“Total Recall” is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, one of the sci fi greats, who also wrote “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report.” It’s a really entertaining and unpredictable play on the Wrong Man story trope — sort of a Martian version of “North by Northwest.” Arnold Schwarzenegger realizes he is not who he thinks he is, that someone has been messing with his memories, and in his quest to find out who he really is, people start shooting at him and he gets drawn into a Martian revolutionary movement.
Like most of Philip K. Dick’s work, it’s full of ideas, not just banking on one concept to carry it through, as a lot of lesser writers do. Paul Verhoeven’s version does a pretty good job of clearly presenting the ideas without relying too heavily on exposition or explanation. Schwarzenegger, though is a terribly wooden protagonist, with no sense of how to take his character on any sort of inner journey. His attempts to convey anything but the strongest emotions – like the moment he tells love interest Rachel Ticotin that he loves her, even if he can’t remember the past they shared together — are risible.
Verhoeven can’t make Schwarzenegger a talented actor (or draw out what talent he has — he’s been better than this elsewhere) and I have been told by some who have read the original story that he gets the tone and feel all kinds of wrong, but he does add some interesting touches, mostly in the arena of spectacle. I watched this when I was a kid and one of the reasons I came back to it is that there are several particular scenes I could still remember. Arnold and Ticotin going all buggy eyed when they get exposed to the unprotected surface of Mars. Arnold in a robotic woman’s disguise that goes awry. The three-breasted woman. Verhoeven has paid careful attention to the weird and gruesome parts of the story, and that pays off. Combined with a decent script that doesn’t make any stupid mistakes, “Total Recall” is an enjoyable and entertaining movie, replete with over the top action scenes and ridiculous moments. It’s not great cinema, but it’s a solid little nugget of escapist action fluff, and it remains a movie that makes me smile when I think about it.