Movie Review

Total Recall (1990)

MPAA Rating: R
EW's GRADE
B+

Details Rated: R; Genres: Action/Adventure, Sci-fi and Fantasy; With: Arnold Schwarzenegger; Distributor: TriStar Pictures

Total Recall is a head film for action freaks: It's about altered states and kicking butt (not necessarily in that order). Set in 2084, it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a happily married construction worker who learns that his entire existence — his personality, his experience, his memory — has been prefabricated. In truth, he used to be somebody else, but any knowledge of that other life has been wiped away. All that's left is a vague recurring nightmare set on Mars — which, in the movie, has become an off-world mining colony staffed by biologically deformed ''mutants.''

Total Recall is about how Quaid reclaims his identity and gets even with the people who hijacked it. It's about his precarious shifts in consciousness — his dread sensation that whatever he's experiencing at any moment may actually be a dream. The movie is also about governmental conspiracy, 21st- century tastes in architecture (in a word: huge), and how many different ways Arnold Schwarzenegger can do physical damage to property and person. In short, Total Recall is too much — but it's too much of a good thing.

Director Paul Verhoeven, who made the brilliant RoboCop, now offers a more ballistic version of the same material. Inspired this time by the Philip K. Dick short story ''We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,'' Verhoeven has created another luridly nasty futuristic universe in which technology mingles with decay, and street hooligans are in cahoots with corporate baddies. Once again, his hero is an oversize human wrecking machine who struggles to find his lost soul.

Schwarzenegger, at his deadpan best, gives a likable performance with an intense, almost anguished edge. And no director has been funnier (or smarter) than Verhoeven at satirizing end-of-the-millenium entropy; in Verhoeven's version of a technological society, the more things change, the more they get worse. RoboCop was witty, brutal, and finally moving — a thriller made with genuine artistry. Total Recall is broader and more uneven. A reckless orgy of pop nihilism and state-of-the-art slasher carnage, the movie is relentless, like a postpunk version of an Indiana Jones cliff-hanger.

Early on, Verhoeven has great fun piling on the future-shock details. Everywhere you look, there are examples of banal ''progress'': automated nail polish, smiling robot cabdrivers, hologram tennis-instruction videos. The movie serves up the high-tech magic matter-of-factly, making it a satiric extension of our own lazy, consumer society. One of the funnier inventions is Rekall, Inc., a hallucinatory-vacation service that's sort of like a Club Med in your own brain. A Rekall vacation involves getting dangerous cerebral ''implants'' that can turn you psychotic. Quaid, inspired by his nightmare, pays a visit to Rekall, and since his memory had been tampered with previously, he ends up having a bad trip. This leads to his key moment of self-revelation: ''If I'm not me, who the hell am I?''

As he begins to pick up clues, Quaid is pursued by a thug (Michael Ironside) who works for Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the capitalist dictator of the Martian colonies. The movie turns into a violent, existential chase thriller, with Quaid journeying to Mars to solve the mystery of his identity.

Verhoeven visualizes the Red Planet as a glowing psychedelic wasteland, with urban centers housed under see-through domes that offer protection from the atmosphere. Quaid finds sanctuary at a sleazy bar in Venusville, the local tenderloin district. There, he meets Melina (Rachel Ticotin), the mysterious woman from his nightmare, plus members of the mutant-rebel underground. Victims of poverty, they live in faulty domes that let in genetically damaging rays.

The bar itself is like a sicko version of the Star Wars canteen. One eerily distorted fellow appears to be wearing half his brains on the outside, and there are startling encounters with a prostitute whose chest would leave even Hugh Hefner drop-jawed. The visual-effects expert Rob Bottin is a mad genius of the perverse. His extravagantly deranged creations are featured throughout the movie, and they lend Total Recall much of its otherworldly texture.

In the end, Verhoeven hauls out the big guns. He's a great action director; he knows how to stage chases and fights so that nothing feels choreographed. The result of his heavy-duty bravura is that the movie never fully follows through on its premise. Instead of the story of a man poised between two identities, Total Recall turns into a fantastically overwrought version of a typical Arnold picture — it's sci-fi on steroids. On that level, however, it achieves total pumpitude.

Originally posted Jun 08, 1990 Published in issue #17 Jun 08, 1990 Order article reprints