“Total Recall” is a 1990 futuristic actioner about Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an Everyman construction worker on Earth who begins to think he’s a super secret agent for a government agency on the (recently colonized) planet of Mars. Quaid’s problems arise when his obsession with Mars takes him to a place that specializes in “memory implants” — that is, fake memories inserted into a person’s brain. It’s like a vacation without ever having to physically go there.
But it seems Quaid is not who he thinks he is, and soon his wife has turned against him and sinister men with guns are trying to kill him. Besides running for his life, Quaid discovers that he’s a one-man killing machine! His only hope for survival is finding out who he really is, and what he was meant to do — or was prevented to do. Or is it all just a memory implant meant to trick him into giving up freedom fighters on Mars? Or maybe everything is part of the memory implant he bought in the first place? Needless to say, Douglas Quaid is having a very bad life — if it’s actually his life in the first place!
The best thing about “Total Recall” is its (purposeful) inability to decide rather its scenarios are taking place in Quaid’s head or are all real. The movie continuously plays with the “is it real or is it all in his head?” game from beginning to end, and it was fun to try to guess along, only to be wrong as a new revelation appears. The confusion over reality or fiction makes “Total Recall” one of the most intelligent films the big S (“Eraser”) has done in his career, including the “Terminator” films.
Despite the army of writers credited in the sidebar, the movie is very coherent and easily understandable, and its question of “real or fake” is never jumbled. Director Verhoeven (“Starship Troopers”) keeps a steady hand throughout the film’s narrative, managing all the clues and hints with skill.
According to a very rare commentary by star Arnold Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven, the original script was intended for an actor of smaller stature (re: not as muscular as Arnold). The presence of Arnold, though, gives the film a more action vibe, which might unintentionally make the film seem less intelligent than it actually is. The look of the film is futuristic, but most of the sci-fi aesthetics are done courtesy of props, sets and matte paintings, not the cgi worlds that overwhelm films like “Attack of the Clones.” All of this gives the film a more realistic vibe, even if the action taking place onscreen is anything but.
A few years before she became famous for the beaver shot, Sharon Stone co-stars in “Total Recall” as Lori, Quaid’s fake wife, herself an agent sent to keep Quaid in line in his new life. The other woman in Quaid’s life is Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a prostitute (or is she?) on Mars who is more than she seems. Ticotin (“Falling Down”), though not stunningly beautiful, is attractive and sells her action very well, in particular a great hand-to-hand fight with Stone’s Lori in a hotel. Michael Ironside (“V: The Final Battle”) proves again that he plays a great villain, and his character is entertaining as he menaces Arnold’s Quaid throughout the film.
What you have here is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films to date. Like all Arnold films, the special effects were state-of-the-art at the time, and the action is relentless. Besides that, the film is smart, clever, and provides Arnold with another great one-liner: “Consider this a divorce!”
Paul Verhoeven (director)
CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger …. Douglas Quaid
Rachel Ticotin …. Melina
Sharon Stone …. Lori
Ronny Cox …. Vilos Cohaagen
Michael Ironside …. Richter