This week in Sci-Fi Time Capsule, Total Recall. Despite all the trappings of a summer action movie, including star Arnold Schwarzenegger, it has some legit sci-fi credibility (as well as its share of cringe-inducing missteps).
(WARNING: Spoilers begin below)
Douglas Quaid is inexplicably obsessed with Mars, but his wife won’t let him take a trip there. Instead, he goes to a company called Recall, which promises to implant memories of a trip, and Doug wants them to send him to Mars, remembering a “vacation” that was a secret agent mission. The implant goes wrong, and he comes out of the procedure thinking that he is a secret agent … except that Recall hadn’t gotten as far as implanting that idea.
After that, it’s a crazy, muddled action romp, as a buddy from work turns on him, his wife betrays him, and he finds a secret message he left for himself before his mind was wiped of his real secret agent identity. At his own (past self’s) advice, he heads to Mars and follows a trail of breadcrumbs he left for himself.
On Mars, he finds a mutant rebellion against a man named Cohaagen, who effectively controls the colony by controlling the air supply. The messages from his past self lead him to joining with the rebels, who take him in to discover the dark secret he has buried in his head that could undo Cohaagen’s control. Using psychic powers that some mutants develop, they show him memories of an alien reactor below the planet’s surface that will restore atmosphere to Mars.
But wait, there’s more! Douglas Quaid was a double-agent! His past self and Cohaagen were buddies, and worked together to cook up an ideal plan to infiltrate the rebels, something that could get past the mutant psychics who always sniffed out their spies. Cohaagen intends to restore Quaid’s past self, but Quaid manages to fight back, escaping just long enough to set off the reactor and save Mars.
Why Is This a Classic?
It’s easy to write this off as a popcorn action flick, but it had some deep elements to it. The main plot had elements of both Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What is real? What memories are your own? In the end, who really are you but a pile of memories?
The background worldbuilding also has some elements of prescience. This was back in 1990, so 24 years into the future, we have already seen the sort of invasive surveillance depicted (in less Hollywood fashion) in our world. Self-driving cars exist in nascent form, and self-driving taxis aren’t so improbably anymore. Air becoming a commodity looked more likely when air pollution was a major focus of environmentalism, but it does not seem to wildly improbable when store shelves are stocked with bottled water, a substance that nominally falls on you from the sky, free of charge.
For a movie starring Arnold, this isn’t one of the most quotable movies. There are times when you can tell they are trying, but I don’t know that they really ever pulled off a great quotable line. I rewatched it with an eye for them, too. One thing about the dialogue that did stand out was the profanity. I’m not bothered by profanity in movies, but it seemed a bit stilted the way it was used, like some writer said to himself, “hey, they’re letting me write an R-rated movie and the studio said I could swear.” It’s almost as if the dialogue slows down to make sure no one misses them. I would go back to Beverly Hills Cop for an 80’s movie that swears like people really swear (the IMDB quote page alone contains 26 f-bombs).
So while I’m sure I could scrape up a couple quote-ish lines, I’m going to say to you, Mr. Total Recall, “no thanks, I’ll pass.”
How it Holds Up
It held up so well that in 2012 someone decided to remake Total Recall starring Colin Farrell. It was a bomb, and I’d still choose the original over the remake. I think that before anyone remakes a movie, there should be a checklist.
- Was the original limited by moviemaking technology of its day?
- Did someone botch a movie that had great potential?
- Is the movie being retold to a new generation, with relatable actors?
- Have at least twenty years passed since the original?
- Is this just a cash grab aimed at a beloved classic? (I’m looking at you, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
Before remaking a movie, you’d ideally want it to answer yes to one of the first 3, yes to number 4, and no to 5.