Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: I like to try to be more imaginative than to great a new remake by reviewing the original in this series, but the arrival of the 2012 edition of Total Recall reminded me that it's been about half of my lifetime since I last saw the previous film by that title. Add in a Paul Verhoeven kick that I've been on lately, and it all just seemed so obvious...
The rise of the mindfuck movie- though, this is the point where I suppose I ought to define our terms, though I think this is one of those concepts everyone seems to intuitively grasp. Broadly speaking, I think it would be agreed that "mindfuck movies", as a class, are films about how you can never, like, tell if reality is real, man. Movies about the inherent subjectivity and even solipsism of perception and consciousness, movies that deliberately try to confuse you by presenting things from shifting perspectives of unreliable, possibly dreaming or drugged-up or dead protagonists, movies that raise questions like, if we were living in a computer simulation set in the nominal "present" but actually located 200 years in the "future", and everything we thought we experienced was simply the machines trying to control us, how could we possibly tell? Such movies are especially beloved by young white males who tend to use "cool" as a primary artistic yardstick, for some reason.
Anyway, mindfuck movies: what you think is true isn't true. Memento, Fight Club, Inception, and aye, yes, The Matrix; films of that sort. Depending on exactly how broadly you want to cast your definition, they have been around since the '60s, though by even the most generous accounting, their numbers began to spike after the start of the 1990s, and this owes almost entirely to two films released in 1990: Jacob's Ladder was the second and certainly the less important of them, and I name it only in the interest of thoroughness. The one that really made the huge splash - the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that hit the year's Top 10 with almost $120 million dollars domestically, when that was still a damn satisfying amount of money - was Total Recall, the second feature film taken from the work of literary mindfuck specialist Philip K. Dick. Its importance cannot be attested to more efficiently than by pointing out that even the phrase "mind-fuck" comes from this film's dialogue.
Over the course of 16 years in development hell, the film went through many drafts, the bulk of them done by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett (Jon Povill and Gary Goldman also receive credit, for story and screenplay, respectively), this very, very free riff on Dick's 1966 short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" is, to begin with, set in the undefined future (interplanetary travel is easy enough that a major colony exists on Mars), where a construction worker named Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) suffers from a recurring dream in which he and a mysterious woman are on the Martian surface, and he falls, breaking his spacesuit visor, and just about dying gruesomely of suffocation and depressurisation when he wakes up. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) thinks the whole thing is ridiculous, and shakes off Quaid's wishes to go on a vacation to Mars, currently experiencing terrible political unrest thanks to the vaguely-defined Earth nation where the Quaids live turning the red planet into a virtual slave labor camp to mine a rare metal that is the bases of a war effort on another vaguely-defined Earth nation back home.
It so happens that every day on his commute to and from work, Quaid is inundated with ads (there are video screens mounted all over the train he rides) for Rekall, a company that can implant false memories that will seem even more real that real; it's a way to experience the thrills and adventure of having a fulfilling life without the expense, danger, and bother of actually living that way. Despite the warnings of his co-worker that Rekall is a one-stop lobotomy factory, Quaid heads there one afternoon and plunges down his money for the memory of trip to Mars, hoping to get the damn dream out of his system that way, with an added option of having been a secret agent on an important, sexy mission while he was there.
Something goes dreadfully wrong when he's strapped in to the machine, though: he has some kind of episode claiming that the Rekall techs have blown his cover, and it would appear, generally, that he was a secret agent, who did visit Mars, and the drugs Rekall gave him allowed his conscious mind to lapse far enough that these memories, deliberately hidden by persons unknown, were able to bubble up. Or did they? Because, of course, in a story about implanting false memories and alternate personalities that sure as hell seem to be reality, we've no actual reason to believe that any one thing is true, and it's awkwardly obvious that what transpires for the remaining three-quarters of the movie are almost exactly the events that the enthusiastic Rekall salesperson (Ray Baker) said would be the content of Quaid's experience.
Total Recall is maybe the perfect mindfuck movie: it does not tip its hand. Plenty of movies dealing with alternate realities and distorted perception either come down hard on whatever "the truth" is (e.g. Memento) in their twisty ending, or don't even raise the possibility that "the truth" might be up for debate (e.g. The Matrix). None of that for Total Recall; it was the active intention of the director, Paul Verhoeven, that there is no way to argue solely on the evidence presented within the film, that it is absolutely one way or the other. There's at least one unanswerable objection and one definitive proof to both possibilities, and while Verhoeven himself favored the interpretation that everything following Quaid's sedation was a fiction in the Rekall machine, he does not (as Ridley Scott did in the only previous Dick adaptation, Blade Runner) heavily weight the film in favor of his preferred reading. It is flawlessly ambiguous (and here's how loose of an adaptation it is: Dick's story doesn't play with this idea at all, and its mind fuck is of a completely different nature entirely).
