Following the relatively lukewarm reception of 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’, it was a further eight years until another Philip K. Dick story was adapted for the big screen. As Ridley Scott’s opus was still to undergo a serious critical reappraisal with the release of 1992’s ‘Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut’, the door for more from the master of sci-fi was wide open, only to be blown off its hinges with 1990’s uncompromising sci-fi thriller, ‘Total Recall’.
The script, an adaptation of Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ (1968) had been in development for several years. With original writers Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusset (Alien) scratching their heads over how to turn Dick’s clever yet underdeveloped concept into a feature length story, it took the impressive box office clout of Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven to get the project moving.
Pitched as “‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ goes to Mars”, the screenplay wisely keeps Dick’s initial scenes involving a false memory implant going horribly awry, ditches the talking mice (really) and instead ramps the action up to eleven. This is sci-fi cinema writ large, intelligently conceived, but with plenty of Arnie’s trademark mixture of humour and violence, through the prism of Verhoeven’s own penchants for sex, gore and satire. If ever there was a thinking man’s Arnie movie, this is surely it.
Played a breathless chase, it follows everyman Doug Quaid, who finds himself on the run from corrupt Mars agents, surviving through a combination of wits, wisecracks and broken bones. Fleeing from Earth to the seedy underground colonies of Mars, our hero is embroiled in a planetary conspiracy involving mutants, alien technology and false memories, all the while wondering if these events are real or simply a delusion.
While impressive enough as a sci-fi action thriller, this final unresolved question sets the film apart. As well as impressively homaging favourites such as ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Star Wars’, the film’s influence on the future of the genre is undeniable. One scene in particular, in which Quaid is urged by a mysterious figure to take a little red pill and return to reality, surely had the Wachowski brothers taking some serious notes.
The film is endlessly re-watchable, and yet arriving as it did on the cusp of the CGI boom, ushered in by 1991’s ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’, it is also undeniably a product of an older school of filmmaking. While the future world is impressively detailed, with some impressive future tech, such as Sharon Stone’s ‘Wii’ tennis game, there is a reliance on miniatures, prosthetics and matte paintings which in certain scenes now seems rather quaint alongside the slick visuals of ‘The Matrix’ and dare I say, the ‘Star Wars’ prequels.
If a little unbelievable as an everyman, Arnie’s charisma is undeniable, and it is apparent that every member of the production was at the height of their powers. As well as an impressive pedigree behind the scenes, including composer Jerry Goldsmith, the supporting cast list is also top notch. Not only has Sharon Stone never been better, but genre favourite Michael Ironside ‘disarms’ us with his villainous antagonist Richter and a couple of ‘Star Trek’ alumni also make amusing cameos in the shape of Mark Alaimo of DS9 fame and Robert Picardo of ‘Voyager’ er... infamy. The stand out performance though is Mel Johnson Jr. as cab driver, sidekick and struggling father of four/five Benny, who is endlessly quotable right up until the point he literally attempts to screw over Arnie. Bad mistake.
‘Total Recall’, while a completely different beast from the more thoughtful ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) and ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ (2010) is equally original and intriguing in its treatment of Dick’s themes. Recently given the sequel treatment in a four issue mini-series from the ever impressive Dynamite Comics, and even due for a remake next year, this film’s legacy is also undeniable. One can’t help but wonder though, what the old man himself would make of Verhoeven’s take on his universe. If nothing else, he might have enjoyed his share of the impressive box office receipts. So my advice - Get your ass to Mars, for the memory of a lifetime!
Robert Barton-Ancliffe would like to thank his old work colleague, alias McSmythe, who kindly lent him his DVD copy of Total Recall. FIVE YEARS AGO. Welcome to the Layer Cake son.