FILM (1990)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am


Total Recall
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
Director: Paul Verhoeven

'He awoke - and wanted Mars'. Philip K. Dick was never a man of letters, with the opening sentence to the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale - the basis for the film Total Recall - proving the point.

But what Dick lacked in words, he more than made up for in ideas. The author understood the possibilities of travel, and we only need look at the current glut of sci-fi thrillers inspired by or adapted from Dick for proof. Be it the modern-day, high-speed forms of transport (Source Code), the fantasy/reality mix of hidden doors and foot chases (The Adjustment Bureau) or the other-worldly escape of a mind-manipulated dream world (Inception), travel takes us to places we could never have thought possible.

Total Recall isn't as thought-provoking as those films, coming smack in the middle of the 80s over-the-top action-fest. Arnold Schwarzenegger - again absurdly playing the role of an Austrian-accented, beefed-up 'American everyman' - is Quaid, a construction worker who can't stop dreaming of Mars. Not able to afford the real thing, he opts for a simulated escape at Recall, a virtual vacation company that offers a memory implant with all the pleasures of travel and none of the hassles. But the implant triggers a buried mental response, and Quaid is tossed into a classic Arnie action-adventure that sees him making the trip to Mars, where everything he encounters seems familiar. Is he really on the red planet or still stuck in the virtual world? Is this all just a state of mind?

Unfortunately, these are minor questions - the film never truly explores Dick's existential, alternate-reality conundrums. Instead, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) uses them as cues for his trademark combination of repulsive characters and ultra-violent action sequences. From three-breasted prostitutes and Agent Orange-like mutants, to exploding heads and inspired hologram shootouts, the movie's heady mix is exhilarating.

But it's the travel aspects of the film that are the most enticing. Travel, as we all know, can be as exasperating as it is enjoyable: delays, transfers, lost luggage. Sci-fi films often gloss over these hassles - dreaming of adventures among the stars in comfortable capsules and clean-white walls, few ever paint an unsentimental picture.

Total Recall is thankfully one of them. While undoubtedly dated in its 80s-futuristic set design and outmoded social norms (who uses a travel agent anymore?), it doesn't shy away from showing what will undoubtedly be the realistic side of future travel: from endless transport security checks and overcrowded planets with cheap hotel rooms, to the depressing nature of a discount vacation on Mars.

Still, Total Recall stands out by taking Dick's travel interest and throwing it into a melting pot of Verhoeven obsessions and Schwarzenegger cliches. Here's hoping next year's remake starring Colin Farrell will not only retain that faithful slice of sci-fi travel, but will also stick a little more closely to the author's thought-provoking short story.