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I’ve written before about how Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action films were ahead of their time, and how modern action and superhero cinema reflect much of the groundwork Schwarzenegger laid in his 1980s and 1990s action pictures. This week brings the release of one of his best and most relevant films, Total Recall, in newly remastered 4K UHD format with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, celebrating the film’s 30th anniversary with spectacular results.
With 1990’s Total Recall, director Paul Verhoeven delivered one of his best and most entertaining films (alongside RoboCop and Black Book), based on Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, and Michael Ironside, Total Recall also features Mel Johnson Jr., Ronny Cox, and Michael Campbell (whose wonderfully snarky line delivery steals several scenes and cracks me up every time).
On a $50+ million budget — one of the most expensive in cinema history — the film grossed north of $261 million worldwide, equivalent to $520 million in today’s dollars (and the budget adjusting to about $100 million), making it the fifth-highest grossing movie of 1990.
I already owned Total Recall on DVD and Digital-HD prior to this month’s remastered rerelease, as it was among my favorite genre films and is endlessly rewatchable. Such is my love of the film that when I was told a remastered 4K UHD version was on the way, with Dolby Vision and Dolby Vision to boot, I had to have it.
Those familiar with Total Recall will still be impressed at how gloriously brighter and clearer everything looks, how the VFX and colors pop and how Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score mesmerizes in Atmos. More on all of that in a minute, though. First, if you’re unfamiliar with the film or have forgotten much about it, let’s dig into what makes it such a popular, impressive, classic sci-fi action picture.
Total Recall is more relatively diverse than most films of the era, including a lead character portrayed by a woman of color who gets the film’s big face-off fight scene (against another woman, who is among the most important villains of the main story) and plenty of other underrepresented peoples sharing screen-time as heroes and allies. The film treats scars and disfigurement not as outward manifestations of inner evil (as is sadly too common in storytelling) but as representative of humanity and struggle.
Space exploration and colonization in Total Recall are dominated by corporate interests and “geniuses” whose contempt for ordinary people leads to violent abuses of power, dangerous risk-taking, and persecution of anyone who stands in the way of profits. If thin-skinned, self-entitled, crazy billionaires obsessed with space exploration and willing to sacrifice the needs of humanity in favor of the power-hungry desires of a wealthy elite all sounds familiar nowadays, as I said, the film was ahead of its time.
Additionally, Total Recall was one of the first big “twist” movies, with not one but three major plot twists, including a final one that’s often bizarrely overlooked or debated despite repeated clues and the sheer logicalness of the conclusion. To be sure, there were film twists before Total Recall — films like No Way Out (an oft-forgotten but excellent thriller with a delicious twist), Dressed to Kill, The Empire Strikes Back, Sleepaway Camp, and the classic Psycho all featured big plot twists that surprised viewers. But the popularity of twist endings, particularly the specific sort in Total Recall, hadn’t taken off yet.
The action and adventurism of Total Recall are relentless, brutal, and marvelously staged. Verhoeven tops his own work from RoboCop in this regard, and the film remains one of the best action-sci-fi productions to come out of Hollywood.
It’s hard to imagine it all working and being such a huge success, however, without the key ingredient: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
By 1990, Schwarzenegger had a string of action hits under his belt and had become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history, including Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, Predator, The Running Man, and the comedy Twins, which combined for approximately $555 million in global receipts.
But more than star status and pure action hero bonafides, Schwarzenegger brought something far more important to the screen, something that inspired a generation of writers and filmmakers who would go on to apply those inspirations to our modern action-driven cinema: a sense of humor, both in a generally and more specifically about himself and his films. His comedic sensibilities and timing are on constant display in Total Recall, and it elevates the whole endeavor.
Schwarzenegger’s self-aware one-liner-spouting action heroes in the 1980s were the template for later joke-infused action stars such as Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series, a way of mixing intense action and violence with a sense of humor to take some of the edge off and maintain the focus on the characters amid blockbuster set-pieces. I wrote several years ago about how Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero was the prototype for the modern superhero film Deadpool, with its manic, meta-humor approach that loves to wink at the audience and let them in on the gag.
As I said in that 2016 article:
Schwarzenegger’s type of smirking, pun-heavy action hero is actually more relevant today than anyone seems to realize… Schwarzenegger always wanted to undercut the sheer violent impact of action scenes with comedy and humor, feeling that you needed a laugh after — or sometimes during — an extreme bit of violence and tension. His instincts on this were spot on, and it’s why that approach worked so perfectly in his films and has become the most popular approach in modern movies. Schwarzenegger frankly was a good at comedy as he was at action, with great comedic timing and willingness to go far with self-aware parody and weird humor…
[Modern films like Deadpool are] a reflection of his career and his own specific approach to action heroism and cinema, and I would bet he feels some measure of personal pride in knowing that today’s assumptions about the right way to make a great action movie are rooted firmly in the work he was doing in the 1980s…
As excellent as Total Recall is overall, it’s Schwarzenegger and his ahead-of-his-time sensibilities and sense of humor that make it timeless, endlessly popular, and relevant. It all plays particularly well here, because the film is one of the most relatable and vulnerable characters he portrayed at that point in his career.
The digital restoration by StudioCanal makes the already impressive Oscar-winning visuals all the more stunning. The mixture of models, paintings, and other elaborate effects work in the pre-CGI era has one of its last and greatest moments in Total Recall (although the film does have a small amount of computer effects in one particular sequence involving a body scanner at a security checkpoint), and the effectiveness and splendor of it all has been given its fullest expression with this high quality restoration.
I love the use of robotic heads in Arnold’s early sci-fi movies The Terminator and Total Recall. In the days before CGI, if you wanted Arnold to do something that just couldn’t really be done with existing makeup effects, then you had to make a robot, that was just the rule I suppose. However antiquated these effect might appear by today’s standards, it was pretty cool at the time and I still personally enjoy it immensely each time I rewatch these films (which is quite often).
The rerelease includes several fun extra features, including a short about the influence of the film’s production company Carolco — which also made such blockbuster hits as the Rambo franchise and Terminator 2: Judgment Day — and a few making-of featurettes. Don’t skip the audio commentary by Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven, by the way, as the former is always tremendous fun to listen to on audio commentaries for his own movies and it all started with this one. (It is a lifetime wish of mine to watch the first two Terminator films with him and discuss how they took the horror movie and action movie character templates and completely flipped them on their heads, so the prototype ‘80s action hero — Schwarzenegger — becomes the monster and the typical horror movie heroine — Linda Hamilton — becomes the action hero.)
Smart, thrilling, funny as hell, uber-cool, and gorgeous to look at, Total Recall’s 4K UHD remastering is one of the finest must-have releases of 2020. If you’ve seen it before, you haven’t seen it like this; and if you’re new to Total Recall, then all I can say is I envy you the opportunity to experience it for the first time when it looks and sounds better than ever. Happy Birthday, Total Recall!