My review of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, reprinted below, appeared in the Sunday Correspondent on 29th July 1990. My first thought when I heard there was a remake in the works was, “Already?” Yet of course Verhoeven’s film came out 22 years ago, an adult lifetime – plenty of time for millions of people to have come into the world and grown up unaware there even was an earlier version.
Try to think yourself back in my shoes when I wrote this. Verhoeven was known to English-speaking audiences only as the director of Robocop - his earlier films in Dutch had not been seen outside a few arthouses, and he had yet to make Basic Instinct (which supplied – in spades – the sex angle missing from his Hollywood science fiction films). Blade Runner, despite having been widely admired for its groundbreaking design, had not been a success on its initial release and in 1990 had yet to be critically reappraised, so Philip K Dick was not at this time a name familiar to mainstream audiences. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was still expanding his fan base; his next two films would be Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The other new films that same week in 1990 were Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (of which I wrote, “Woody in schizophrenic mode, trying to balance his wannabe Ingmar Bergman tendencies with his lovable schmuck act, and ending with two separate narratives which never get beyond nodding acquaintance of each other”) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (“We’ll be lucky if Brian DePalma’s film of The Bonfire of the Vanities turns out to be half as entertaining.”) It was not unusual in 1990 to have just three new releases in a week.
Where do we go from here? Total Recall (18) is the sickest, slickest, crunchiest blockbuster of the year. It is such a full-frontal assault on the senses that one can envisage a time – say, ten years from now – when films like this will be banned by the nanny-state as being too physically intense. This is Cinema, and it gave me one hell of a headache.
But it was only to be expected from a director like Paul “Mad Dutch” Verhoeven, whose oeuvre to date has not been characterised by excessive restraint. In the psychosexual field, at least, his American films, Total Recall and Robocop, are models of discretion compared with his European work, Spetters (gay gang-bang) and The Fourth Man (castration). But the man who in Flesh + Blood gave us bits of plague-ridden dog being lobbed over mediaeval battlements hasn’t lost his sense of humour.
In one scene of Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger grabs the bullet-riddled corpse of an innocent passer-by and uses it to shield himself from flying bullets. Verhoeven, sick puppy that he is, plays this as slapstick comedy; just be thankful he’s directing films and not walking the streets.
It doesn’t quite have the distinction of being the costliest release of the summer, but at a rumoured £80 million it’s up there with the current run of productions that are making Heaven’s Gate seem like a low-budget quickie. In its favour, though, is an unusually clever plot – not surprising since it was adapted from a story by Philip K Dick, whose sci-fi hinges more on metaphysical twist than hi-tech hardware.
But there’s plenty of hardware on view. The biggest chunk is Arnie himself, playing a construction worker haunted by dreams about Mars. A session at a travel agency – which specialises in implanting memories of holidays never taken – results in some scrambled brain cells, in the audience as well as Arnie, and the action never lets up: Mars, special effects, explosions.
It is interesting to note that in Total Recall, as in three of Schwarzenegger’s last four action pics, his leading lady is of non-Aryan origin; it is almost as if he were saying, “Supermensch, moi?” One could argue that he is miscast as a construction worker as opposed to a worker who has been constructed, though it takes someone of his muscle to get a film like this made in the first place. But with biceps like his, he will never be cast as Mr Average. Poor Arnie – will he ever be able to pass for human?
I could also have mentioned the annoying Johnnycabs, the excruciating scene in which Schwarzenegger has to extract a humungous tracking device out of his head via the nostril (which made me realise I was squeamish about noses), the presence of Sharon Stone (except it would be another two years before she would leap from B-movie support to A-list leg-crosser), the three-breasted hooker, the scene in which Arnie tries to pass through security disguised as a middle-aged woman, the bonkers special effects that now look adorably cartoonish, and full-blooded demonstrations of villainy from Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. But I didn’t – partly because of space restrictions, and partly because then, as now, I don’t see the point in writing a review which simply gives away all the surprises of a film.
There aren’t any surprises in Total Recall – the remake. A curiously self-effacing Colin Farrell barely fills Schwarzenegger’s boots; Kate Beckinsale plays the wife who is trying to kill him and Jessica Biel plays the rebel chick with whom he hooks up. Unlike the original film, in which the two women were easily differentiated blonde and brunette, Beckinsale and Biel look so similar with their eerie wrinkle-free faces that on several occasions I got their characters confused. The director is Len Wiseman; he’s married to Beckinsale, so her role is expanded from the original, and has added evil hair-tossing – in fact, she comes on so much like a unstoppable Schwarzenegger-style robot I kept expecting her to be unmasked as one. But no, it was just her unstoppable robot-style acting.
The set-up is slightly different in that Mars is no longer a feature, as it was in Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and Verhoeven’s adaptation. It seems to be GB (The United Federation of Great Britain) versus Australia (The Colony), with some rebels somewhere, though I got bored during the opening scroll explaining it all and inadvertently tuned out, so I can’t work out whether the incomprehensibility of the subsequent situation was due to that moment’s inattention or to the screenplay being gibberish. Either way, I didn’t care. Anyhow, the two territories are linked by a tunnel through the Earth’s Core, and the trip takes 17 minutes, with a weightless “gravity reversal” bit in the middle which you just know will feature in the Big Action Climax.
There’s decor like the decor in Blade Runner, but with Cyrillic instead of Chinese characters, and there are lots of robots which look like Star Wars stormtroopers, but mostly this is like a sweded version of Verhoeven’s original cobbled together by someone possessing an enormous budget and brilliant technical team but no imagination or sense of humour. There’s a three-breasted hooker, though without the mutation subplot it seems gratuitous. There’s a scene in which Farrell tries to pass in holographic disguise through a security barrier, where the film aims for misdirection, but only succeeds in exasperating you. There’s the bit where the hero grabs a corpse and uses it as a shield, but whereas in Verhoeven’s film it seemed outrageous, the shootouts here are so incontinently directed that you barely notice it. There’s the scene in which someone tries to persuade Farrell that he’s hallucinating everything and the only way for him to avoid terminal madness is to shoot the heroine, but it’s so dreary and drawn out you end up thinking, “Oh for heaven’s sake, just go ahead and shoot her, dammit!”
The action scenes are dumped on the screen, with topography and spatial relationships so higgledy-piggledy they become meaningless. This results in the most boring flying car chase ever, as well as a deeply perplexing climax involving people jumping, big things toppling and other big things exploding. There’s an impression of things happening, but you know they’re not really; it’s just hyperactive editing and the music pumping oh-so-hard, trying in vain to make things exciting.
Yet Total Recall‘s biggest failure is not so much its slavish, pointless copying as its joylessness. This is not a boy having fun with his giant train-set – it’s more like some spoilt kid going through the motions of having fun, just to demonstrate he’s got bigger and better toys than the rest of us, and his rich parents have paid audiences to watch. Except, of course, it’s the audiences who have paid. Oh, and also he’s got a hot wife – look, here she is in skintight leather, and here she is again. And again. Let’s hear it for Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale – probably the dullest screen couple in the history of cinema.