We Call It the Ego Trip: Total Recall

I think my heart may actually have broken a little when I heard a remake of Total Recall (1990) was in the works.

I’m not one to typically condemn them off the bat; people tend to forget John Carpenter’s brilliant The Thing (1982) was itself a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951) while recently Let Me In (2010) proved to be surprisingly good localisation of Let the Right One In (2008), so why the outrage here you might ask? Another Arnie actioner from two decades ago, with excessive amounts of violence, explosions and – of course – one liners. What exactly is there to get so fired up about?

Well the film is smart. Not obviously so – indeed it actively attempts to hide it beneath the carnage and set pieces – but certainly more intelligent than the incendiary wrapping paper might have you believe. Much like Paul Verhoeven’s earlier Robocop it performs that remarkable sci-fi movie balancing act, delivering the high thrill entertainment craved by masses without insulting its audience’s intelligence either. Brains and Brawn if you will.

As usual I’ll be taking an analytical rather than ‘reviewer’ approach here, so if you haven’t seen Total Recall read on with caution.

The setup for the story is lifted almost directly from Philip K Dick short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ (1966) with dissatisfied construction worker Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) visiting the company ‘Rekall’ for a memory implant – a sort of futuristic supersavers alternative to a real holiday, providing fake memories of a seemingly real vacation with the added thrill of an adopted persona, in this case a secret agent.

From this point onwards the original short descended into typical PK Dick territory as our protagonist stumbles upon a series of increasingly outlandish buried memories, making it tempting to bemoan how the film differs by heading into more familiar conspiracy-thriller territory. With Quaid revealed to really be a brainwashed secret agent the action kicks into gear and Schwarzenegger is naturally given a chance to flex his muscles; always fun, always predictable…

Or not as it turns out. In spite of all this a layered narrative gradually emerges, which manages to remain remarkably true to the paranoid spirit of Dick’s writing. The film has a pair of twists (spoilerphobes you have been warned), one of which forms an integral part of the plot and another which lurks in the background.

Heading to Mars as instructed by a recording of his former self ‘Hauser’, Quaid blindly pursues the truth that was erased from his head and covered up by the colony’s corporate tyrant Cohagaan, hooking up with resistance fighters, their mutant leader Kuato and his former lover Melina in the process. The major and obvious twist is his discovery that as Hauser he worked with Cohagaan, the brainwashing being planned to help him infiltrate the resistance and find Kuato as “the perfect mole”.

As might be expected though ‘Quaid’ is effectively a different person at this stage minus Hauser’s memories and proceeds to destroy the corporate monopoly on the planet regardless; having discovered the aforementioned ‘truth’ that an oxygen producing alien reactor was excavated but left off by Cohagaan to preserve control, he forcibly activates it and frees Mars giving the red planet a blue sky. Another straight forward case of Arnie saves the day. Right? Wrong.

About halfway through the film the spokesman for Rekall Dr. Edgemar visits Quaid – along with his formerly murderous fake wife – and attempts to convince him everything that’s followed his botched memory implant is a delusion, having never left the chair he was strapped in for the procedure:

It’s all cast aside – violently – as an elaborate bit of deception as movie switches back to the main plot, but is there any assurance that this is reality? As Quaid himself puts it just before the ending credits “what if this is a dream?” There’s no shocking reveal of Quaid lobotomised in the implant chair as I’m sure there would (will) be were the film made today. It seemingly delivers a typical Hollywood ending, but upon repeated viewings subtle little clues start to become apparent supporting the idea that this is indeed a fantasy.

Take the line Edgemar yells at Quaid in the video: “The walls of reality will come crashing down around you. One minute, you’re the savior of the rebel cause; next thing you know, you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy. You’ll even have fantasies about alien civilizations.” In effect this has just outlined the plot for the remainder of the film. It’s fleeting but the accuracy of the prediction is uncanny.

Other visual cues strengthen this idea with mirror images becoming a running motif in possible suggestion of the other, illusion or desired image. The architecture adds as well with a notably sharp contrast between Earth and Mars; the former being all flat modernist concrete the latter being far more chaotic, ramshackle and interesting – a tonal shift which emphasises the excitement Quaid becomes involved with compared to the boredom of his previous life.

The biggest clue however is somewhat daringly hidden right at start of the film, specifically during the trip to Rekall. While they’re setting up the implant there’s a throwaway line from a background technician, partially spoken over by a doctor: “That’s a new one, blue sky on Mars.” This reference blows the conclusion of the film wide open, almost unshakably proving the delusional angle and yet somehow I missed it until my third viewing.

More interesting than the twist itself perhaps is what it means for the overblown antics which form this delusion. Rather than the crusading hero we are presented with the sad fantasy of a married man, trapped in a dead end job and longing to be something more. The salesman at Rekall even refers to the implant package as “the ego trip.” As a man who built a career on fulfilling masculine power fantasies in his adrenaline fuelled pictures, casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid results in a double edged portrayal – serving up wish fulfilment with an undermining edge of self parody. The action junkies get what they want but these are knowing, ironic thrills served with a pinch of salt.

Total Recall isn’t typically considered cyberpunk, but while it may lack the usual ‘high technology, low humanity’ focus its metaphysical undertones (and basis in Philip K Dick, a precursor to the genre) makes me think otherwise. Either way, it definitely helped pave the way for plenty of other intelligent sci-fi blockbusters which followed; The Matrix (1999) featured a ‘red pill’ much like the one offered by Edgemar to return to realty and it’s hard not to compare the similarity in theme and structure to the recent Inception (2010).

Why don’t I want a remake? Because there was nothing which needed fixing with the original; a guilty pleasure which isn’t really guilty, providing excitement for the eyes and stimulation for the intellect. Proof that science fiction cinema can keep both camps happy.

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