My Favourite Arnie Movie – Total Recall (1990)

With Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the big screen in The Last Stand, the Flickering Myth writing team look back at their favourite Arnie movies. Next up, Anghus Houvouras with 1990’s Total Recall..

Arnold Schwarzenegger existed in an unpretentious era of film. At a time when Hollywood was the personification of the American dream.   Where an Austrian bodybuilder barely capable of stringing together a coherent sentence could become the greatest action star in the world. It was an unpretentious, less cynical age where charisma and a chiseled physique were more important than logic or common sense.

Schwarzenegger’s entire career was predicated on the principle that there was no problem too complex that couldn’t be solved with brutal violence. Many of his films were cartoonish affairs that were so far removed from reality that they seemed more comparable to a Wile E. Coyote Looney Tunes than a real world action film. His presence often helped sell films with a ludicrous presence simply by being there. Total Recall may the finest example of that axiom.

I love Total Recall. The original that is. Not the white washed, fun free remake that plagued cinemas last year. Total Recall is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Gonzo science fiction bloodbaths where anything and everything happens.  The premise of the film was exceptionally well thought out. An average Joe pines for a more exciting life. He dreams of going to Mars and exploring new worlds, something not possible in his blue collar existence. Then he decides to visit a company that will implant memories into your brain forgoing the need to do anything but sit in a chair and wait for your dream life to be delivered to your cerebellum. This is a movie, so of course something goes horribly wrong. It turns out his mind had already been messed with and soon mild mannered Douglas Quaid has blood on his hands and gun toting killers trying to hunt him down.

Director Paul Verhoeven was in the zone after having released the most subversive action film ever made with RoboCopTotal Recall was his follow up and he took a very high concept story by sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick and transformed it into one of the most fun science fiction thrill rides ever committed to film. 

What works so well about Total Recall is the kitchen sink mentality Verhoeven uses to tell the story. You have the basic set up for a typical action film combined with the constant question of whether or not Quaid is experiencing these events or they are the product of a botched memory implant. He throws in a bunch of science fiction cliches by taking him to Mars with mentions of alien prophecies, then gives us a crazy looking batch of Mars mutants who form a makeshift resistance trying to free their people from tyrannical corporate rule. All of this in a movie that clocks in under two hours. 

Total Recall is fearless in a way many modern blockbusters aren’t. Verhoeven dove head first into the crazy social system of Mars and the downtrodden mutant population. He gave audiences three breasted hookers and midgets with machine guns.  There is so much fun to be had in Total Recall. Verhoeven was always a director who knew an appropriate amount of cheese helped audiences digest junk food. He also wasn’t afraid to play up the comic elements. There’s a scene where Quaid has to remove a tracking bug from his head by inserting a probe up his nose, and he hangs on those visuals endlessly well aware that it’s both sickening and highly entertaining. 

And not everything had to make sense. Like when Quaid has to dress up like an obese middle aged woman to get through a checkpoint. After his cover is blown, he removes the mask and throws it at an armed sentry and explodes. His disguise was also a bomb? How does that work exactly? You don’t have time to care, because the movie moves at full throttle and doesn’t give you a moment to consider the logic or absence thereof.

And like every Verhoeven film, it’s violent to the nth degree. Verhoeven works with carnage like other artists work with paint or clay. It is his medium, and he has mastered it. The death of Michael Ironside’s scenery chewing villain may be the most hilarious brutal murder in the history of film.  

But it’s Arnold that really holds the film together. That wonderful bug eyed expression he has when trying to convey shock. The way he dispatches villains with sadistic vigor. The way he mangles dialogue and spews out potential trailer worthy catchphrases. Is there any other person on the planet that could dispatch an evil mutant with a giant industrial drill while screaming “SCREW YOU BENNY!” and not have it seem implausible?

No, there isn’t.  Because Arnold Schwarzenegger is awesome. And Total Recall is Arnold in his most awesome cinematic experience. If you don’t love this movie, I pity you.

Anghus Houvouras

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