Vegas on Mars: Recalling ‘Total Recall’ 25 Years Later

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Philip K. Dick has enjoyed a surprisingly active and commercial afterlife considering the decidedly non-commercial nature of his output and the fact that, from a sales perspective, he was never more than a cult success during his lifetime. Then again, Dick’s posthumous popularity as the source for big-budget science fiction movies both revered (Total Recall, Minority Report) and not so revered (Paycheck, Next, The Adjustment Bureau) should perhaps not come as a surprise because Dick trafficked in the kind of sexy, hooky, accessible ideas movies love.

Dick has been adapted extensively in part because his work is so adaptable. Filmmakers can take the core of an idea explored in a Dick short story and adapt it any way they see fit, secure in the knowledge that if they take as many liberties with Dick’s work as filmmakers have tended to take, they only risk alienating a small core of Dick cultists. Sure enough, by the time the Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” was adapted into 1990’s Total Recall a quarter-century ago by a divisive satirist with a uniquely bloody, extreme take on the grotesque excesses of American culture named Paul Verhoeven, it had already been through several different strikingly different iterations.

The short story’s long, complicated march to film began during Dick’s lifetime, when visionary science fiction writer Dan O’Bannon — whose work on John Carpenter’s Dark Star impressed Alejando Jodorowsky so much that he recruited him to join his small band of “spiritual warriors” on his never-to-be-realized adaptation of Dune — and partner Ronald Shusett bought the rights to Dick’s story with an eye towards adapting it for film. They were unable to get the project off the ground in several different versions. Dino De Laurentiis (who ironically produced Dune after Jodorowsky left the project and another legendary weirdo, David Lynch, took it on) tried to produce a version with Richard Dreyfuss in the lead and Bruce Beresford as the director, but the anemic box-office of Dune made another big-budget, heady science fiction blockbuster look like a very iffy proposition.

David Cronenberg then spent a year trying to crack the project as its next director before having a falling out with Shusett over the tone of the film. According to Cronenberg, he wanted to make a version true to Dick while Shusett wanted him to make Indiana Jones on Mars, a science fiction movie commercial enough to make back the fortune it would obviously cost. So Cronenberg left the project (along with his ideal male lead William Hurt) and it was taken over by another foreign oddball with a personality as strong as it is divisive: Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, who proved he was capable of combining popcorn spectacle with a dark, satirical conception of American culture and America’s future as a rancid, bloody dystopia with 1987’s Robocop.

The protagonist of Dick’s story is an unremarkable everyman, but Verhoeven cast as his leading man a veritable superman: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead of a meek audience surrogate, the film revolved around an actor with a movie-star face; a body that led to his earliest fame, winning awards for literally having the greatest physique in the entire world; and the kind of cockiness that led him to enjoy extraordinary success in three of the toughest fields in existence: bodybuilding, movie acting, and politics.

Casting Schwarzenegger in the lead probably got the film made. Total Recall was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time of its release, and executives undoubtedly felt more secure about its commercial prospects with one of the biggest movie stars and box-office attractions in the lead instead of Dreyfuss or Hurt. But casting Schwarzenegger also transformed the movie from a Philip K. Dick adaptation into an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with all the baggage, good and bad, that entails.

The film’s lead invites a number of questions. Why would a man who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger and is married to a woman who looks like Sharon Stone (who is bitchily charismatic as the ice queen he at least thinks he’s married to) be in such a furious hurry to escape his ostensibly humdrum life that he’d pay an oily private company to implant false memories of a glamorous and exciting Mars adventure in his brain? But if Schwarzenegger’s centrality makes it impossible to buy the character as a relatable everyman, it makes sense that a mousy wage slave would fantasize about looking like Schwarzenegger and having the kind of adventures he has in his films, and Total Recall is, like so much of Dick’s work, all about blurring the lines between the real and the artificial, the genuine and the ersatz.

Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, a construction worker in the future troubled by dreams of Mars. Quaid pays for a company to insert a memory of an exciting Mars secret agent fantasy into his brain, complete with a deliberately sleazy love interest in the form of Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a tough fighter who bides her time in Mars’ red-light district. The memory implant goes awry, however, leading Quaid (and the audience) to wonder whether the larger-than-life adventures he’s experiencing, trying to liberate the good people of Mars from their earthly capitalist oppressors, are actually happening or are just delusions induced by the implant.

