The Film Canon: Total Recall (1990)

total recall poster

When he was at the height of his power, there wasn’t a more enigmatic screen presence than Arnold Schwarzenegger. During the later portion of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Schwarzenegger became a household name and staple of the action genre. In a sense, he was the spiritual successor to John Wayne. What he lacked in acting range he made up for with sheer charisma and physical presence. In 1990, Schwarzenegger collaborated with Robocop director Paul Verhoeven to make Total Recall. Based on a short story by esteemed science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Total Recall is an incredibly entertaining film that stands out as one of the best films in Schwarzenegger’s canon.

Total Recall perfectly blends Schwarzenegger’s dynamic persona with Verhoeven’s distinct ability to mix effective action with tongue-in-cheek science fiction. Set in the year 2048, Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker named Douglas Quaid who is having peculiar dreams about Mars. After his dreams are dismissed by his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) as mere fantasies, Quaid opts to undergo a procedure at a company named “Rekall” which implants artificial memories as a substitute for a vacation. When implanted, the memories become as genuine to the individual as possible. Quaid specifically requests memories as a secret agent on Mars. However, something goes haywire during the procedure. It’s shown that Quaid may have actually been on Mars and his dreams are actually his suppressed memories of his old life resurfacing. With the apparent discovery that his current identity is a complete fabrication, Quaid journeys to Mars on a mission to uncover the truth behind his predicament.

The strength of Total Recall lies in its very conceit. It’s almost a futuristic take on something like The Manchurian Candidate or The Bourne Identity. Verhoeven and the screenwriters do an excellent job of providing some ambiguity throughout. It’s made to look as if his repressed memories are genuine given the appearance of Lori in one of his dreams attempting to snap him out of it. The owner of Rekall even tempts Schwarzenegger to take a pill he claims would wake him up. At the same time, Quaid finds himself entangled with a woman named Melina (Rachel Ticotin) who bears a near perfect resemblance to the woman in his dreams. Both female roles are rather underwritten, but their characters are never portrayed as weak or foolish.

Much like Robocop, the plot contains a good amount of social commentary but in a futuristic setting. Mars is in the midst of a revolutionary war between the industrial upper class lead by business dictator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and a group of repressed mutant rebels. Product placement and consumerism is also rampant throughout, ranging from Sony to Coca-Cola ads transplanted into the lavish backdrops. The social statements never feel out of place or overbearing because they’re complimented by visual spectacle and an overall sense of adventure.

Not only does Verhoeven successfully incorporate his trademark futuristic social commentary, but he also blends hyper stylized special effects with over the top violence. There are several sequences which go entirely overboard to the point of sheer absurdity. We see three breasted strippers, strange mutant hybrids, and even a scene demonstrating the decompressing effects of outer space on the human anatomy. The science behind these sequences is by no means meant to reflect actual physics so the absurdity never takes you out of the film. Besides, the film is much more of a fun action film than a science fiction film based on exploring philosophical concepts and ideology.

Every great action film needs a great villain. Total Recall boasts two but they’re broken up between the industrial business tycoon and their hired muscle. Ronny Cox brings the right amount of smug and egotism to the role of Cohaaagen albeit very much like his roles in Beverly Hills Cop and Robocop. I’m normally not a fan of actors who continuously play the same type of character, but Cox is an exception since he is again upstaged by the side villain. Lt. Richter (Michael Ironside) handles all the dirty deeds for Cohaagen but is provided extra incentive to take care of Quaid given he’s the man Lori’s heart truly belongs to. Cohaagen and Richter make for a great pairing of movie villains alongside other action film classics like Mad Max: The Road Warrior or Enter the Dragon.


While no one would mistake him for being a “great actor”, Schwarzenegger’s performance helps to sell the outlandish story of Total Recall. According to screenwriter Ronald Schusett, Schwarzenegger frequently requested lines to be rewritten because he claimed people would not believe him saying certain phrases. Quaid was originally written as an accountant type, but due to a lack of believably he was changed to a construction worker to compliment the casting of Schwarzenegger. Despite his imposing physique, Schwarzenegger does not portray Quaid as an invulnerable action behemoth a la Commando. We oftentimes see Quaid as either confused or overwhelmed by his surroundings. Of course, he’s not devoid of any of Schwarzenegger’s well known quips or ability to stack up quite the body count.

Although Total Recall is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story entitled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” it’s a loose adaptation at best. It lacks the profound thematic elements of Blade Runner (another Dick adaptation), but it’s definitely got more to it than the majority of other Schwarzenegger films. Schwarzenegger himself is not the prototypical hero of Dick’s stories. They’re frequently described as scrubby middle aged men who are feeling their aches and pains. For obvious reasons, Schwarzenegger doesn’t fit into that description. I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick, but I’m also not a book purist by any means. As a science fiction action adventure, Total Recall delivers as exactly that. It’s filled with fantastic futuristic imagery, trademark Verhoeven satire, and memorable Schwarzenegger antics and lines.




Exit mobile version