Carl takes a retrospective look back to what is arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s greatest movie
It is really weird to realize that this year sees the 30th anniversary of the violent sci-fi epic that was ‘Total Recall‘. It seems like only yesterday that I walked into the Odeon West End in London’s Leicester Square, paid my money, took my seat, and was totally blown away by what I saw on the screen. I ended up seeing the film four times in total but that first visit to Mars alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger was the best. Mainly because of the fact that the sound and picture quality in London was vastly superior to seeing it at my local cinema. The effects and the soundtrack blasted out from the surround sound speakers located around the walls of the cinema. It also marked one of the very first times I went into London to see a movie by myself.
My brother, Phil was with me but he was underage to go and see Arnie’s latest all-action blockbuster so he was at the cinema across the street, the Odeon Leicester Square where he saw another 1990 film, ‘Dick Tracy‘. But while he was watching Warren Beatty clean up the streets in a PG-rated comic book movie, I was being wowed by my 18 rated (R Rated) trip to Mars.
The film had me hooked from the off. And it is simple to realize why. The first bars of the score to the film started emanating from the speakers. Why is that enough to make me grip the sidearms of my seat? Because the score was by the master, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith. Without even realizing that it was he that had crafted the soundtrack before the movie started, those opening bars made me sit up and realize Goldsmith was on scoring duties. And the film went up in my estimation instantly. It is a very rare thing for me to utter the words ‘I like this already’ within a few moments of a film starting and its almost unheard of for me to utter them within seconds. I did when I first heard the music. For the entire running time of the film, Goldsmith’s music was pitch-perfect, the perfect accompaniment to go alongside the film. It not only took on a life of its own but was as good as, if not better than the main course of the film itself.
Jerry Goldsmith once said that the score was one that he relished composing and it has gone down in history that the score, issued in a 40-minute version in 1990 before getting the 74-minute deluxe treatment in 2001 before getting another release which gave the listener the full score including alternate cues a few years later, is considered to be probably Goldsmith’s best.
The film itself was knocking around Hollywood for several years before it landed at Carolco Pictures. It was first mentioned back in the mid-’80s by Dino De Laurentiis with an eye for Richard Dreyfuss to star. After ‘Dirty Dancing‘ hit big, Patrick Swayze was considered. It came close to being made back in 1987 with Bruce Beresford on directorial duties from a screenplay by ‘Alien‘ writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett, who bought the rights to the novel the film is based on, Phillip K. Dicks’ ‘We can remember it for you wholesale‘ back when the author was still alive. Even David Cronenberg was handed the script and intended to have William Hurt star. However, after a year of work and twelve versions of the script and constant fighting against Shusett, Cronenberg walked away. His version was an adaptation of Dicks’ novel, not the rollercoaster ride Shusett envisioned. But Arnold Schwarzenegger was aware of the script and was actively trying to get himself the starring role in the film. He lobbied Carolco to buy the rights and the screenplay and the rest, as they say, is history.
The film itself is a mind-bend. An ultraviolent piece of entertainment where the viewer is dragged in and presented with images and set pieces that are brilliantly staged and marvelously executed but at the same time, we are never 100% sure that what we are seeing is real or in Quaid’s mind. Is it reality he’s experiencing or is it a dream he’s having back on Earth while he is having an implanted memory? Is he really a secret agent or is he suffering a hallucination while under the anesthetic? It is up to the viewer at the end of the day to decide for themselves if what we witness during the film’s run time is actually happening or not. I know where I sit on this issue but I will come to that later. What can’t be denied is the film is of the highest order, a piece of escapism that has managed to defy the transition of time. And the film still lands on the list of the greatest science fiction films of all time to this day.
The film is expertly handled and directed by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven wasn’t a novice at handling a film like ‘Total Recall‘ as he was behind 1987s ‘Robocop‘. Again, with that film, he directed a piece of violent entertainment that still stands today. Like it’s 1990 distant cousin, ‘Robocop‘ had plenty going for it and some of Verhoeven’s distinctive style shone through. And the director couldn’t help but throw in some of his satire into the mix of what is seen on screen. In ‘Robocop‘ Verhoeven satirized TV mercilessly, with the advertisements that punctuate throughout the film bringing a neat sense of irony to proceedings. With ‘Total Recall‘, he toned it down a fair way but couldn’t help himself with the news report near the start of proceedings. TV news will cut away from violence or any onscreen death as to not disturb the viewer. Not so much here as the attack on the Martian freedom fighters is broadcast in all its gory detail, with people gunned down, executed, and even language of the four-letter variety broadcast unedited. And again, Verhoeven puls off the masterstroke of casting veteran actor Ronny Cox as the villain.
In ‘Robocop‘ Cox was the evil Dick Jones. Here he is back on top villainous and slimy form as Vilos Cohaagen, the Governor of Mars. Cox plays him as an undiscovered Star Wars villain, all style and form but with a murderous undercurrent to his nature. Looking back at the film, I still don’t think they could have cast someone other than Ronny Cox in the role. He is the highlight and standout of the film alongside the ever-reliable and to be honest, completely brilliant actor that is Michael Ironside as Richter. You cast Ironside as a villain in your movie, you’ve got the best of the best there. I adore Michael Ironside as an actor. I do feel though that it would be nice to see him in a role OTHER than the villain from time to time. But the pair of them together make a team that lives long in the memory of the viewer.
