There are three key ingredients you can find in Paul Verhoeven’s best films: excessive violence, gratuitous nudity, and biting social commentary. All of these items can be found in “Total Recall” whose plot based on a short story by the late author Philip K. Dick. This film which turned 20 this month, melds Verhoeven’s style with Philip K. Dick’s ability to craft compelling fiction to create a movie that is equal parts sci-fi and action adventure.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Doug Quaid, a lowly construction worker having repeat dreams of life on the Mars colony. What’s strange is that he does not understand his own gravitation toward the planet. After Quaid suggests that they take a vacation there, his wife (Sharon Stone) dismisses the idea as silly.
Doug refuses to give up on his plan, determined to get to Mars through any means possible. He decides to visit Recall, a business that specializes in the artificial implantation of memories. For a small fee they manufacture memories of anything you desire. Quaid’s plan is to purchase the memory of trip to Mars.
In the process of implanting the false memory however something goes horribly wrong. The technicians at Recall discover Quaid has been to Mars before and that someone has erased his memory. Afraid of the consequences, they sedate him and try to cover up his visit.
Unfortunately for Doug, his cover is blown and he is soon pursued by henchmen trying to kill him. The confused Quaid flees for his life from people he thought he could trust. A mysterious friend from his past shows up though with a care package to help him.
Quaid learns he is in fact an agent named Hauser, who was working to betray his boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the power hungry villain holding an iron grip on Mars’ precious resources. When he learns his true identity, Quaid heads straight to Mars, hoping to recover some of his lost memories. There are a number of dangerous obstacles in his path however, and enough times where the validity of his experience is brought into question.
“Total Recall” realistically creates a world set in the not-so-distant future that’s a violent place. Martial law rules the Mars colony where rebels are simply people fighting for basic rights like oxygen. Those slighted by Cohaagen in the past have suffered ugly physical mutations from exposure to contaminated air, which is sharply depicted by intense makeup. In the very same way Verhoeven does not hesitate to show this horrid mutation, he does not shy away from graphic violence, as Arnold kills his attackers gruesomely with a variety of improvised weapons.
Extreme violence combined with gratuitous nudity is an integral part of Verhoeven’s formula. Quaid’s safe haven on Mars, is its red light district inside a modern day saloon called the Last Resort, complete with prostitutes. One of the women here boldly opens her shirt to display her three “assets.”
The final piece in the puzzle in Verhoeven’s craft, is his social critique. In this world, the news media only shows one side of the story, painting Cohaagen as a respectable businessman despite his crimes. Aside from the media pushing propaganda, citizens in the Mars colony act like sheep. They mindlessly obey Cohaagen’s laws and they stand by while their fellow colonists are murdered. This leads to the most important question posed by the film: Who is more evil, the people committing the atrocities, or those sitting by doing nothing?
As a combination sci-fi action movie though, “Total Recall” has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, some stinging social satire, and plenty of bloody violence to keep you entertained. If you’re not interested by now you should at least watch it for Arnold’s fantastic one-liners like “See you at the pahty Ricktah!”