Fango Flashback: “TOTAL RECALL” (1990)
After making a splash with the ultraviolent sci-fi satire ROBOCOP, it’s not a giant shock that Verhoeven’s next blockbuster venture would be the Philip K. Dick adaptation TOTAL RECALL, which paired the unpredictable director with one of Hollywood’s most reliable action stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a way, the pairing is somewhat perfect, matching two of Hollywood’s most promising imports and vibrant personalities to create a film about a surreal identity crisis. The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a common construction worker stuck in a world of intergalactic espionage and sabotage was bizarre yet appropriate, and as such, he simultaneously delivers one of his most over-the-top performances, while being somewhat restrained and emotionally conflicted. Somehow, Verhoeven strikes gold with Schwarzenegger, who is brave and grateful enough to dive into another one of the director’s living universes, although this time much more alien in nature.
Aided by the financial powerhouse of Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar’s Carolco, Verhoeven assembled many of his ROBOCOP cohorts, including Rob Bottin, actor Ronny Cox, DP Jost Vacano and production designer William Sandell, to help fully realize his version of Dick’s novel. Now, in terms of being a straight adaptation, TOTALL RECALL is barely recognizable as Dick’s creation, going through multiple drafts and directors before landing on Verhoeven’s lap. However, Verhoeven instead provides one of the great last stands for practical FX in filmmaking, offering an absolutely crazy and riveting action adventure peppered with Verhoeven’s signature thirst for blood and nudity.
It’s perhaps Dick’s subversive edge and mystery regarding the reality of the adventure that remains most intact in the final product, as Verhoeven otherwise delivers something more of an FX-driven shoot-’em-up in which the intrigue falls second to quotable dialogue and bloody carnage. Verhoeven offers the same visual finesse and confidence that allowed ROBOCOP to play as fluidly as it did, helping the special FX to seamlessly blend into the elaborate art design of futuristic Mars. In fact, Bottin’s work was strong enough to win the film its only Academy Award, cementing the film into history and making TOTAL RECALL the second Verhoeven film in a row to win one. It’s still the last Verhoeven film to do so.
Of course, the film is ripe with memorable performances, with the likes of Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, Marshall Bell, Michael Ironside, Roy Brocksmith and Mel Johnson Jr. providing some of the most exciting work of their careers. Stone and Ironside’s villainous turns are particularly great, with Stone balancing amoral viciousness with a surprising, innocent charm and Ironside adding gravitas to the brooding henchman role. Rachel Ticotin also does a good job, one that’s often overshadowed by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fascinating performance, but still offers a beautiful and strong female action character that isn’t reduced to just an accidental damsel-in-distress role.
The one big difference between TOTAL RECALL and ROBOCOP, however, would be the subdued satire in the former as opposed to the latter. While ROBOCOP aims its wit at pop culture, corporatization and military privatization, TOTAL RECALL is more driven by narrative necessities, leaving only small jabs at corporatization and conformity throughout the film. This difference could be attributed to the lack of involvement from Verhoeven’s regular sci-fi scribe, Edward Neumeier, but still, it’s a bit suspect considering the previous versions of the script had included contributions from biting, subversive filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and Dan O’Bannon.
TOTAL RECALL is one of the benchmark pre-CGI science fiction films of the ‘90s, with memorable gore and now-classic set pieces. In fact, one could only assume the trainwreck the film may have been without Verhoeven’s aesthetics and crew backing the project, considering so much of the film’s energy seems to be indicative of the director’s vision. The lame-duck 2012 remake is only further evidence that the 1990 TOTAL RECALL has some special movie magic behind it, which is bolstered even more by an involved and duplicitous performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And even though Verhoeven had mastered the art of the science fiction epic, it would be another seven years before the director hopped back into the saddle, offering a satire even more biting than RECALL or ROBOCOP in his adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS.
Toronto Verhoeven fans can see TOTAL RECALL at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, February 28th as a part of it’s Verhoeven Retrospective Series. You can buy tickets here.