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Total Recall

I’m out of town this weekend, so I’ll be taking a break from reviewing new releases. Just imagine my disappointment to be missing out on such fine entertainment as the 21 Jump Street remake. Still, at least the 8-hour car ride gives me a chance to clear a couple of DVDs out of my queue.

Eenie-meenie-miney-mo… Total Recall it is!

No, I haven’t seen Total Recall before, but I could guess a few things just from the talent involved. For example, since this is a Paul Verhoeven movie, this will probably be action-packed and loaded with great VFX, but also with some very biting social satire. Also, because this is a Schwarzenegger movie, I should probably turn on the subtitles before hitting “play.”

Speaking of which, I personally think that casting Schwarzenegger was a bad move. I can certainly understand it though, make no mistake. He’s always an entertaining presence and he was the go-to guy for every action star role back then. That said, our protagonist is a secret agent who was mind-wiped into thinking he was just another guy. Now look at Schwarzenegger. Does he look or act anything like “just another guy?” Does he even have the ability to look or act like “just another guy?”

Of course, maybe this is just a subtle layer of absurdity, like the ruse was never going to last long and those responsible were idiots for trying in the first place. That said, I still would have preferred an actor who can play an everyman. That way, when Douglas Quaid suddenly displays the ability to kill in cold blood, it would have been much more shocking.

Incidentally, Colin Farrell was cast in the Quaid role for the remake coming out this August. He’s a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned, though he’s still a long way from what I’m talking about. John Cho is also in the remake’s cast, and he’s much closer to what I have in mind. He has that sort of unassuming look, though he’s shown some impressive action chops in the past. But I digress.

It’s worth reiterating that Schwarzenegger in his prime is always enjoyable to watch, and this movie is no exception. The swagger, machismo, great one-liners, and unintentionally hilarious acting are all here to great effect. I guess what I’m saying is that Schwarzenegger works perfectly well in Verhoeven’s movie, he’s just not who I would’ve picked. And that’s probably why Verhoeven is a blockbuster filmmaker and I’m just some guy with a blog.

Anyway, Quaid’s love interest is played by Rachel Ticotin, and I quickly found myself wondering who this woman was and where she went to in the years since. Sharon Stone also puts in an appearance, kicking ass and looking damn fine doing it. Oh, and Michael Ironside also plays a villain. Need I say more?

Then of course we have the production design. The sets, vehicles, and props are all brilliantly realized, though it’s always hard to look at “futuristic” computers according to a few decades ago without blanching a little. Likewise, quite a few of the blue screen shots haven’t aged very well. That said, there are some beautiful matte paintings to be seen here, and the practical effects are brilliant throughout.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the effects in this film are being used to create things that aren’t remotely accurate from a scientific viewpoint. For example, there’s a brilliant matte painting that depicts ice on Mars. Yes, the entire core of the fourth planet is made of ice. Wrap your head around that one. Speaking of which, a huge plot point in the movie is that Mars doesn’t have an atmosphere. In the film, the environment of Mars is presented as a vacuum much in the way space is. Reality check: Though Mars does have a much thinner atmosphere than that of Earth, it definitely has an atmosphere nonetheless. I should also add that Mars’ atmosphere is mostly made of carbon dioxide, so generating breathable air should be easily done through the careful cultivation and use of plants. So there goes the scarcity of air that was so vital to the plot.

Getting back to the effects, the movie features psychic mutants. Psychic mutants. Residents of Mars and their children are being horribly mutated by the effects of cosmic rays, and these disfigurements grant them psychic powers. Now we’re getting into comic book science. Still, this was one of many times when I found myself willing to suspend disbelief simply because the concept was executed that damn well. The mutants — particularly the infamous Kuato — were all brought to disturbing life in such a creative and effective way that who cares if the science is non-existent? Sure, it’s bullshit, but the film earns a pass on it.

I’ll give you another example. There’s a point in the climax when Quaid is restrained. His arms and legs are locked down tight in some heavy-duty clamps. And Quaid gets out of his spot by breaking one of the clamps. He just busts that not-fucking-around clamp right off the wall. It’s total bullshit, and I frankly wish that the screenwriter had thought of some better way out of the predicament. And yet it works. Why? Well, first of all, this is Schwarzenegger, and we’ve come to expect superhuman feats from a Schwarzenegger hero. For another thing, it leads to Arnie kicking a whole ton of ass, which (as I’ve stated before) is always fun to watch. And really, that’s the movie in a nutshell. In fact, that’s Verhoeven’s approach to filmmaking in a nutshell.

Verhoeven is easily among cinema’s great masters of filmmaking excess. He doesn’t just make films that are superficial, campy, and excessive. He clearly knows that his movies are superficial, campy, and excessive; and he wants you to know that he knows it. But more than that, it’s obvious at all times that the excess is merely a means to an end. The action, the one-liners, the comedy, and the effects are all so much sugar to coat the satire and the plot holes. As such, Verhoeven’s films have a very unique quality in that they appeal equally to film snobs and mainstream viewers.

For example, let’s get back to Total Recall. Yes, the movie has a ton of plot holes and bad science, all of which can be brushed aside because the proceedings are so campy and fun. But there’s a second option. All throughout the movie, there are several little hints that everything after the first act is just an illusion. It’s entirely possible that every single logical fault in the film’s narrative was simply programmed in by someone or other at the Rekall company. It’s a very intriguing possibility, and a problem with enough evidence on both sides that it could easily be a subject for debate among hardcore fans of the film.

Even though the movie has a lot to say about domestic terrorism, martial law, living under a corporate-run government, etc., it’s the part about subjective reality (a hallmark of Philip K. Dick, whose work inspired this film) that I consider to be the movie’s juiciest thematic meat. It’s all about taking a good hard look at the consequences of technology we’re only just beginning to understand, which is something that good science fiction is supposed to do.

However, for those who don’t want to engage Total Recall on an intellectual level, it’s still a very good movie. Take away all the post-modern ruminations on epistemology and the subjective nature of reality, and you’re still left with a great amount of campy action and sterling production design. The cast also brings a great amount of kitsch to the proceedings, as any cast with Schwarzenegger and Michael Ironside most assuredly would.

It’s a crazy little movie that’s a lot of fun to watch. See it if you haven’t already.

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