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Summer of Schwarzenegger - "Total Recall" (1990)

(I realize this post is a few days late; life got in the way, and I'm rushing to get these last three flicks in the bag. Apologies and such.)

In 1990, we didn't really know Arnold could be a lead in a good sci-fi movie. He was in Terminator and all, but in that, he was a cold-blooded killer robot hellbent on murdering the protagonist. Not exactly "charming leading man" material. That all changed when Total Recall hit theaters.

Before we get into this, I have to ask: is everybody here familiar with Total Recall? The one that doesn't have with Colin Farrell, that is. That doesn't count. That's not actually Total Recall. It's a piece of shit.

I ask because, by the time that reboot came out, Total Recall was already around 22 years old, and a lot of people my age had no idea that it was an older movie. They just thought it was shiny, new summer blockbuster. But, in fact, it was yet another soulless reboot/adaptation that came out in 2012, demonstrating that Hollywood had basically run out of ideas that year. Well. Except for Django Unchained and Ted. Those were pretty cool.

Anyway. Total Recall. The original one. This was a pretty great flick, and one that's only gotten better with age, I'd argue. If you're out of the loop, it's about a construction worker named Douglas Quaid getting a memory transplant, hoping he can fool himself into thinking he's been on a secret agent adventure to Mars. That doesn't happen, though, and instead, the transplant reveals that he might have been a secret agent this whole time, and just had his memories forcibly repressed. He realizes his whole life is (probably) a lie, and jets on over to Mars to help liberate a populace who are being actively oppressed by a tyrannical dictator. Or does he?

See, the fun of Total Recall is not ever knowing if what you're watching is real or a figment of Quaid's imagination. That may sound like a bummer for somebody expecting a pure action film, but that's exactly what makes it such a good movie, I think. There are plenty of excellent action sequences and witty one-liners, and the whole atmosphere of the movie screams "adrenaline." But, the entire time, there's this recurring, sinister undertone that suggests maybe, just maybe, all of the excitement is fabricated. Almost like the movie is giving us what we want, and hiding the truth from us.

That veil is never lifted, either, so even when the movie ends, we're not sure if Quaid has been brainwashed or is genuinely a savior of an entire planet. It's up to the viewer to decide if that alien lady with three boobs is actually real or not.

Could you expect anything less from a pre-Showgirls Paul Verhoeven, though? This was the guy that not only gave us this and RoboCop, but a whole slew of provocative, stimulating flicks in his native Dutch language. Say what you will about some of his later stuff, but at this point in time, Verhoeven had proven himself to be seemingly incapable of making movies that weren't lined with some sort of deeper meaning. Even at his most fantastical, the guy's movies always made you think about something fairly heavy, for the most part. This was a different time, though, when Showgirls hadn't been made, and Hollow Man was just a faint twinkle in the Dutchman's eye. A simpler time. A better time.

But yeah, this is an action movie with a brain, a movie that plays with audience hopes and expectations for the entire duration of its runtime. And who better to lead us through such mindfuckery than the former Governator himself? Even surrounded by freakish mutants and bizarre new worlds, Arnold manages to still be an affable, believable protagonist. His earnest behavior coupled with his funny wisecracks make the whole "this could all be fake" pill a bit easier to swallow. Yeah, Quaid could be strapped to a table getting tortured and having his memory erased somewhere, but did you hear that "divorce" line? 


Maybe that's the point, though. By using somebody as likable as Arnold, Verhoeven might have been hoping to lure audiences into a false sense of security. So, while Quaid is getting brainwashed, we might be going through a similar process. We're seeing the same type of stuff we see in other big-budget action flicks, and that makes us more complicit in watching this man's mind get destroyed for almost two hours. Which makes it all the more amusing (or scary) that, while this was definitely a Verhoeven product, Arnold had complete creative control over the entire film thanks to a cheap buyout offer.

No, really. See, Total Recall is a very loose adaptation of the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Phillip K. Dick, and was in development hell for about a decade. Arnold got pulled into the project as it was getting canned, then convinced Carolco to buy the rights for three million bucks... and, oh yeah, to give him total control over the project. Everything, from director to script to casting, had to go through Arnold in order to be approved. This means that Arnold saw Robocop and said, "yeah, I want that guy to help me fuck with people's heads." And thus, Total Recall was born.

That also means that Arnold looked at the three-boobed woman and said, "ah, yes, this is something that needs to happen. This is important." That's the mark of a true visionary right there.

Regardless of who was in charge of what, or whether or not the movie is "real," though, Total Recall is one of the best Arnold movies. Actually, scratch that: it's one of the best movies made in the 90's, period. The mind-bending plot, coupled by a punchy script and some jaw-dropping practical effects, help it hold up by today's standards. Remember, this came a year before Terminator 2 would inspire filmmakers to be lazy and just use CG for most things. It's a reminder of how stuff used to be in Hollywood, and on top of that, it's just a damn good time.

Next time, Arnold goes back to school in Kindergarten Cop, which is one of the most misleading titles in the history of cinema!


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