Sharon Stone, back then, not the big-name star she is today is really kick-ass as Quaid’s ‘Wife’, Lori. Is she his wife really? Is she as we discover later on, Richter’s wife? Is she really the doting, loving wife or is she really the all-action strong woman who is more than a match for Quaid? Again, it all depends on your point of view when the film’s final scene finishes. The same goes for Rachel Ticotin. Is she really Quaid’s lover from Mars or is she an implanted memory of someone he has never met? Is she really a tough freedom fighter or just an image Quaid sees as he’s going under for the implant procedure? Little details come and go during proceedings and it is up to the viewer to catch them and interpret them when they are presented. Both women bring the strong female type to the screen as they should do and play their characters extremely well. During their fight on Mars, you can actually believe they would knock the life out of each other without drawing breath and are more than a match for their male counterparts. It is to the actresses’ credit that they make their characters and their traits completely believable. And I can’t end this section without a nod to the late Debbie Lee Carrington as Thumbelina. Her character was the one I really wanted to see survive the carnage that the film holds and it is completely brilliant to see her one minute scared and vulnerable as she is facing a pistol in her face, the next murdering one of Richter’s henchman with a rather large survival knife, gutting him before grabbing a machine gun and taking down Cohaagen’s goons. Miss Carrington sadly left us after a period of ill health back in 2018 but her performances and her versatility as a stuntwoman will live forever.
Of course though, despite terrific performances from all concerned, the film belongs to Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is his prowess that carries the film on his rather large, broad shoulders. Did I believe he was a construction worker? Yes, I actually could see him as someone who could work in a construction yard day in, day out. He has the muscles for it and looks like the rugged, hardworking type. But, like the rest of the audience, I was waiting for him to wreak havoc on all concerned. We all know it is coming, it’s just a question of when. And when it comes. the violence that is doled out is not for the squeamish. Once again, like ‘Robocop‘ before it, Verhoeven’s film gained the dreaded ‘X’ rating in the United States for its violence, leading to a round of cuts and substitutions to make the film accessible to an R Rating. Apart from ‘The Terminator‘ and ‘Commando‘, this is Schwarzenegger’s best film and role he has ever played. One minute, easy-going, vulnerable, and loving. The next, dispatching villains with ill-concealed glee. I took a great amount of pleasure when ‘Hot Shots: Part Deux‘ parodied the body count that ‘Total Recall‘ contains. I think a third of Hollywood’s actors and actresses actually get wiped out during proceedings, the body count is that high. But Schwarzenegger, despite not being the best actor in the world, is certainly the perfect leading man for the movie. He certainly puts a lot into his action scenes but manages to convey a sense of vulnerability in the role of Quaid/ Hauser. His confusion as to who he really is makes for an intriguing and worthy hero.
Now, what does the ending actually mean? Is it real or is it a dream? Everyone has their own opinions on the ending. No opinion is wrong, its how you interpret what is seen during the events of the film. Here is mine. It’s NOT real. It is a dream that Quaid is having during the implant procedure. The evidence is to be seen throughout the film. Yes, I will admit that Dr. Edgemar’s bead of sweat that falls down his forehead before he is shot dead COULD mean that Quaid is existing in reality but the other evidence and clues presented to us dilutes this fact. We go back to the implant scene. Quaid picks a scenario where there are blue skies on Mars. At the film’s climax? Blue skies on Mars. His description of his perfect woman? Not Lori but Melina, someone from a DREAM. Adding to this fact is he sees an image of Melina on the screen as he goes under. His view on Cohaagen is influenced by what he sees on the news before he sets out to work in the morning. A lot of what we see and what Quaid encounters during proceedings are influences that he sees on an everyday basis. And when he undergoes the memory implant, he sees more subliminal stuff that forms the basis of many things he will see and encounter during the rest of the film. Adding to these reasons and due to what he requests the implant will contain, I can conclude that what he experiences, while real to his mind, are nothing but a delusion, a dream he has while undergoing the surgical implantation. But boy, what a ride we go on to get to this hypothesis finally.
The film was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1990, with a worldwide take of $261,317,921(in 1990 financial terms), Outgrossing other top films of 1990 such as ‘Back To The Future Part III‘, ‘Die Hard 2‘ and the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ movie. It was the second-highest-grossing R Rated film behind ‘Pretty Woman‘ in 1990 and still, thirty years after it first hit the screens, remains one of the best times an audience could experience inside a cinema. Hollywood tried to remake the film in 2012, replacing Schwarzenegger with Colin Farrell and Sharon Stone with Kate Beckinsale along with making the film a PG-13. It was a pale and un-needed reinterpretation of an all-time classic movie. The poster for the original film proclaimed ‘Get Ready For The Ride Of Your Life‘. And believe me, they were not kidding!!
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Staff Writer and Books and Literature Correspondent for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter @CarlRoberts2 where he uses the force frequently!