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“You’re nothing! You’re nobody! You’re a stupid dream!” the villainous governor of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), shouts in 1990’s Total Recall. Cohaagan is talking to musclebound do-gooding action hero Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he’s right, of course. Action heroes on the screen aren’t real people. More often than not, they’re dumb dreams — shallow, flickering empowerment fantasies without convincing histories or motivations.
Thirty years after Total Recall‘s release, Paul Verhoeven still understands the emptiness of action movies better than just about any other director. That’s why his film is so full of intelligence, invention, and love of the genre.
Total Recall is very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” It’s set in a near-future with glitchy, self-driving cabs, ubiquitous television sets, and space colonies on Mars and Saturn. Doug Quaid is an Earth-bound construction worker oddly obsessed with distant Mars. His wife, doting blonde Lori (Sharon Stone), doesn’t want to go to the Red Planet, so Quaid decides to pay a company called Rekall for a medically implanted fake adventure tourism package. He’ll wake up with memories of having been a secret agent on Mars, fighting bad guys with a “sleazy, demure” brunette sidekick.
Something goes wrong with the implant, though, and either Quaid is sent into a psychotic episode or else he actually is a secret agent, with buried memories triggered by the Rekall process. In either case, all of Quaid’s dreams of adventure come true. His friends and wife turn out to be agents trying to kill him. He flies to Mars and joins the resistance fighting the corrupt governor. He meets that “sleazy, demure” sidekick, Melina (Rachel Ticotin). And, like many an action hero before him, he saves the world! (Though that world is Mars, in this case, rather than Earth.)
The brilliance of the Total Recall plot is that it’s both a standard action movie narrative and a perfect metaphor for a standard action movie narrative. Quaid, the everyday schlub who wants to have adventures on Mars, is also you, the everyday schlub watching Total Recall to experience vicarious adventures on Mars. One of Quaid’s secret weapons is a hologram band that allows him to project exact duplicates of himself to confuse his opponents. His secret power is literally the ability to be a moving image of himself, just as your secret power, watching Total Recall, is the ability to put yourself in the place of that empty phantom, Douglas Quaid.
Schwarzenegger gives what’s probably his most subtle and affecting performance on film in the early parts of the movie as a man full of wistful yearning for adventure. His usually dour features rearrange themselves into a look of hope and wonder as the slick travel agent explains the features of the secret agent package. There’s real pathos in his Austrian accent as he tries to get his wife to understand his odd longing for a different, more meaningful life. “Lori, don’t you understand?” he says. “I feel like I was meant for something more than this. I want to do something with my life. I want to be somebody!”
Verhoeven recognizes the silliness of Quaid’s dreams, which is also the silliness of your dreams, oh lover of Hollywood action films. The director has sometimes been accused of, or praised for, mocking his audience, but that’s not what’s happening here. Instead, he embraces the ridiculousness of his big-budget action dreams with gusto, throwing Quaid into an amusement park ride of violence, sex, and flamboyantly doubled identities. Quaid uses civilians as a shield. Melani grasps his crotch and asks him, “What have you been feeding this thing?” A goldfish tank is knocked over, the fish gasping like people exposed on the airless Martian desert. Quaid’s former self, Carl Hauser, gives him pretaped video instructions: “Get your ahz to Mahz!” he exclaims.
Quaid is you, watching himself for cues on how to fit himself, or yourself, into the action scenario.
Embracing its own fakeness gives Total Recall a gleeful, campy charge. When you’re in a simulation, anything goes, and the more outrageous that “anything” is, the better. Sharon Stone as Lori, in particular, has what appears to be the time of her life playing a demure, breathy housewife, mouthing sincere words of endearment one moment and then doing an instant high-heel turn into kick-boxing, castrating goddess the next. At one point we see Lori on a video chat blowing a winking red carpet glamour kiss; she’s a movie star pretending to be a secret agent pretending to be a movie star. It’s an authentic performance of performing inauthenticity.
Stone has a central role in what may be the film’s most goofy and enjoyable sequence. Dr. Edgemar (Ray Brocksmith) knocks on Quaid’s apartment door on Mars, claiming to be an avatar inserted into the program by Rekall. He insists Quaid’s adventures are unreal; the construction worker is actually experiencing a psychotic episode back in the offices of Rekall. Edgemar brings in Lori, all perfect pale skin and earnest concern, to plead with Quaid to take a pre-Matrix red pill, symbolizing his acceptance of his own unreality. If he swallows it, he’ll wake up back on Earth, safe and sound.
The scene is like an intermission, in which the director reaches out of the screen to shake you and tell you it’s all nonsense and you should go home already. But of course, you don’t, and Quaid doesn’t. There’s still 50 minutes left in the film! So Quaid sees that Edgemar is sweating, which means he’s afraid, and so must be real, and in real fear for his life. Quaid shoots him; bad guys come busting through the wall; the plot goes on. We’re not done with this adventure package yet!
Eventually, we do have to be done with it, alas. The final scene of the film is on the surface of Mars. Quaid has activated an ancient artifact that provides Mars with an atmosphere, breaking Cohaagen’s oxygen monopoly and freeing the planet from his rule. “I can’t believe it! It’s like a dream!” Melina exclaims. To which Quaid responds: “I just had a terrible thought. What if this is a dream?” Melina smiles and tells him, “Then kiss me quick before you wake up.” And he does, right before the credits roll, the dreams end, and we all have to step away from the screen back into our own mundane lives here on Earth.
The thing about real life is that it’s real. And while reality has its advantages, all the authenticity can get a little tedious day after day. Quaid wants to escape into someone else not just because he wants a new self, but because he wants to make believe. Sometimes the invented story about the vacation is better than actually going on the vacation, not least of all because you can’t really go to Mars. Total Recall isn’t trying to get you to think that a dream is real; it’s encouraging you to enjoy a fantasy that is a fantasy. Verhoeven knows the real value of faking it, which is why Hollywood has rarely created a more brilliant stupid dream.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.