If that were all the film had going for it, we wouldn't be here right now, because I wouldn't be terribly keen on bothering: mindfuck movies irritate me in a vague way (the peekaboo ending of Inception still hits me as an extraordinarily smug cheap trick). The good news, then, is that Total Recall, though certainly grabby and attention-getting for its mindfuckery, is good for a whole lot of reasons, not least of them being that Paul Verhoeven was an outstanding covert satirist during his brief tenure as Hollywood's favorite mainstream exploitation director: an outsider using the excesses of American culture to point out how bankrupt American culture can be, in films like Starship Troopers (secretly anti-military), Basic Instinct (secretly mocking its puritanically prurient target audience), and RoboCop (not very secretly criticising American consumerism and bloodlust). Total Recall is not at the level of any of these; I suspect that even Verhoeven, nasty little Euro-iconoclast that he was, had a problem with the image control folks responsible for keeping safe Schwarzenegger's status as the biggest action star in the States. Though, the film is possibly the most overtly self-parodic entry in the star's career prior to Last Action Hero in 1993: he is made to wear a big, baggy dress at one point, and is surrounded by loopy black comedy throughout especially in the first half of the movie. In fact, it's absolutely the case that the point where Total Recall becomes most actively a straight-faced Ahnuld picture, with meanspirited jokes (upon killing his fake wife: "Consider that a divorce"), lots of mayhem, and a general seriousness of tone, is also the point where, on the "it's a dream" theory, Quaid definitively and irrevocably makes the decision to remain in his artificial memory and not return to the bland normal that he might have come from. Given that Verhoeven is avowedly pro-dream, he's implicitly claiming that the Schwarzenegger star vehicle in its purest form is just a great big fake that we all agree to support because we like the way it makes us feel, which is a hell of an implication to make about the box-office crushing star of your big-budget sci-fi vehicle, and that's why I tend to think that he did it on purpose.
Casting aspersions on the filmgoing mentality that likes big, untroubled action movies where huge Austrian musclemen with no compunctions about killing are the best way to make sure things turn out all right in the end, that is certainly a form of satire; it's not the only one Total Recall has to offer, and in fact, the other one is far more overt and pointed. Unlike a lot of science fiction, the film is insistently light on specific detail: we don't know when or where the plot happens, and other than the Rekall machine, very little of the technology we see is more complicated than slightly futuristic guns and cars (and the drearily ubiquitous video phones, which still don't strike me as even remotely desirable now that we have them in the form of Skype and its fellows - if you're looking at the person you're talking to, they can tell if you're too busy watching TV to pay attention to them). The film looks like the late-1980s, right down to the corporate signage and fashions, and I don't believe for a second that this is because production designer William Sandell had a failure of nerve. The film looks like the then-present because it's using future tech in a strictly metaphorical way: it is a film about buying experience rather than experiencing experience, a very pointed commentary about a very specific aspect of middle-class consumer culture, where RoboCop was a wide-ranging broadside. In fact, now that I think of it, my two forms of satire are really the same thing: whether it's buying fake memories or buying tickets to watch Schwarzenegger kick ass, in both cases we're being mocked for preferring vicarious life to real life.
What keeps the film from getting really nasty with this line of reasoning - and also keeps it from coming anywhere remotely near the heights of RoboCop, the best of Verhoeven's American films by far - is that, when you come down to it, Total Recall is a pretty exciting version of the thing it's critiquing. This is, at any rate ,a thoroughly entertaining Schwarzenegger films, with beautifully staged action and an excellent cast of weird and colorful characters - the Martian colony as we see it is populated largely by mutants, a menagerie of terrific concepts designed by Rob Bottin, including the famous three-breasted prostitute that is probably the best-known part of the entire movie - in fact, the special effects throughout are unfathomably good and for the most part haven't aged a day; it remains as dazzling a spectacle as the day it won an uncontested visual effects Oscar.
Between its big, splashily violent action, and its hefty "what if" concept, and its damned impressive look, Total Recall is every bit the entertaining, cool movie that it would have been if Verhoeven and the screenwriters were a whole lot dumber; this is a good thing and bad. Good because, after all, it makes the movie fun to watch; bad because it isn't any more than fun to watch, and we are pretentious around these parts, and need our violent action movies to be spiked with anti-capitalist rhetoric. Regardless, any way you slice things, the film is still a keeper: minor Verhoeven, well-above-average Schwarzenegger, and as well-made as any action movie from around the turn of the 1990s you could name. Not many guilty pleasures last long enough to make the transition to genre classic; but I have to tip my hat to the ones that do.