If you asked people to list their favourite Arnie films I’m pretty confident that Total Recall would wind up high on most of those lists. There’s a point in his career where his films were definitely a bit dodgy, but Total Recall falls in that golden period between things like Predator, and Terminator 2, where he was definitely at his best. Despite the amazingness of the film we ended up with, the movie actually went through a bit of development hell.
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Originally adapted from the Philip K. Dick story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’ by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the guys who created Alien, the film bounced around between directors and actors for decades before finally being made. David Cronenberg and Dino De Laurentis were set to direct at certain points, and the film had Richard Dreyfuss, William Hurt, and even Patrick Swayze set to star in the lead during the development. Eventually the film landed with Paul Verhoeven, who was still celebrating success from Robocop. Together he and Arnie would make a film that would become a classic.
Set in 2084, the film follows construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who really wants to get away from it all and have a vacation. He’s been dreaming of Mars and would love to visit, but his wife is set against it. Instead, he opts to get memories of this dream holiday implanted into his head. He decides to spruce things up, however, and opts for the spy package, where he’ll get memories of travelling to Mars to save the planet and beat the bad guys. When they go to implant these memories, however, they discover that Douglas Quaid is a false memory, and that he’s on the run from a mega corporation on Mars who wants him dead. With his cover blown Douglas has to travel to Mars to find out who he really is, and stop the bad guys from killing him.
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The film is very much a fish out of water style story, with Doug being an average construction worker suddenly thrown into a world of corporate espionage, murder, and revolution. And the film really leans into the weirdness too, throwing alien ruins and psychic mutants into the mix. This, along with Quaid never being sure if his memories are real, or if he’s even stuck in a delusion, make it a bit of a trippy film at times. There’s even some discussion as to whether or not what we see happening is even real as the man selling Doug his memories basically outlines the plot, and we see the alien ruins and Melina (Rachel Ticotn) on one of their screens. I’ve seen this film dozens of times myself, and still don’t know where I stand on if it happened or not.
I think this is one of the reasons why Total Recall has endured as one of Arnie’s best movies. It has the cool action sequences and cheesy one-liners that fans come to expect, but it also gives you room think about the plot more, you get to discuss the story with people who have differing interpretations, and you can go through and analyse small images or snippets of dialogue from the start of the film and see how they play in to the whole.
The film might not be one of Arnie’s most memorable ones next to things like the Terminator franchise, but I think it’s definitely one of his most interesting films, one that can satisfy both the deeper thinkers and analysers, as well as those just coming for silly action.
Total Recall was released in the UK on 27th July 1990.