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Total Recall (2012)
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Total Recall (2012)

Total Recall (1990 and 2012)

Let’s discuss why the original Total Recall was such a great movie.

First, you had the action cred afforded by Arnold. When Total Recall was released in 1990, Arnold was at the height of his powers. His movie catalog was still fresh in the collective memory, with classics such as Predator, The Terminator, and Conan standing out as defining moments in 1980s action cinema. At the dawn of the 90s, Arnold was about to hit his high point with Terminator 2. The comedic Schwarzenegger was just starting to emerge, and the pitiful Batman&Robin/End of Days Arnie was still several merciful years away.

Second, Total Recall had the expert direction of Paul Verhoeven. Best known for his work on RoboCop, Verhoeven brought a special blend of violence and pithy humor to every movie he directed during the 20th century1. The plot of Total Recall (1990) is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. Dick’s story is certainly worth a read, but does not really serve as direct source material for the events depicted in Total Recall. Unlike the protagonist in the short story, who suffers from human foibles and ends up being locked into his destiny by forces beyond his control (aliens, the government, and psychiatric medicine), Arnold’s version of the main character, Douglas Quaid, is essentially the same as his lead role from Commando; this is John Matrix of Mars.

The basic concept of Total Recall is that lowly construction worker Douglas Quaid becomes obsessed with Mars, and has a dream vacation implanted in his brain by a virtual travel agency called Recall. After being implanted with a Mars vacation package, Quaid runs amok and soon discovers that he is a secret agent. After having his secret agent cover blown, a confused Quaid is chased down by agents of Cohagen (the evil governor of Mars). Despite not remembering any of his alleged time as a secret agent Arnold doesn’t take this lying down, and sneaks off to Mars to learn the truth about his past. Is he a secret agent? Is he going insane? Being an archetypical Schwarzenegger movie, our hero is obviously never in danger of being seriously harmed or killed once he arrives on Mars. His fighting skills and physical durability are unmatched in the movie.

The end result of all these elements coming together is that the viewer is given a movie where the hero is certainly going to win, get the girl, and have a perfect one-liner for any situation7. Having such confidence in our hero also helps to maintain the suspension of disbelief that must come along with any movie set on Mars (or sci-fi in general); the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, so the viewer doesn’t stare too hard at the scientific plausibility of the story. What distinguishes Total Recall from most other Arnold movies of the time is the ambiguous ending. Just after Arnold dispatches the villains and rescues the downtrodden residents of Mars Colony, he appears to get the girl and live happily every after.

However, the movie has numerous cues that seem to indicate that his entire trip to Mars is an elaborate dream, playing out in Quaid’s mind in response to his implanted dream vacation gone awry. As his time on Mars spirals out of control, Quaid is warned that continuing the fantasy will lead to a deadly hemorrhage in his brain. As the movie fades to blue, Quaid’s original fantasy vacation reaches its end. Does Quaid die in the Recall chair, having been lobotomized by a botched memory implant procedure? We never find out, and that uncertainty makes the entire run and gun experience on Mars seem sad and pointless. Seeing Arnold as a pitiful figure begins to hit home as the movie fades out. Our action hero is never supposed to lose, let alone have a DNF. This ending is unexpected, unsatisfying, and cements the 1990 version of Total Recall as a classic.  Judge for yourself if the original Total Recall is worthy of four cans: How many people die in Total Recall?


The new Total Recall tries to replicate the successes of the 1990 version, and fails for several major reasons:
1. Colin Farrell does not inspire the same no-fear response that Arnold did. While Schwarzenegger is an action star, Farrell is a man who occasionally stars in action movies. This subtle distinction means that the viewer, at least me, tries to interpret Farrell’s character as a part of his circumstances. Like an actor in a normal drama. With Arnold’s portrayal of Quaid, it was the responsibility of everything in the movie to respond to him. We know Arnold is going to beat the bad guys, and our interest is in seeing the mayhem and curse-laden one liners that are dropped along the way. The audience never has to worry about Arnold getting seriously hurt or bogged down in ethical debates. With Farrell, we simply don’t care if he gets hurt or feels conflicted. The 2012 version of Total Recall takes itself much too seriously.

2. Deviating from the original Philip K. Dick story again, the new movie skips Mars altogether and substitutes a different setting for its commentary on class warfare. In the future the world of Total Recall (2012), mankind has been decimated by plague and war, winnowing the habitable land down to Great Britain and Australia. The working underclass lives in Australia and commutes to work by traveling through the center of the Earth. The producers of Total Recall (2012) have managed to select a setting that is simultaneously less interesting and less plausible than that used in Total Recall (1990). In real life, robots have been sent to mars on multiple occasions. There’s a rover on Mars now beaming back color panoramas and digging up space rocks. Nobody has ever drilled a bore hole through the Earth’s molten core. Nor would they, since digging a hole through the planet is as impossible as it is boundlessly stupid.

3. All of Total Recall (2012) is dark and murky, trying very hard to look like Blade Runner. This is a mistake, since Blade Runner managed to use the vast talent of many skilled professionals and heaps of money to create the most headache-inducing mess since GWAR live at Boudakon.
4. The ending of Total Recall (2012) is nowhere near as ambiguous as the ending to the Arnold version. Aside from some Shayamalan-like theatrics, the end is cut and dried. It’s a boring two can movie.

Total Recall earns an x-factor of -2, owing to its gross inferiority to the source material (written and filmed).




1 I take it as granted that the reader accepts and understands the brilliance Starship Troopers, while also despising Hollow Man.2
2 Aside from Rhona Mitra’s performance.3
3 Which is not to say that I condone the disgusting actions taken by Kevin Bacon’s character4 in Mitra’s scene.5
4That scene, a sexual assault perpetrated by invisible Kevin Bacon, is prime evidence of Verhoeven’s diminished ability to balance over the top violence with wry humor.
5 Rhona Mitra, of course, being the generic substitute for Kate Beckinsale…6
6 …who stars as the lead antagonist in the new Total Recall. Bam!
7 In response to Sharon Stone pretending to be Quaid’s wife and nearly killing him, Arnold shoots her through the head and declares “consider that a divorce.”



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  1. Pete says
    2012/09/05, 13:20

    “The most headache-inducing mess since GWAR live at Boudakon.” Genius is spoken again.

  2. Libby says
    2012/09/05, 19:11

    Oh Canned Laser, I’ve missed you so. Welcome back.

    Fun party game–sing Footloose tunes at random moments during Hollow Man.

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