Total Recall

Total Recall. Carolco Pictures 1990.
Total Recall. Carolco Pictures 1990.

Before watching the movie:

Why is it that Hollywood seems to like Phillip K. Dick more than any other SF writer? Off the top of my head, there’s Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Looking it up, I was surprised to learn that the recent The Adjustment Bureau is another adaptation of his, as well as almost as many more I hadn’t even heard of, including two television series.

I recall the short story this is based on “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” as a cerebral thriller, while this movie seems to be positioned as an action-packed blockbuster. To be fair, I can certainly see the room to open up the plot with action sequences.

I feel like this is one of those movies that if it wasn’t rated R I would have seen it ages ago. It came out only two years after I was born and its staying power has only been diminished by having a recent remake. If I’d been 17 in the 90s, I probably would have been invited to watch it with someone before the decade ended, or been invested enough to make the effort myself. However, in the last ten years it’s just been on a shelf or digital shelf somewhere, with no particular reason to make “I’ll watch it someday” into “I’ll watch it now”, until well, now.

After watching the movie:

Douglas Quaid dreams of Mars. By day, he has a loving wife and a decent construction job, but at night he has dreams of a mysterious brunette on Mars, which causes him to be less satisfied with his life. He can’t talk his wife Lori into vacationing on Mars, so he goes to a memory-implantation company and buys a fake two-week trip as a secret agent. Problem is, the sequence triggers hidden memories of a life where he really was a secret agent on Mars, and “Douglas Quaid” is the persona implanted in him as his cover when he learned things and switched sides. Even though he doesn’t remember it himself, now that the secret is exposed, the people who hid him on Earth rule him a liability and are out to capture or kill him. The possibility to unlock what his former self knew lies on Mars, if he can get that far.

I think the design of this movie owes a lot to Blade Runner, to the point where they feel like they could be the same world, if there were fugitive Replicants hiding on Earth in this movie and Mars were a mutant-filled plutocracy that Deckard didn’t have time to care about. The main difference is that I can’t recall a scene in Blade Runner set during the daytime and barely any of Total Recall is set at night. However, if there were Replicants working on colonized worlds in this movie, Mars would probably not be in the sorry state that it is. Anyway, the look is fully realized, but dated by now. At one point, there’s a matte shot pulling out of a train car to show the train on the Martian surface, and my reaction was “that’s an impressively smooth transition and a high-quality model, but still very obviously a model”.

I never really thought about how much of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s roles are fish out of water types. I always focused on his competent action work in movies like Terminator and (presumably) Commando, and left his comedy work separate. But his comedies (such as Jingle All the WayJunior, and Twins) throw him into new situations he’s ill-equipped to deal with, and Last Action Hero casts him as a spoof of a gritty action hero thrown into the unfamiliar Real World. I barely remember any of Hercules in New York, but that’s fish out of water as well.

I was surprised by how faithful the movie was to the story at first. They slightly seeded some of what they were planning to do after they departed the source material, but nothing major seems to be changed until Quaid removes the tracking device that forced a speedier end to the original. Interestingly, a part of the expanded plot seems to have been borrowed from “Paycheck” without credit, as the join between the original material and the Mars plot comes from Quaid’s old “Hauser” persona having prepared a kit with several things he knew he’d need one day, and leaving an enigmatic piece of ephemera in a hotel safe deposit box. Indeed, the degree to which the subsequent events have been planned out without access to the future-gazing tech from “Paycheck” is one of the subtler reasons this movie’s relationship with Quaid’s reality is ambiguous.

Ultimately, while I liked the end twist of the short story better than the end the movie goes with, this is probably the best PKD adaptation I’ve yet seen. Minority Report is still my favorite version of a PKD future, but its new end completely wrecked the point of the story, while this takes the original premise and gives it a slight turn in an interesting direction, with lots of firefights, prosthetics, and at least one ludicrous explosion thrown in for excitement. This is hailed as a classic, and rightly so.

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