Arnold Schwarzenegger is caught up in a Martian conspiracy in this violent classic from Paul Verhoeven, now restored in 4K
The most famous quote from Total Recall comes at the end of a brilliantly baffling first act and is delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his trademark garbled voice: “Get your ass to Mars.” It's a great line in and of itself, but it's also a thinly-veiled message to the audience: we might be leaving the planet, but don't expect the high-minded space musings of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, Total Recall stands as the embodiment of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven's unmatched ability to create the most inspired kind of self-aware schlock.
This is not only the most entertaining and satisfying Arnie actioner outside of the Terminator franchise, but a film of genuinely great artistic merit, packed with clever twists, incredible sets and set-pieces, and a perfect sense of pacing. A film like Total Recall – returning with an incredible 4K transfer – could have only come from the year 1990, of course, made at the point where CGI was just about to take over from practical effects. It's both immensely pulpy and also seemingly seriously-minded about sci-fi – a kind of middle ground that can be appreciated as either, but is best viewed as both.
Schwarzenegger gets what is arguably his best role as the improbably named Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who lives at an undisclosed point in the future where humans have colonised other planets and travel to space is commonplace. Quaid has a nice but boring life, a beautiful wife (a magnetic Sharon Stone), though is plagued by dreams of Mars and a desire for a more exciting existence.
Obsessed with the red planet, he agrees to an experimental memory implant procedure from a shady company called “Rekall” who agree to plant fake memories of a trip to Mars in his head. It all goes very wrong indeed, the implant inadvertently awakening suppressed memories of Quaid's supposed former life as a secret agent. Quaid has no choice but to get his ass to Mars, where he's entangled in a mutant uprising and a conspiracy involving alien technology. The villains are played with delicious venom by Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside.
The movie is a glorious feat of economical storytelling. It doesn't waste time setting up its world but simply plunges you in headfirst and lets you catch up to its futuristic vision. And how wonderful it is to sit back for two hours and watch real people walking around on real sets. Huge sets, too – proof of Total Recall's standing as one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release. All the money is up there on the screen, in the costumes, the make-up, the intricate and detailed production design. The film is fantastically textural, with a depth that green-screens can never quite replicate.
Verhoeven's commitment to foreshadowing and layering this tale makes it more fun than it has any right to be. He packs the film with little winks and nods that can surely only be appreciated across multiple viewings. And every scene is a blast – there is a noticeable lack of filler – with pacing that is relentless but never off-putting. Each sequence contains a key idea or element that makes it memorable – an exploding head, a doctor who turns up to tell Quaid he's dreaming. There are also great technological flourishes, like the nightmare creation that is “Johnnie Cab,” with its tendency to haunt the dreams of those who grew up watching this film. Jerry Goldsmith's score, equally synthetic and swooning, plays into the idea of it all being an elaborate dream. And the editing itself is so precise – the length of every shot perfectly calculated, with inspired variations in Verhoeven's camerawork apparent throughout.
Total Recall is excessively and indulgently violent, too, in a glorious, hand-over-mouth, blood splattering all over the screen kind of way. By the twenty minute mark, Quaid has already used a civilian as a human shield, the body exploding with lumps of stringy flesh, then thrown down an escalator as a projectile. Later, a villain is offed by having both arms detached during an elevator shaft mishap, Quaid left holding onto the stumps. Most memorably, perhaps, we see what happens when characters are exposed to Mars' toxic atmosphere – heads swelling to twice the size, eyes popping out of sockets on little stalks. Behind the camera, you sense Verhoeven cackling with delight.
The ambiguous “fade to white” ending has prompted much fan discussion over the years. Is Quaid dreaming? Of course, there's no answer, and there was never supposed to be. Aren't we all just versions of Quaid, really, each of us turning to the movies in order to live out our wildest fantasies? This viewing confirms what I already suspected: that Total Recall really is one of the great sci-fi films. The second it was over, I was struck by a genuine urge to rewatch the whole thing again, right from the start. In Verhoeven's hands, it's a kind of Hollywood dream you don't want to wake up from.
The 4K restoration of Total Recall is now available on digital platforms.Where to watch