Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Recalling Total Recall

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With the release next week of a new version of Total Recall, the ever-pervasive remake trend enters uncharted territory: The '90s. By remaking a film originally released in 1990, Hollywood is reducing the gap between inspiration and re-interpretation to unprecedented levels.

In anticipation of the new film coming out, I thought it a good time to take a look back at the 1990 original, which for film fans of a certain age looms large as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's all-time greatest movies.

Arnie-mania unquestionably peaked with the following year's Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which kinda makes Total Recall the last "pure" Arnold Schwarzenegger film. I was 13-years-old when it was released, and in retrospect that feels like the perfect age to take in such a full-on movie.

Clearly not having learned her lesson from the Dune incident of several years earlier, I was able to convince my dear mother to take me to the RP16-rated Total Recall on the strength of it being adapted from a story by sci-fi legend Phillip K Dick, whose work also inspired Blade Runner (and more recently A Scanner Darkly).

My parents were relatively conservative regarding what kind of films they allowed me to watch when I was a kid (I remember once being forced to return a VHS of Ghoulies, unwatched), but mum's reverence for the greats of modern literary science fiction reliably clouded her judgement.

My third form classmates at Grey Lynn's St Pauls College could always acquire tickets to movies above their age, but being a puny palangi, I needed help from my mum. She gamely agreed to provide parental guidance in accordance with the RP16 rating, and along with my older sister, the three off us skipped off one sunny afternoon in 1990 to the main St James theatre in Queen St.

Then I saw Total Recall for the first time.

Unlike my traumatic Dune experience, I lapped up every moment of Total Recall from the startling dream sequence opening onwards. Mum was suitably horrified when the film's famously extreme violence started flowing, and wanted us to leave immediately. But there was no chance of that happening.

There was something so colourfully visceral about Total Recall, it spoke directly to my hormone-ravaged pubescent self. The action was unlike anything I'd ever scene, and the plot just kept getting grander and grander as the film went on. Plus, y'know, Mars, mutants, machine guns and a woman with three you-know-whats.

At the time of its release, Total Recall felt like the biggest film ever made, and it was probably the most expensive. While it only carried that perception for a short time - until the bigger Terminator 2 was released a year later - Total Recall serves as an appropriate bridge between the all-business action films of the '80s and the more spectacle-centric action films of the '90s.

As I've repeatedly said in this column, there is no overstating the significance of one Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger in the lives of guys my general age who grew up devouring movies. When he switched over to playing the good guy in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, it was the end of the "hardcore" phase of Arnie's career, for which Total Recall serves as an effective last-hurrah.

Arnie was never particularly celebrated for his acting talent, but he gives one of his most empathetic performances in Total Recall. He manages to convey a surprising degree of confusion; frustration and vulnerability, even when he's using a pedestrian's body as a human shield.

Indeed, the violence in Total Recall remains shocking today, and is not an aspect I'm anticipating seeing replicated in the M-rated (PG-13 in America) remake. But it makes for some memorable moments in the original, most notably Michael Ironside having his arms sliced off on the industrial lift and the insanely bloody train station shoot-out.

The film's director, mad Dutch genius Paul Verhoeven, re-employed a couple of key collaborators from his previous film Robocop for Total Recall: Actor Ronny Cox (once again playing the main bad guy) and cinematographer Jost Vacano. It was easy to take for granted back then just what Verhoeven brought to the action set pieces in Total Recall, but is much more apparent in today's action landscape where very little shines through in this regard.

Verhoeven also deftly juggled the reality-bending aspects of the plot, which has plenty of ambiguity, but is never confusing. And it takes a special kind of director to effectively sell on-screen a concept as far out as Kuato.

Very little of Verhoeven's or Schwarzenegger's genius is apparent in the hilariously stultifying DVD commentary for the film, but it's worth a listen for the laughs.

It may have been Sharon Stone's break-out role (Verhoeven cast her as the lead in his next film, Basic Instinct), but plenty of other fantastic actors turn up to do great work in Total Recall: The aforementioned Ironside (who would suffer further violent indignities under Verhoeven's direction in Starship Troopers), a young Dean Norris (Uncle Hank from Breaking Bad!) as mutant-face Tony, the late, great character actor Roy Brocksmith as the guy trying to convince Quaid it's all a dream and the sultry, athletic, demure Rachel Ticotin as Arnie's love interest.

Very few actors have been able to pull off playing romantically against the Austrian Oak, but Ticotin gets there.

Schwarzenegger's career is filled with quotable lines, but there's a particular bounty in Total Recall. Allow me to finish up this look back by citing his best from the film:

* To himself (as a recording): "Get your ass to Mars."
* To the smoking corpse of fake wife Lori (Sharon Stone): "Consider that a divorce."
* To love interest Melina (Rachel Ticotin): "If I'm not me, then who the hell am I?"
* To Richter (Ironside) whose arms have just been sliced off by a freight elevator: "See you at the party Richter!"
* Inside a high tech 'fat lady' disguise, to the Mars custom officer: "Two weeks. Two weeks. Two weeks. Bleeerrraaaaggggh."

* Do you love Total Recall? Favourite aspect? Are you looking forward to the remake? Do you mourn "hardcore" Arnie? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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