The popularity of another Schwarzenegger vehicle from this era, T2: Judgment Day, would usher in the heyday of CGI, so one of the central pleasures of watching Total Recall today lies in the old-fashioned craftsmanship behind so much of its impressive world-building. Verhoeven used a tiny bit of CGI, which was still its embryonic form in 1990, but for the most part he relies upon miniatures, dazzlingly inventive make-up from The Howling and Robocop veteran Rob Bottin, and special effects that won an Academy Award for “Special Achievement.”

The sets in Total Recall look, appropriately enough, like giant, elaborate sets. There is an intentional artificiality to the film’s look and feel that reflects the protagonist and the audience’s confusion as to what is real and what is a fantasy adventure rooted in the history of science fiction pulp and action serials. The Mars of Total Recall is dirty, sleazy, and fundamentally corrupt. In that respect, it’s not unlike the nightmarish, comically grim future dystopia of Verhoeven’s Robocop and the Las Vegas of Showgirls, a tourist trap/massive den of sin and iniquity where many of the primary players are involved, one way or another, in the sex industry, and a man with enough money and loose enough morals can have anything he wants — including a three-breasted hooker.

And as in Robocop and Showgirls, capitalism and the free enterprise system aren’t just fundamentally flawed: they’re borderline evil in their complete indifference to human suffering and anything but the unshakable dictates of commerce. In Total Recall, money is a tool for oppression, and no one is more oppressed than Mars’ impressive collection of mutants. The idea of filling Mars with viscerally disturbing mutants was, not surprisingly, a contribution from Cronenberg’s time fiddling with the script. Then again, if Cronenberg were to direct an adaptation of Jim Davis’ Garfield comic strip (which, god willing, will be his next project, and certainly can’t be worse than Maps to the Stars) he’d probably find a way to insert mutants and sexual deviancy in that as well.

Verhoeven’s conception of satire entails embodying the excess and shamelessness of what he’s satirizing to a comically over-the-top degree. For him, coolly stylized ultra-violence and social satire are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In Total Recall, his punchlines and throwaway gags are often written in the blood and viscera of the bad guys Quaid dispatches with unmistakably Schwarzenegger-like ease and brio.

Total Recall’s constant carnage got it slapped with an X rating before he edited it down, not unlike so many of Verhoeven’s American films. The X/NC-17 rating is the MPAA’s sign that a filmmaker and a film have gone too far, and going too far is a cornerstone of Verhoeven’s sensibility as a filmmaker and provocateur. If respectable folks don’t think Verhoeven has gone too far, then he apparently feels he hasn’t gone far enough.

Though it ended up being a whole lot more commercial and successful than Cronenberg’s take probably would have been, Total Recall still has a lot of personality and darkness for a blockbuster, especially one starring Schwarzenegger. In his biggest commercial hit, Verhoeven strikes a balance between mind-bending ideas and commercial considerations, and the film is memorable for reasons that go far beyond the three-breasted prostitute that made such an impression on me when I first saw the film as a 14-year-old boy.

The 2012 version of Total Recall, which predictably eschewed the old-time craftsmanship of the 1990 adaptation in favor of CGI, only makes Verhoeven’s take look better by comparison. Then again, I can’t exactly remember whether or not I have actually seen the Len Wiseman version of Total Recall, although that has less to do with mental implants or the difficulties of distinguishing between real memories and false ones than how thoroughly, ironically forgettable it (and all of Wiseman’s filmography) is.

But if the three-year-old Total Recall remake has already been forgotten, Total Recall endures a quarter century later as one of the last pre-CGI science fiction touchstones, a heady exercise in escapism that’s also fundamentally about our need for escapism in all its forms. Verhoeven’s biggest hit is built on a distinctly human foundation of Schwarzenegger brawn, geeky craftsmanship, and provocative ideas rather than the distinctly inhuman zeroes and ones and blinding computer sheen that have come to define the CGI age of science fiction spectacle. Given their themes, it seems fitting that Verhoeven’s Total Recall today feels like the real thing, while Wiseman’s Recall is nothing but a shiny, computer-generation simulation.