To put it lightly (extremely lightly), things are not good. Fires and riots rage across the U.S. as the public once again fights yet another unnecessary murder at the hands of the police. Millions are out of work and hundreds of thousands have died as a result of COVID-19. Society is split between approaches to containment and many of our leaders offer little in the way of substantiated hope. Activities and places that once offered solace and entertainment now sit vacant and postponed out of necessity. With the sheer enormity of chaos swirling around us all, films offer comfort, distraction and inspiration to many (including myself). Movies have a particular power to motivate, contextualize and hold a mirror up to society in unique and interesting ways. Today, more than ever, Total Recall is one of those movies.
Tagline: They stole his mind, now he wants it back.
Construction worker Douglas Quaid discovers a memory chip in his brain during a virtual-reality trip. He also finds that his past has been invented to conceal a plot of planetary domination. Soon, he’s off to Mars to find out who he is and who planted the chip.
In the summer of 1990, director Paul Verhoeven returned to the big screen with his latest offering to the sci-fi gods, Total Recall. Following up 1987’s hugely successful RoboCop, expectations were high for his latest futuristic adventure. Capitalizing on 80s genre tropes, techniques and Schwarzenegger’s star power, Verhoeven cherry-picked applicable filmmaking highlights of the past decade while staring straight ahead. Embracing these facets while merging them with evolving digital technology, a much larger budget and his own creative identity, Total Recall became a pivotal film in early 90s cinema and Verhoeven’s personal career.
” Movies have a particular power to motivate, contextualize and hold a mirror up to society […] Total Recall is one of those movies.”
Visually, the special effects in Total Recall still offer audiences an upgraded, yet familiar landscape that captivate with their stellar execution. Sonically, the sounds of Jerry Goldsmith’s score fill movie goers with adventure, excitement and emotion. But when it comes to the film’s story, its dialogue and Schwarzenegger’s lead performance, the true strength of Total Recall reveals itself. Once again blending sci-fi, social commentary, humor and deep philosophical conversations regarding individual identity, Verhoeven navigates this rocky landscape in a powerful and extremely relevant way.
When we first meet Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), he is an ordinary construction worker, with an ordinary life and a less than ordinary wife (Sharon Stone). His life is fine. His life is comfortable, but he finds himself literally dreaming of more. Quaid feels unsettled and restless in his comfort and harbors a deep seated feeling that he was meant for more. While watching the morning news over breakfast, Quaid expresses his feelings to his wife Lori who dismisses them by saying, “No wonder you’re having nightmares. You’re always watching the news.”
Although it’s hard to imagine Schwarzenegger as an average Joe, he does a remarkable job at exhibiting the vulnerability and internal struggle that so many of us feel. Especially in times like these, news broadcasters deliver hit after hit leaving many of us to feel hopeless, helpless and distressed. Some, like Lori, simply advocate for denial and distraction. While others, like Quaid, simply can’t ignore their feelings. In an effort to explore his recurring dreams of Mars and the mysterious brunette, Quaid visits the memory makers at Rekall. Promising the memories of a lifetime, so synthetically real they become real, Quaid attempts to utilize Rekall‘s product to investigate in the safety of a controlled environment.
Originally created by writer Philip K. Dick in his short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the idea of Rekall and its interpretation of reality becomes more and more relevant as time goes on. In our hyper saturated world of social media, Zoom meetings, VR, algorithms and the 24 hour news cycle, manufactured reality and identity is becoming well, the new reality. If one truly believes something is real, regardless of whether it is or not, does it not at some level become real? Exploring philosophical ideas like this was certainly not foreign to Verhoeven and it’s territory he is adept at navigating. Through Quaid and Dick’s story, Verhoeven allows us to walk alongside our main protagonist while using our own personal feelings as a baseline. When faced with the choice, the urge, the desire to be and do more, how will you respond? When does the power of an imperfect, true experience overpower the perfection of synthesized one? At what point will you be called into real, tangible action?
