David Cronenberg, and was eventually purchased by Carolco and Arnold Schwarzenegger was given complete creative control on the picture. It shows. While lots of fans love the zany antics, and the non-stop chase, the whole exercise is just so juvenile that there’s very little for an adult viewer to care about. After all, how many crotch kicks can Schwarzenegger take in one movie? It’s almost like a drinking game. While I will grant that it might have played better in its day, I never saw it at the theater then or even as a video rental. It seems like the kind of thing the film was striving for wouldn’t ultimately be realized until Men in Black, which is played completely for camp. This film, however, tries to have it both ways and it just doesn’t work.

The film opens up with Schwarzenegger walking around on Mars with Rachel Ticotin. Then he falls down an embankment and the shield on his helmet breaks, but just as he’s about to die he wakes up in bed with Sharon Stone. He’s obsessed with going to Mars, and she seems bent on keeping him in domestic bliss--when he’s not working his job in construction. Same with co-worker Robert Costanzo, who tries to warn him off after Schwarzenegger says he’s thinking about going to Recall, a company that implants memories. But he’s already made the appointment, and maybe if he has memories of going to Mars, he will finally be able to put the place out of his mind. Then he lets salesman Ray Baker convince him to upgrade to the Secret Agent package where he’ll think he’s a spy. But something goes very wrong. Before they can even implant the memory, Schwarzenegger wakes up thinking he’s an actual secret agent whose cover has been blown, and they have to sedate him. Recall tries to put his memories back, but when he meets up with Costanzo again he’s kidnapped as a rogue spy and winds up killing all four guys. When he gets home, Stone calls Michael Ironside, and then she tries to kill him too. It turns out Schwarzenegger really had been a spy, but his memory has been erased and Stone was set up as his wife to make sure he didn’t start remembering things from his past. His trip to Recall, however, only managed to erase the erasure and for the moment he doesn’t remember who he really was.

The central plot then becomes Michael Ironside, who works for The Agency, trying to terminate Schwarzenegger. But the longer he lives and tries to figure out what happened to him, the more his considerable skills reassert themselves, and the more dangerous he becomes--especially to Ronnie Cox and his attempt to quash a rebellion on Mars. Then, over halfway through the film, he’s finally reunited with Ticotin. Schwarzenegger had just come off of filming the comedy Twins before getting back to his bread and butter macho roles, and he does as well as he can given his limited acting range. But it’s difficult to judge exactly how much of the poor characterization is his fault. He could be fairly compelling in films like Running Man and Predator from three years earlier, but seems downright amateurish in this film. Whether the fault lies in the screenplay or the direction by Paul Verhoeven is anybody’s guess, but pretty much everyone overacts--and the cheesy sets don’t do them any favors. It’s always fascinating to see futuristic films that are now mired in outdated technology. Some things are cool, like the giant picture screens in the house that can show incredibly realistic nature scenes, or the fingernails that change colors with a touch of a pen, but with tube computer monitors all over the place and everything clean and sterile--as if things in the future aren’t just as dirty--it’s difficult to forget this is a thirty-year-old film.

The film’s still watchable, to a certain extent, but to enumerate all of the things wrong with it would need a dozen reviews of this size. Ultimately the film doesn’t know what it’s trying to be. Most of it feels Luc Besson’s failure with The Fifth Element, a lame attempt to inject comedy into the plot. But the humor doesn’t come from the situations or the characters, its just gags shoehorned in where they don’t belong. The result is that the entire suspense part of the story is completely undermined. And then there are practical considerations like a dome on Mars made of regular old breakable glass, that the idiot Agency men shoot through--as they seem to fire thousands of rounds at every turn--so that it sucks everyone out through the broken windows. The dialogue is insipid, the sets are phony and don’t make a lot of sense, and most of the supporting roles are so outsized as to be utterly unbelievable. But then maybe that’s the point. I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of these kinds of juvenile comedies anyway, in addition to the major eighties jet lag that this film has in abundance. Schwarzenegger is essentially himself, but in a bad role. Michael Ironside, who had done such a fantastic job in Scanners a decade earlier, is completely wasted in this film. And in trying for the same type of character Ronny Cox played in RoboCop, he goes completely over the top and chews the scenery whenever he’s on camera. The film even manages to make Sharon Stone seem kind of goofy. Total Recall is a total miss, probably not an outright horrible film for most people but close enough for me that I’ll never watch it again.

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