Directed by Paul Verhoeven. USA. 1990.

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If you've got the stomach for the brutality, then this, ladies and gentlemen, is the first great science-fiction movie of the 90s. (1)

Total Recall is a fast-action and well-paced film, certainly there are never any dull moments. Nonetheless for several reasons it is not a very satisfying film and certainly doesn't live-up to the expectations incubated by reviewers. 

First, the level of violence is excessive. Director, Paul Verhoeven, seems to have learnt all his blood thirsty filmmaking skills from Sam Peckinpah and mixed them with Steven Spielberg’s talent for producing cliffhanger action sequences. 

The main problem with this type of film is that the means of murder, assassination or mutilation are shown with a full accompaniment of bloody gore. Most sequences are constructed to culminate in a flowing bloodbath of ever-more inventive violence and mayhem.

Linked with the violence are the jokey statements of the type used initially by Sean Connery, but over-played by Roger Moore in the James Bond films. The reason for their introduction was to tone-down their realistic impact, the joke tells the audience that 'this is just a film' and shouldn't be taken seriously, also it was a way of finding favour with the censors. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a personal trademark of these jokey statements but in Total Recall they leave a rather nasty taste. For example, after graphically shooting the person he thinks is his wife in the head, he says "Consider that a divorce". When citizens .of the U.S.A. are prone to resorting to firearms to sort-out their domestic problems such glamorous justification of such acts, with no punishment, set dangerous precedents. 

It can be argued that the fantasy and fantastic context of this film reduces the brutality. Having said that, the viewer is effectively primed to 'look forward' to a roller coaster ride of more mirth and murder. 

Graphic violence in one form or another has always been depicted and used by filmmakers. In this example we can see that the violence is derived from the so-called video nasties of the 1980s. With them we are meant to enjoy the work of the special effects department who joyfully let loose gallons of blood and butcher's shop rejects. The spectacle of mutilation has now become an end in itself for many films. 

Bringing such an ethos to high-budget popular blockbuster movies is a depressing aspect of the 'lowest common denominator' syndrome. 

We can accept the level of violence in this and other contemporary films as inevitable, or as a reflection of the nasty world beyond the cinema screen. I doubt that Total Recall will inspire viewers to dash out to stick spikes in people's heads! The main problem is that such explicit violence becomes dreadfully boring. In films like Jaws we are skilfully manipulated by the music, editing and construction of the scenes to fear the shark long before we see it (when it is shown in close-up the shark looks silly). The same principle applies to the monster in Alien (the later Alien films try to show more and more of the monster and thereby make it seem less scary) or the extraterrestrial forces in 2001

Total Recall does allow women to join-in the violence. Though they are generally shown as manipulative bitches or kindly (mutated) prostitutes. In the end they are victims who are eliminated or saved by masculine force - mainly in the Chippendale shape of our genial giant of a hero, dear old Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

As for the one main black character...He is portrayed as a street-wise, crafty, treacherous snake-in-the-grass, who deserves an excruciating death, which the film dutifully delivers. The continuation of this type of derogatory and embarrassing stereotyping is something Hollywood ought to be ashamed of. 

Skipping over the cynical and cold-blooded attitude it has towards humanity we might consider Total Recall in terms of the science fiction genre. 

The twists and turns in the plot do consider the nature of what is reality and what is dream. Though this isn't much different from the very earliest silent films that feature a hero who has a fantastic trip to the moon then falls out of bed to discover it was all a dream. Our Herman Munster hero is confronted with the question of where his loyalties lie, and he has to decide whether to choose his 'good' or 'bad' personality. Unfortunately, such issues are very quickly passed-over for the sake of action and chase sequences. 

Ridley Scott's Bladerunner brilliantly evoked the claustrophobic and paranoic elements of Philip K. Dick's writings. Bladerunner has a genuine sense of tension and menacing violence without resorting to ketchup bottle pyrotechnics. Here the nature of identity and the context of capitalism are brought into focus without lessening the entertainment quality of the film as a whole. 

In contrast, Total Recall is a travesty of Philip K. Dick's work. The special effects are well executed and are used to create several humorous incidents -though at times they, and some of the sets, do look cheap and nasty. Plus, the science element is rather minimal -it doesn't take an Einstein to see that the end of the film is miraculous and mawkish. 

It is a pity that the wild, silly, profound and astonishing ideas that Philip K. Dick has left in his massive body of sf writings has been diluted and trivialised to the level of a muscle-bound adventure movie that requires the brains of a gnat to give it its full intellectual credit. Yes, if you've the brains, then this, ladies and gentlemen, is the sf movie for this decade, but my stomach will be looking elsewhere. 

Nigel Watson 


1. Newman, Kim, Empire, No. 14, August 1990. Return.
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