For Quaid, that call to action comes in the form of a schizoid embolism. When the technicians at Rekall attempt to implant Quaid with his super spy Mars experience, his brain reacts strongly and violently. This response becomes initiated due to the fact that Quaid has unknowingly already become host to a synthetic memory implant. Soon, Quaid discovers that his life, his identity is all a fabricated reality courtesy of his previous employer, Mars business tycoon Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Quaid is actually not Quaid at all; Quaid is Hauser. An ex-Cohaagen employee with questionable morality, motivations and a brain full of secret information.
“Even after discovering the dark truth behind his own past, Quaid refuses to let that define him.”
Along with confronting the reality of Lori, Richter (Michael Ironside), Mars and Melina (Rachel Ticotin), Quaid also finds himself confronting his own truth. When faced with the cold hard facts, Quaid is forced to make a decision. Take the red pill (years before The Matrix existed) and return to his synthetic, yet comfortable life, or fight and face the consequences. Adding insult to injury, Quaid further learns that Hauser (aka himself) was not a good dude. Hauser willfully worked for a corrupt and awful employer who was willing to exploit and abuse those who depended on him. Hauser was willing to not only sell out those who trusted him, but his very own self as well. Betrayal doesn’t come more personal than that.
For many, the predicaments that Quaid finds himself in throughout Total Recall are more familiar than ever. In a world of parent companies, corporate greed, PR and carefully disseminated information, professional and personal identity can often find themselves at odds. The struggle to balance one’s personal moral compass with that of an employer can prove to be a rather daunting task. Whether consciously or not, many of us, like Quaid, may find themselves inadvertently playing for the wrong team. However, there is always a tipping point. A defining moment of self actualization where information and intuition meet. When you hear the crunch, you’re there.
Every step of the way, the Quaid we come to know throughout Total Recall fights to stay true to himself. When he learns of Cohaagen‘s fiendish control over Mars’ resources, he objects. When he sees the unjust treatment of many Mars residents, he joins in their fight. When Kuato begs him to start the hidden Mars reactor with his very last breath, Quaid does everything in his power to fulfill his request. Even after discovering the dark truth behind his own past, Quaid refuses to let that define him. Rather than betray his inner self once more, Quaid fights. Leaving his less than desirable history in the red Mars dust, Quaid seizes the opportunity to redefine his behavior and personal trajectory. Like Quaid, our past does not define our future.
In Total Recall, the most beautiful and awe inspiring elements of filmmaking are on full display. We can lose ourselves in the fun of Quaid‘s one-liners and dramatic facial expressions. Yes, it takes liberties with the science and fabricated technology, but the special effects and practical magic beautifully captivate and induce joy. Expertly executed twists and turns of story leave just enough room for interpretation to inspire heated debates and bombastic conspiracy theories. Fantasy and reality blend in the strong cocktails, colorful patrons and neon light of the Last Resort. There are so many incredible aspects of Total Recall, but Quaid’s story remains timeless, treasured and especially poignant at this very moment in time.
“When faced with the choice, the urge, the desire to be and do more, how will you respond?”
Today, when Cohaagen cuts the supply of Mars’ air to one of it’s most disenfranchised sectors, it hits differently. As Quaid begs Cohaagen to let the citizens of Venusville breathe, one can’t help but hear the echo of George Floyd’s voice. Thirty years after its release, it’s fascinating and truly incredible how relevant and powerful Total Recall remains. Through Quaid, we’re told that no matter how murky, questionable or directionless one’s past may be, there is always an opportunity for redirection, course correction and action. While there are innumerable aspects that solidify Total Recall as a film classic, Quaid‘s legacy and struggle to find his true self is perhaps its strongest. Adversity, injustice, violence and difficulty are certainly nothing new, but it is how one reacts to these situations that ultimately defines oneself. No matter where you are now at this very moment, let it be Mars, the streets of Minneapolis, or your very own living room, your future is not set in stone. The future is now. The future is malleable. And tomorrow is a new day. Perhaps Kuato himself said it best when he uttered, “You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.” As far as film legacies go, that’s not such a bad one to have.
What are your favorite aspects of Total Recall? Have a favorite one-liner? Let us know over on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook page!