Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) remakes when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material.
No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as suggesting not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.
Quaid: Okay then, if I’m not me, who the hell am I?
On the one hand, the picture might have remained permanently locked in development hell had Arnie not swooped in and persuaded Carolco to buy the rights (from Dino De Laurentiis, who had previously rejected the Austrian Oak’s overtures to star, and had been producer of the project back when Cronenberg was involved). On the other, the entire conceit of the story, of an unassuming guy (an accountant) who turns out to be a secret agent, has to be flattened out, remoulded as an entirely capable man-mountain construction worker who turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a secret agent.
The baggage Arnie brings with him is that of a concrete, literal quality; there’s no room for introspection, for existential crisis. Even when Arnie’s Quaid doubts his reality, he behaves as if it’s solid, and Verhoeven, for all his pitch-perfect understanding of the line the movie needed to tread (“There are two realities and they are both true… As much as possible, we kept these two realities always alive”) brings a similarly visceral, bricks-and-mortar attitude to the picture stylistically (which is unsurprising, as he’s a director who revels in tits and intestines, rather than nebulous notions).
One needed only consider Cronenberg’s then-recent reality-twisting form (Videodrome) to get a fix on his likely approach, and the perfection of casting William Hurt or (even better) Richard Dreyfuss, anti-action stars if ever there were ones (previously, Bruce Beresford had been attached to the Shusett and Dan O’Bannon script, and names had included Patrick Swayze – I have a memory of Dennis Quaid also being attached at one point, hence the lead character’s name, but either this was apocryphal or its been Mandela’d).
What we get with the final Total Recall is a structure that deftly juggles the layers of reality involved, yet in translation rarely feels especially interested in them or the implications they hold; they’re a means to an action end.
Even the best scene, the celebrated appearance of Doctor Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) at Quaid’s door, explaining that he’s there to prevent Quaid from self-lobotomising – he has suffered a schizoid embolism while in the chair at Rekall, getting his holiday memory implant – is rather patly dealt with due to Quaid thinking with his trigger finger when a bead of sweat rolls down the doctor’s cheek. Edgemar’s “real world” nervousness “proves” nothing; as Verhoeven points out on the commentary track, Quaid could have created the sweat to keep himself in the dream. As a director, Verhoeven’s extremely astute, asserting that the audience is on Arnie’s side here, that “They don’t want a fake adventure story”; thus, the confines of a hugely expensive, superstar-headlining blockbuster limit the degree to which this concept can be explored (and Last Action Hero is evidence of what happens to your box office when you mess too much with audience expectations).
The actual structure of the scene is first class, however, with Quaid offered a placebo, its presence laying down the rules of existence whereby the mind dictates reality, a concept later appropriated by the Wachowskis in a movie that married these varying elements – philosophy, action and the nature of reality – far more deftly.
And as Verhoeven notes, everything Edgemar says will happen to Quaid does happen in the next twenty minutes or so. An interesting aside to this, though, is that, if the movie is all in Quaid’s mind (and the whiteout ending is Verhoeven offering confirmation of his lobotomisation, in contrast to the usual fade to black), then it’s replete with autonomous programmes operating independently, even when he isn’t present, Schrodinger’s Cat style (for example, Michael Ironside’s Richter dealing with the death of wife Lori, Sharon Stone).
In Total Recall, though, “A man is defined by his actions, not his memory”, which means punching, shooting, bone crunching and neck snapping. On that level, the clunkier plot elements seem very much the kind of thing you’d expect; why would the Mars dome be fashioned from breakable glass? How convenient is the alien terraforming tech being perfectly serviceable exactly when it’s needed? How ridiculously, torturously long are Quaid and Melina (Rachel Ticotin) suffocating on the planet surface while the atmosphere transforms around them? On another level, one can give those elements a free pass, if they’re conjured by a mind/false memory overlay playing fast and loose with logic. Existential crisis is forgone for: “This is the best mind fuck yet!”
If one is able to put aside the mismatch of star and material, Total Recall is still that relative rarity: an action blockbuster with a brain. It was even planned that a follow-up would follow suit, with the Quaid character earmarked to head up the PreCrime division in Minority Report, the psychics an offshoot of Mars mutants. I guess, under those circumstances, Quaid wouldn’t turn out to have been lobotomised at the end…
Reputedly, Gary Goldman, the third credited writer, was required to do the most significant amount of work on Total Recall’s third act (the Mars mutants were apparently Cronenberg’s addition, though). This occurred most notably in revealing that Quaid’s original persona Carl Hauser was always on the side of Governor Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), and that the memory wipe was an elaborate scenario to infiltrate and gain the trust of resistance leader Kuato, so wiping out the resistance. It’s a smart move, if a now familiar one (Amateur, The Bourne Identity, Unknown and Trance have all utilised some variant on the conceit that the amnesiac hero is/was actually a bad guy).
Dan O’Bannon evidently disagreed – something of a pattern, as he was as disparaging in his remarks over changes to Alien – commenting of his and Shusett’s collaboration “I sat down and wrote the third act at his request. Ronnie took it away and years passed while he ran around town doing deal-making. He finally got the picture financed, and the others now involved completely rewrote the third act into what I consider incoherence. So the first two acts are more or less Phil Dick and me, and the last act is Ronnie Shusett. As I watch the movie, everything it’s been building up to in the last twenty minutes or more just crumbles into chaos”. Certainly, the terraforming insert only works if this is all in Quaid’s head. So on that score, Verhoeven couldn’t maintain the balance of is it/isn’t until the end. Nevertheless, O’Bannon’s preferred ending sounds really bad.
