'Total Recall' at 25: Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi still shocks

A look back at Paul Verhoeven's most prescient sci-fi: 'Total Recall,' 'RoboCop' and more

Long before Christopher Nolan parsed densely interwoven layers of dream and reality in “Inception,” Paul Verhoeven took a pulpy deep dive into similar what-if terrain.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of “Total Recall,” the Netherlands-born director's second stateside feature and, at the time of its release, one of the most expensive movies ever made. The thriller paired the unlikely Hollywood maximalist with an unlikely movie star, Austria-born bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the story of a working stiff haunted by the question “Is that all there is?” and shocked into interplanetary action by the answer.

The character-driven films that Verhoeven had made on his home turf in the '70s and '80s — among them the World War II drama “Soldier of Orange,” the working-class coming-of-age saga “Spetters” and the erotic love story “Turkish Delight” — hardly signaled the kind of studio FX extravaganzas that he would come to be identified with, beginning with “RoboCop.”

That 1987 sci-fi actioner — which Neill Blomkamp's “Chappie” borrows from heavily, to little avail — stands as his strongest and most enjoyable work of science fiction, the hyperviolence, slapstick and social commentary in fine balance.

The lack of a leavening sense of humor was one of the problems hobbling recent remakes of “RoboCop” and “Total Recall,” underscoring how crucial comedy is to Verhoeven's speculative fiction, whether it's broad, subtly satiric or his signature hybrid of the two.

Inspired by the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and credited to three screenwriters, “Total Recall” expands the author's tantalizing premise with space-opera set pieces, having fun with it while staying true to the core concept.

Action heroics notwithstanding, Schwarzenegger is understated as 21st century construction worker Douglas Quaid, a man obsessed with Mars but unable to afford a trip there. Quaid springs for the less expensive option of a memory-implant vacation, sold by a place called Rekall, where's he's tended to by Dr. Lull.

One “schizoid embolism” later, his workaday world has cracked open with the revelation that he's a secret agent who has been living under a false identity. The memory game unfolds in a way that's at least as playful as it is urgent. As he did in “RoboCop” and would again do, with less easily embraced results, in “Starship Troopers” (1997), Verhoeven paints his future world in broad strokes that give it a comic-book sensibility.

Look closer, though, beyond the visual jokes and seamless effects. There's an unshakable dread beneath the cartoonish surface of cooperatively dueling Arnolds (the old self and the new), slightly goofy goons, catchphrases and one-liners, and female characters who are all whores or traitors (in her first major film role, Sharon Stone falls into the latter category).

The specter of soul-crushing authoritarianism hangs over nearly every frame: in the massive, aggressively drab architecture of the Earth city that Quaid flees and in the toxic blood-red atmosphere of the Mars colony he arrives at, where breathable air is a commodity that the corrupt governor (Ronny Cox) makes the wage-slave residents pay for, dearly.

The motif of official misinformation — generated by the state, the corporation or their unholy partnership — courses through Verhoeven's sci-fi features with lethal energy. The suggestions of fascism are most blatant in “Starship Troopers,” with its martial regalia and us-vs.-them demonization. But they're no less pressing in the earlier films.

It's no surprise that such monsters preoccupy an artist who spent part of his childhood under Nazi occupation, in the shadow of a German military base.

As the writer Dick said of his own paranoia-fueled fiction, “the hardware is in the future, the scenery's in the future, but the situations are really from the past.”

Past and future meld in the Old Detroit of “RoboCop,” Verhoeven's first venture into the sci-fi realm and Hollywood filmmaking. The cyborg story, which spawned a multimedia franchise that Verhoeven had nothing to do with, was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner and stars Paul Weller as the title character, a murdered policeman who's resuscitated as a Frankenstein creation.

Spending much of the movie under a suit of titanium and Kevlar, only his impassive mouth visible, Weller portrays a prototype who represents “the future of law enforcement.” But his true struggle is to hold on to his humanity, remembering his former self bit by painful bit.

As in “Total Recall,” the action revolves around questions of memory and identity, as well as the uneasy combo of the mechanical and the organic, technology and nature — a theme that Verhoeven addresses head-on in “Hollow Man,” his least-well-received sci-fi outing.

Weller's RoboCop, with his monotone and comical strut — it's also pretty funny to see him drive a car — is the experimental face of an “urban pacification” program, a cynical bid by the aptly named Omni Consumer Products to control the city, destroy its underclass and reap the luxury-consumer return on investment. In other words, gentrification in malevolent hyperdrive.

