Review: Total Recall (1990)

Director: Paul Verhoeven


Despite being released in 1980, Raging Bull was considered the last of the great character pieces of 1970s American Cinema. In a similar vein, despite being released in 1990, Total Recall was really the last of those big, brash and usually pretty dumb 1980s actioners that defined, and were defined by, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This may be the first comparison made between Total Recall and Raging Bull. Let’s hope it’s the last.

Paul Verhoeven may be best known as Hollywood’s favourite soft-porn peddler, but there can be no doubt that he has a terrific sense of humour. Why else would he have allowed Arnie be cast in the lead role of Total Recall? Once again, hearing him mangle the English language like so many henchmen is a painful delight. Indeed, ‘painful delight’ is a perfect phrase to describe Total Recall in general. Freely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, Total Recall sees everyman Quaid (Arnie) go to the Rekall corporation to buy memories of a holiday to Mars. Unfortunately, the procedure goes awry and Quaid is exposed to buried memories of himself as a spy named Hauser who has information to bring down the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). It’s silly enough, but it’s made even sillier when we see the fake memories are embellished by giving Hauser/Quaid a ridiculously gorgeous wife (Sharon Stone), and then proceeds to fight off goons with bloody abandon whilst evading head henchman Richter (a hammier-than-spam Michael Ironside). Cue a trip to Mars to team up with a feisty love interest (Rachel Ticotin) and defeat the bad guys.

At the very least, Total Recall has contributed some gems to the lexicon of ridiculously cheesy Arnie one-liners, most of which aren’t intended as such, but just sound funny in a thick and unemotional Austrian accent (“Give those people air!”). If Arnie underplays his role, it appears to have forced everyone else to overact, with Stone, Cox et al delivering half-baked dialogue (courtesy of Ronald Shussett, Dan O. Bannon and Gary Goldman) whilst chewing the scenery. Verhoeven’s work often boasts a satirical edge, but there are moments in Total Recall that are laugh-out-loud hilarious; whether Verhoeven recognised them as such is debatable, but it doesn’t diminish the entertainment factor. If Verhoeven’s trademark satire is sadly absent, his usual lack of restraint isn’t, as limbs are chopped off, blood is spilt and we’re introduced to women with three breasts. Whilst the morals are questionable and/or dated, the production values fare better. Simple sets combine with Oscar-winning special effects to create a colourful (if not quite credible) Martian landscape. Total Recall boasts shaky foundations (bad dialogue, scientific fallacy and Arnie having too many lines), but as brainless entertainment, it works like a dream.