TIFF Bell Lightbox Presents The Rise of Beefcake Cinema: ‘Total Recall’ becomes progressively endearing with age

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Total Recall

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman

USA, 1990

Thanks to some of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century, we’ve come to discover that the moon is, in fact, not full of cheese. But thanks to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi action adventure movie, Total Recall, it seems that Mars certainly is. With a frenetic torrent of over-the-top set pieces and humorously delivered one-liners, the film is a campy exploitation that, like a fine lump of English Farmhouse Cheddar, becomes progressively endearing with age.

Set in the not-too-distant future, Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a 21st century construction worker. Seemingly living a perfect life with a perfect wife (Sharon Stone), Doug’s insatiable fascination with Mars leads him to elicit the spurious services of Rekall, a company that implants memories into its paying customers (the exact opposite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

When complications ensue, Doug has to find his way to Mars, where he embarks on a Hitchcockian caper full of crime, mystery, and mistaken identities – albeit on steroids.

Hitchcock comparisons aside, Total Recall is yet another adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, but ostensibly different from the others. Like its kinfolk, it’s set in a dystopian future with a reluctant male protagonist fighting the excesses of an all too powerful government/agency. But what makes Recall stand out, for better or for worse, is its sardonic tone.

Instead of being a brooding, somber, borderline neo noir piece (Blade Runner) or a gimmicky action thriller that takes itself far too seriously (Minority Report), Recall acknowledges its absurd premise in order to go down a path of giddy destruction, unrestrained gore, and unabashed dark humour – only a film with such a tenor can successfully pull off a sight gag like a three-breasted woman.

In a sense, this is what makes the film so imminently watchable. The throwaway one-liners (“consider that a divorce”), the hammed up acting/posturing, and the film’s callous disregard for character dimension can all be justified as self-aware impudence.

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, simply functioning as an energetic, high-octane form of escapism. There are never plot holes large enough to pull us out of our already tenuous suspension of disbelief, and the action is directed well enough to keep the film running seamlessly from one gleefully violent altercation to the next.

But the one major letdown is the script’s untapped potential. Beneath all the rubble and destruction that is the by-product of the story’s raisons d’être lies a kernel of latent possibility, and it’s disappointing that the film uses it to make a popcorn flick.

The film does play around with idea of dreams, alternate realities, and convolutions, but they are soon dropped in order to return to the gun show. The conclusion, especially, makes us wonder if the film has a Brazil type ending, but because the majority of the film is such mindless, if incredibly fun, hokum, it doesn’t really spark the intrigue it intended to.

Subsequent films have drawn a great deal of inspiration from Total Recall’s surplus narrative loose ends, with movies like The Matrix (red pill), Inception, and the aforementioned Spotless Mind being examples.

The film itself gets more ludicrous as it ages, with the antiquated animatronics and CGI lending to its cheeky credibility. The film is undeniably cheesy, but, hey, who doesn’t enjoy a little cheese on their popcorn flick?

– Justin Li

For tickets and more information, please visit the TIFF website.

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