RoboCop is a hero because he'll target the cackling überbaddies wherever they are, in the high-rise corporate suites or among the city's street-roaming thugs. An early scene of boardroom carnage involving a “glitch” in a law-enforcement droid is a brilliant touch — sacrifices will be made in the pursuit of profit — and it provides a defining context for the assault-weapon overkill of the movie's ensuing action.

In 1990, at the close of the privatization-promoting Reagan era, an emphasis on the collusion of mega-companies and government might have seemed merely topical; now we know it was prescient, as was the depiction of a bankrupt Detroit.

Verhoeven sends up not just private-sector greed and abusive state power but the false sense of choice that passes for freedom in a consumerist society. Stupid TV punctuates his narratives, an incisive running commentary in the form of perfectly rendered news programming and commercials.

There's the board game Nukem in “RoboCop,” the maddeningly superficial news-anchor sound bites and ads for faux vacations in “Total Recall” and, in “Starship,” recruitment commercials for the Mobile Infantry and promo spots for upcoming televised executions.

“Starship Troopers,” which screenwriter Neumeier adapted from a controversial 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, polarized audiences and left many critics bewildered by its seeming embrace of militarism. Though it's toothachingly earnest on face value, the movie is a marrow-deep satire, an antiwar film whose maimed vets extol the importance of military might even as they bring to mind the sorrowful outrage of “Johnny Got His Gun.”

A tale of interstellar war against giant brain-sucking Bugs who probably didn't start it, “Starship” is designed to work more as spoofy spectacle than as involving human story; unlike “Spetters,” Verhoeven cast this hormonal-youth melodrama with purposely bland actors, many of them from “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” That their dazzling good looks skew Aryan is no accident either. The more-than-passingly SS-reminiscent uniforms and Nazi-ish eagle emblem drive the point home.

So do the scenes of mass formations, visual shorthand for identification with the state, as ambitious youth strive to become full-fledged citizens (as opposed to mere civilians) in service to the planetary federation and its Bug-vanquishing cause.

Verhoeven, who claims he couldn't finish reading the source novel, uses its setup to lampoon the idea of exceptionalism and a gung-ho culture that eschews compassion in favor of torture and wholesale destruction. Echoing the game advertised in “Total Recall,” soldiers cry “Nuke 'em!” They celebrate their victories against the oversize arachnids with fiddlin' and square-dancin' straight from the wholesome Americana playbook.

In contrast with “The Interview,” a juvenile comedy about an authoritarian regime whose profile was accidentally heightened by real-world politics, “Starship” takes on totalitarian propaganda fearlessly, to the point of replicating it. Even more than Verhoeven's previous sci-fi films, it demonstrates how the action-adventure genre depends on a nonporous split between us and them. The satire is at once broad and microscopic, the movie itself an example of the kind of film it's satirizing.

The 2000 feature “Hollow Man” similarly embodies the traits it skewers. On the one hand, the story of a creepy scientist (Kevin Bacon) who makes himself invisible would have been a major gift to the parodic minds at “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” had the show still been on the air when it was released. On the other, it's a pitch-perfect sendup of the artifice of certain sci-fi movie tropes — specifically, scientific hubris run so far amok that it enters the land of slasher flicks.

As in “Starship,” Verhoeven isn't creating rooting interests in his characters. Bacon's researcher is an animal experimenter with a lecherous frat-boy swagger, a rapist and killer whose penchant for fast-food sweets might be a setup for a failed Twinkie defense.

He and his team of scientists are not just unconvincing (“I lost cohesion again!”) but thoroughly unlikable. They're stand-ins for the slick storytelling clichés that have long been used to sell such unpalatable concepts as torture and murder in the name of so-called progress.

Verhoeven, who in the years since “Hollow Man” has been making films where he began, in Europe, has never been a garden-variety satirist. From the galaxy-hopping heroics of “Total Recall” to the tawdry camp of “Showgirls,” he doesn't sanitize his in-your-face themes with an artsy gloss, an intellectual filter or a sentimental hug.

Nine years before “The Matrix,” Schwarzenegger's Quaid was offered a red pill in “Total Recall,” a symbol of the “desire to return to reality.” In Verhoeven's vividly imagined sci-fi world, there is no blue pill.

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