For anyone who’s ever suspected that psychotic fantasies lay behind many of the big 1980s action movies, the spectacular futuristic thriller “Total Recall” (citywide) offers tongue-in-cheek proof.
Here, possible psychosis is the movie’s mainspring. Is the major character, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid, really a malcontent construction worker obsessed with dreams of Mars and sleazy brunettes? Or is he “Hauser,” a turncoat secret agent, his memory erased by the all-powerful intergalactic “Agency”?
“Quaid,” who supposedly lives in a dull, metallic Earth city linked by huge TV screens and super-clean subways, is a nowhere man living a nowhere life. “Hauser,” missing link to a group of Martian revolutionaries, is the most important man in the solar system, a man everyone wants to find or kill.
Action-movie cliche or paranoia? The movie tends to keep us on the edge, trapped between these two possibilities. It’s a bit schizoid itself. Part of “Total Recall” is a typical Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, with the massively muscled hero racing through another hostile world, villains, explosions and bloodshed around every corner. And part of it is an ingenious and ribald probe into psychological terror, like director Paul Verhoeven’s earlier “The Fourth Man.” One moment, Schwarzenegger is ordinary guy Quaid strapped to an operating chair at Rekall Inc., where an imaginary Martian vacation is going to be harmlessly injected into his brain. The next moment, hell breaks dementedly loose.
Verhoeven, working from an often-rewritten screenplay distantly based on Philip K. Dick’s brilliant 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” keeps ringing these truth-or-illusion changes throughout the movie. And if they don’t always click, if the movie sometimes seems overwhelmed by its budget and its legendary third-act problems, it’s still entertainingly raw and brutal, full of whiplash pace and juicy exaggeration.
Midway through, “Total Recall” achieves its maximum intensity. An infuriatingly prissy psycho-babbler, Roy Brocksmith’s Dr. Edgemar, shows up suddenly in a Martian hotel, informs the beleaguered Quaid/Hauser that he’s in the throes of a “schizoid embolism” and asks him to pop a reality pill and wake up. This little rationalist--who looks a bit like a movie critic--asks which reality makes more sense: being a frustrated construction worker or an invincible super-spy? It’s a peak of crazy humor--and it gains its punch from the whole genre and its larger-than-life heroes: James Bond, Rambo, Schwarzenegger himself.
“Total Recall” will strike some audiences as too brutal or coarse-tempered, too obsessed with violence-for-violence’s sake. But that’s not its main problem. Verhoeven never shows freakishness or bloodshed out of sadism or callousness. Much of his talent lies in his willingness to go to extremes: to push the youth-sex movie to new frankness in “Turkish Delight,” scrape the urban underbelly in “Spetters,” make merry with mechanical mayhem in “RoboCop.” And when he goes too far, he knows it; coming from a Pentecostalist religious background, he often gives an impression of consciously violating taboo.
When “Total Recall” is at its most savage or excessive--as in the maniacal chases and the wild apocalyptic paroxysm of the climax--it’s at its best. It’s weaker on structure, overall coherence, the humorous or romantic interludes.
“RoboCop” was a wild nose-thumb, a definitive auto-critique of all the “new brutalist” techno-pop action movies of the mid-'80s. But “Total Recall,” though it has the same kind of anti-fascist overview, is only satiric occasionally--in its dumb-glossy newscasts, its absurdly gabby RoboCab driver, or in its Venusville brothel scene, with a triple-breasted prostitute and an atmosphere that suggests a kinked-up version of the “Star Wars” frontier bar.
The future-Earth urban environment doesn’t have the hip density of Ridley Scott’s L.A. in “Blade Runner” or Terry Gilliam’s London in “Brazil"--and Mars tends to be a red blur, full of lethal rabbit warrens. But the actors sometimes suggest an emerging Verhoeven stock company. Ronny Cox turns up again as a kind-eyed mogul with a heart of ice. Michael Ironside as Richter, the main thug, looks and acts something like “RoboCop’s” maniac, Kurtwood Smith. There are heroines here too--but Rachel Ticotin’s brunette rebel registers less strongly than Sharon Stone’s ambiguous blonde slut-wife.
In “Total Recall,” Schwarzenegger fills the role Rutger Hauer used to have in Verhoeven’s world; the movie exposes him more, makes him attractively vulnerable. Schwarzenegger became a star after he turned himself into a blocky muscle-mechanic in empty movies like “Predator” and “Commando.” But what attracted him to this movie may be its ultimate “loner” role. Quaid/Hauser is not only alienated from his environment; he’s never really sure if his environment exists .
It’s not an unmixed achievement. Occasionally we get the old brutal one-liners that his audience expects. Here, they fit neither character nor situation. And the script doesn’t keep Schwarzenegger’s identities straight. Characters who knew him on Mars call him “Quaid” when they should be calling him “Hauser.” (That’s not a minor quibble, since the story hinges crucially on the psychological distinctions between the two.)
All this may simply illustrate the difference between enlivening a $15-million movie and a $65-million one. Viewed as an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, “Total Recall” is a step forward, his best vehicle since “The Terminator.” Viewed as a Verhoeven movie, it’s a step back from “RoboCop.” It has the same velocity and ferocity, but not the same control, impudence or incandescence.
Split all the way through, “Total Recall” (rated R for nudity, sex, language and extreme violence) soars when it sends up its conventions, crashes a little when it accepts them. But Verhoeven devotees shouldn’t be perturbed. After all, look at “Dune.” And look at the movies David Lynch made after it.