Aside from the Hauser reveal, though, the third act hasn’t much else to offer, burdened with the aforementioned daft – even as a figment of its protagonist’s imagination – terraforming climax. I don’t think Verhoeven ever fully got to grips with his depiction of Mars; I’m not sure he’s a world builder the way say Ridley Scott is (was in the 1970s and 1980s), which you only really notice in his science fiction efforts (where everything is conspicuously spartan). The interior sets only ever feel like sets, and there’s an ungainliness to much of the concept design and staging; it’s almost as if the action is modelled on its anomalous-looking star and proceeds accordingly.
In Robocop, that approach reaped stylistic dividends, but here, the results are often clunky. We’re treated to the Dutchman’s requisite gore (in particular, a human shield on an escalator and Richter losing his arms) and lasciviousness (the three-breasted hooker), but it feels less germane than in Robocop. Particularly so, when accompanied by Arnie’s quipping (“Consider that a divorce” being the cheerfully misogynist high/low point). There are many good ideas in Total Recall (such as air becoming the ultimate commodity), but Verhoeven’s undifferentiated take on the material leaves many of them all but unnoticed (there’s also that it simply isn’t nearly as witty as his previous pic).
Harry: A friend of mine tried one of their special offers. Nearly got himself lobotomised. Don’t fuck with your brain, pal.
Another issue is that, besides Sharon Stone in her breakout role as Lori, few of the cast make the right kind of impression. More specifically, Ironside and Cox trot out tediously familiar villainous turns, the latter being a particularly lazy bit of typecasting on the director’s part, since Coohagen is less memorable in every respect than Dick Jones in Robocop. Still, it’s fun watching the movie imagining Wallace Shawn delivering Cohaagen’s lines.
Also in the ranks: an unrecognisable Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) plays mutant Tony (he’s the one treated to an insensitive “Look who’s talking” quip from Arnie after Quaid is told “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around here”).
Priscilla Allen is an unsung standout as fat lady Arnie, a scene that was the centrepiece of the trailer since the effects were so state-of-the-art, despite using a very obviously animatronic Arnie head. The only problem with this sequence is that it feels too abrupt, that we should have seen something of her before this; really, it would have been an ideal suspense scene where we already know this is a disguise and that it’s on the fritz, so Quaid needs to get through customs quickly; it’s possible that the preceding, cut (for budget reasons) spaceship sequence provided more of a lead in.
As it is, Allen herself is the best effect in the scene, in the same way Robert Picardo is the best effect in the Cowboy transformation in Innerspace; Picardo can also be heard here, in his first blockbuster of summer 1990, as Johnny Cab; two weeks later, he’d have a more visible role in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Also on the Innerspace digression, Jerry Goldmsith’s use of electronica for that movie isn’t so very far from his score here, albeit with a bit more Pouledoris-style muscle to it.
Stone deserves every bit of credit for her performance. Not unlike Charlize Theron in Prometheus, she completely overshadows the actual female lead; Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell isn’t as much fun as a role, but it’s easy to see why Verhoeven thought of her, the characters sharing a switching-on-and-off of charm and maximum use of wiles.
Notably, the commentary track goes a bit boy’s club when she’s discussed, with Verhoeven saying he wanted Stone to show more flesh in the bedroom scene (but then admits it’s probably better that she didn’t, as it isn’t that kind of movie) and Arnie drooling “How many days do you get to wake up with Sharon Stone?” (generally, he’s a fairly redundant contributor, more into describing what’s happening than anecdotalising, so it’s fortunate Verhoeven was also there).
As Verhoeven points out, the mire of weirdness enveloping our hero – receiving messages from someone he doesn’t know referring to him by another name, so sending him on an all new course – is essential Philip K Dick. And yet, most of this is exhausted in the first half of the picture. There’s no argument that Total Recall is vastly superior to the remake, but I count the failure of the second version as a real missed opportunity to aim for the movie Cronenberg didn’t make, the full-bore “mind fuck”, rather than a vanilla version of the Arnie movie with no humour and an even sillier plot.
The 1990 picture was, of course, a huge hit. Which is just as well, as it cost a huge amount (even filmed more cheaply in Mexico, it had constant limitations imposed on the budget throughout production). Which cost more, it or Die Hard 2, is moot, but they were the most expensive (unadjusted) of their eras at the time. Whether its gross is all that remarkable is therefore questionable, since it made only just over half the amount of the biggest global hit of the year, Ghost. Nevertheless, it cemented Arnie’s titan status – along with Kindergarten Cop at the end of the year – and made Verhoeven bankable for a brief spell.
It was certainly the flashiest looking feature of that summer, which had hits going back to the well (Back to the Future Part III, Die Hard 2) and not so much (The Exorcist III, Another 48Hrs, the masterpiece that is Gremlins 2), misfiring and expensive attempts at another Batman (Dick Tracy) and Harrison Ford being serious (Presumed Innocent). Oh, and Tom Cruise trying for Top Gun in a racing car to relative indifference (Days of Thunder).
It’s understandable that there’s a lot of nostalgia for Total Recall as one of the best blockbusters of its era and one of Arnie’s best full stop, but I felt there was something missing even at the time, and it wasn’t just the weight of expectations. Robocop had blown me away, The Terminator too, but put the respective director and star together and it wasn’t quite an unqualified recipe for success. Robocop had heart (and guts). Total Recall had a brain, but first and foremost was the lavish spectacle.