Oh, Paul Verhoeven, why do you make such interesting films when you’re so clearly an awful director? Something about his style really grates on my nerves. I don’t mind sex and violence, but no other director, not even Michael Bay, manages to make it feel so darn gratuitous. People don’t just get shot in Verhoeven films, their thick, gooey blood bursts out in giant clumps. It’s Tarantino violence without the winking, good-natured irony. And yet, he did manage to make a couple of compelling sf movies. Hugo voters may be too classy for them, but Saturn took notice.
Total Recall is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” and it plays Dick’s games with reality better than any mainstream film before it, except maybe Blade Runner. Arnold Schwarzeneggar gives a typically awful performance as Douglas Quaid, a working-class construction worker from late-twentieth century Earth. I’ve always thought Ahnold to be a terrible actor when he’s not playing a robot, and this is no exception. Quaid has wistful and disturbing dreams about Mars, and he decides to get a memory implant of a trip there, since he can’t afford a real vacation. He also pays for the “secret agent adventure story” upgrade. However, the memory implant triggers real memories of his life as a secret agent on Mars, and soon several people are trying to kill or capture him, including his wife (an early Sharon Stone performance).
Quaid escapes to Mars and links up with a group of mutant revolutionaries (Verhoeven and the make-up/effects team come up with some pretty odd-looking characters). However, there are also indications that the whole trip may be the memory implant process itself, which his mind is taking too seriously. The film manages to keep the ambiguity alive for the rest of the film by playing it straight but dropping subtle hints to the contrary.
Overall, the acting is weak and Verhoeven’s directing is typically over-the-top, but the effects are excellent – as good as anything non-Spielberg or Lucas that I’ve covered so far, and the story is surprisingly interesting. It’s not 2001 or Alien, but it’s worth a look.