Now that it's been checked off on Hollywood's "To Be Remade" list, it's a good time to look back at Total Recall. An inorganic combination of opposing elements - the bulk of Schwarzenegger added to the satire of director Paul Verhoeven added to the sci-fi style of writer Dan O'Bannon - Total Recall has the potential to be both a jumbled mess and a unique triumph. I, like many, believe the film fits clearly into the second category, partially because I'm all for what my father would call "amazing new combinations".
First off, there's the Schwarzenegger aspect of the film, which is basically the elephant-in-the-middle-of-the-room for a lot of people. They fail to mind the fact that he starred in 3-4 of the greatest science fiction films ever made (NOT debatable, this is a FACT in my world), they get caught on his lack of diction and ridiculously serious face and the fact that he can't really...what's the word...oh yeah, ACT. I - obviously - think those people are completely crazy.
I'm not going to argue the finer points of the art of Schwarzeneggerisms. Yes, the guy has an accent thicker than bank vaults and yes, he walks into every single room the same way and does this weird look around thing that's exactly the same in every single movie. But there is something amazing that Schwarzenegger brings to science fiction, primarily because his physique and personality seems custom made for a world in which reality isn't reality. The guy's a perfect future hero (also perfect robo-warrior and perfect ancient battler, but those are different stories), because he can play doofus while still looking like an unnatural beast. For example, there's the moment where he tries to explain the whole Quaid vs. Hauser thing to Melina after he meets her on Mars, where the big lug just seems to be a complete everydude. But he's also got that whole looking suspicious like he's a future spy down well too, so it all comes together. The fact of the matter is, this film doesn't work without Schwarzenegger in the role. He's too perfect for what Quaid/Hauser is in a future society - especially when there's a disconnect between dream and reality.
It's no coincidence that many of the supporting characters in the film skew to opposite ends of the reality spectrum. Sharon Stone's work as Quaid's "wife" is certainly perfect for the manufactured parts of the plot, because someone who acts, looks, and fights like her is probably either a secret sex agent or part of an elaborate dream sequence. The same can be said for the villainous characters, led by Michael Ironside's leather jacketed pursuer and Ronny Cox' slimy politician, as these characters' actions sway the film toward the conspiracy/reality idea. On the other hand, characters that are involved in the Recall side of things - like the doctor/intervention agent played by Roy Brocksmith in the film's most ambiguous scene and the other doctors of Rekall who seem right out of a Beverly Hills stereotype. These characters sell the scientific/not reality aspect of the film, and much of the fun that the film offers comes from trying to find out what each person means to the question at hand - even on repeat viewings.
We don't get a ton of the sly satire Verhoeven is known for - the stuff that made Robocop and Starship Troopers so memorable at times - but Total Recall still manages to show the director's focus on how the media has an effect on the characters' journeys. It is a television commercial that seals the deal for Quaid and his trip to Rekall, and most of the characters who aren't Quaid/Hauser or Melina spend most of the movie trying to convince Quaid to conform to the kind of life that society wants for him. Like Robocop before, the director paints a line between those who want power and the people who want good old-fashioned justice. Both Quaid and Robocop would be perfect for an old High Noon style western, and it's clear Verhoeven's take on the future includes a disconnect between the past and the future that seemed imminent in the late '80s.
Speaking of the future, we also get Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett's vision of the future from a script standpoint, which allows for plenty of gadgetry and another showdown between old and new. Like most great sci-fi writers, there are plenty of little twists thrown in - like televisions on the train and x-ray machines for detecting guns - that seem not at all futuristic these days. But part of the charm of Total Recall, again like other great sci-fi works, is that changes to technology are handled with ease (the difficulty of traveling between planets is an absolute afterthought in the film) while past technologies (i.e. - guns, drills, flannel shirts) are kept around because they're useful. The writers - following in the footsteps of the great Philip K. Dick - are having a lot of fun creating this reality.
Well, I guess I shouldn't get too caught up in reality - the interpretation of what Total Recall actually is is entirely up to you - but the point remains that the universe(s) created in Total Recall work on plenty of levels. This conjunction between the star, director, and writers (leading all the way back to Dick's short story) makes Total Recall a versatile film that works as an action spectacle, as a statement on society, and as a tale of the future. Don't underestimate the combination of elements at work here - I think they come together perfectly.