#RetroReview: Recalling 'Total Recall'
MANILA, Philippines - This year sees the Planet Hollywood trio headlining new action vehicles: Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Last Stand," Sylvester Stallone in "Bullet to the Head," and Bruce Willis in "A Good Day to Die Hard."
For a kid who grew up on '80s action movies, it is both a wonderful throwback nostalgia trip and also a great reason to revisit some of their back catalogs.
A project that I have been doing is re-watching movies that I remember enjoying as a kid and trying to assess if they have stood the test of time. I will be doing a bit of that for Rappler every once in a while.
So to celebrate the return of the big dogs — the old dogs of action movies — today we talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven’s "Total Recall." It is also apt because of the recent and very disappointing remake.
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, but expanding and adding extravagantly to it, "Total Recall" tells us the story of a man named Quaid (or so he thinks) who is a construction worker who keeps having dreams of Mars. He knows he has never been there, but then he has vivid dreams of walking the surface with a beautiful woman.
He goes to a place called Recall that promises to implant memories of a trip to the Red Planet in his mind. But even before the procedure can begin, memories of his old self are unlocked. Quaid was actually Hauser, a spy working on Mars. With these memories unlocked, he tries to piece together the story of who he really is, which involves him going to Mars, meeting the mysterious woman, and being a part of the insurgency against the oppressive forces trying to control Mars.
Here's the trailer of "Total Recall" (1990):
As it stands, "Total Recall" is still a fun, fierce film. If anything, it shows that Paul Verhoeven was a top notch action director. The action sequences in the original are nowhere near as intricate or choreographed as the 2012 counterpart, and yet the pacing of the action sequences and the visceral effect of them are much more novel.
It makes one think about this new problem that arises from the excessive use of CG and wire work. While these give filmmakers almost total freedom to bring to the screen anything that they can imagine, often these things are so out there that they pull us out of the experience, breaking the suspension of disbelief.
I find that with the prevalence of visual effects, I am more and more drawn to straight up brawling. The visceral thrill that is provided by unadorned fighting, stuff that isn’t enhanced by effects but is driven by human motion and capturing it well with cameras, is something that I prefer to all of this action that is done on green screen or sloppily shot with shaky cams.
That said, "Total Recall" provides thrills with its action. It has some solid shootouts, punch-outs, chases, and a number of innovative sequences which, even years later, don’t fail to excite. Add to that some great prosthetics work which also gives it a very tangible, very creepy feel.
The prosthetics and makeup that created the effect of Schwarzenegger’s face inflating and exploding in response to exposure to Mars’s surface was something that I had nightmares about. I remember as a kid I had to close my eyes because it frightened me so much. And on return, even though it is so clearly an effect, it still comes off much scarier than a CG effect.
That isn’t the only great work done with prosthetics and makeup. Throughout the film, we are introduced to mutants with various grotesqueries. These are chilling, memorable, and sometimes offbeat and funny, as in the oh-so-famous 3-breasted woman.
Here we also find something about the original movie which is absent in the new one. The older flick had a sense of fun to it. It was willing to get raunchy, willing to be bloody, willing to be offbeat and crazy and over the top. Whereas the newer movie takes itself seriously; it wants to be regarded as a serious action movie. Never mind all of the things that were omitted, or how in the remake the nods to the original only made its flaws more apparent. This new movie was just no fun.
That’s something you got to give credit to both Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger for. Verhoeven obviously a man with vision, and a director who knew how to make exceptional action sci-fi movies. Schwarzenegger, even with his limited acting range, knew how to choose characters that he could inhabit.
For example, here he plays a construction worker who dreams that he is meant for greater things. And he plays a sleazy G-Man who enjoys a cigar and a stiff drink with politicos. Not too much of a stretch on either end, and his onscreen presence and charisma help to make him a likable, relatable hero, even as he does some pretty terrible stuff.
Here's the trailer of "Total Recall" (2012):
I was surprised at how well "Total Recall" stood up, seeing as it was a special effects extravaganza in its time. The sets look good enough (though I’m sure a lot of younger people can nitpick how old and '80s it feels) and again, effects, explosions, prosthetics, and all the other work that goes in to creating this vision of Mars all work perfectly.
Though the story isn’t particularly heady or intellectual, it works and provides a driving narrative that keeps both the action and the characters moving and heading to a world-redefining climax. It’s also loads of fun and it is exciting.
Now I’m hoping that the newer set of action heroes will explore their options and find flicks like this to make. - Rappler.com
Carljoe Javier doesn't know why people think he's a snarky film critic who spends his time dashing the hopes of filmgoers. He thinks he's not all that bad, really. He teaches at the State U, writes books, and studies film, comics, and video games... Then again, those people could be right.