Total Recall - Special Edition Review

Does this bring back a few memories? Total Recall - a sci-fi spectacular brought to the screen by director Bruce Beresford and starring Patrick Swayze. No? OK, how about David Cronenberg's Total Recall starring Jeff Bridges or, say, Richard Dreyfuss as a mild-mannered office worker who discovers he is not who he thinks he is? Still not the way you remember it? Actually, although I've lumbered some of the names together haphazardly, each of these actors and filmmakers (and indeed others) was attached to the project at one time or another. Alas, none were successful in actually making the film owing to script difficulties and/or worries about the film's undoubted runaway budget. In fact, Beresford came pretty close - a complete set was constructed - but the production fell through when the producer, Dino de Laurentiis, went bankrupt. Total Recall looked destined to be one of the most well-known unmade scripts in Hollywood until Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped in. The Austrian superstar had been keeping a keen eye on the project over the years and bought the rights to the story when the opportunity presented itself. He then asked Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, hot off the success of sci-fi blockbuster Robocop, the director's first exclusively American-made feature, to helm the project. At long last, the film was going to be made and with one of the biggest budgets ever seen at that time.

Total Recall was adapted from a short story entitled 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale' by famed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (who also provided the source material for such acclaimed films as Blade Runner and Minority Report). It had originally been optioned by scribe Ronald Shusett and together with his Alien co-screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, the pair set about expanding Dick's one-act concept into a three-act feature film. Forty-five drafts later, however, the film remained a pipe dream; everybody knew that the story's first act was dynamite but none of the writers' imaginings of what came next cut the mustard. When Verhoeven eventually came on board, he was similarly unimpressed with the many drafts written over the years and another screenwriter, Gary Goldman (who would later co-write Minority Report), was brought in to work on the screenplay. A version was finally arrived at that would provide the requisite all-action thrills demanded by Arnie's many fans - the central character went from meek office clerk to brawny action hero for a start - while simultaneously enhancing the dual reality theme favoured by the film's director. The resulting film turned out to be one of the biggest box office draws released in 1990.

For those that don't already know, the story goes like this: the year is 2084 and construction worker Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is dreaming of Mars. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) is concerned that his interest in the war-torn planet is becoming an obsession. When she deters her husband from taking an actual trip to the colony there, Quaid settles for the next best thing - a 'virtual vacation'. Quaid learns of a company called Rekall Inc. that has the technology to implant the memory of any holiday that a customer desires, one guaranteed to seem as real as, well, the real thing. Although warned by a friend that undergoing such a procedure could be hazardous, Quaid can't resist the temptation, especially when the Rekall salesman offers him 'the ego trip' option, whereby the customer can experience his entire vacation under an alternate identity. Quaid chooses to go as a secret agent but during the implant procedure something goes very wrong. Quaid becomes extremely violent, fighting with members of the Rekall staff and unsettling them with talk of having his cover blown. Realising that this mystery man could mean trouble for them, they toss him out and Quaid's life suddenly becomes a living nightmare. He is shocked to discover that his life on Earth is actually nothing more than a fabrication designed to conceal his true identity and that people are trying to kill him in order to keep the truth from him. No one can be trusted. While dodging the murderous attentions of Richter (Michael Ironside) and his cohorts, Quaid makes his way to Mars in the hope that allies can be found and his true identity revealed. He hooks up with old flame Melina (Rachel Ticotin) who reminds him of his past life and his importance to the rebellion on Mars. Led by the mysterious mutant Kuato, the rebels are fighting against the villainous Mars dictator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who maintains his tyrannical stranglehold on the planet thanks to his control of its oxygen supply. It is he who wants Quaid silenced and our confused hero must now try to piece together his past in order to understand the reasons why. With Cohaagen's psychopathic enforcer Richter still hot on his trail, can Quaid uncover the whole truth about himself in time to help free Mars?

(N.B. There is some spoiler material in the following discussion of the movie. If in doubt, do not read.) Hiring Paul Verhoeven to direct Total Recall was a wise decision by Schwarzenegger and co. since the filmmaker already had previous experience of working not only in the special effects-laden sci-fi genre (Robocop) but, more importantly, with the intricacies of multi-layered narrative. Verhoeven's excellent Dutch psycho-thriller The Fourth Man - featuring a psychologically unstable writer whose delirious imagination might be affecting his sense of reality - presented an enigmatic story carefully constructed to operate on more than one level, and the director realised that Total Recall would afford him the opportunity to re-visit this intriguing concept. In fact, Verhoeven has stated that Total Recall was the middle film in his 'psychosis trilogy', three of his American films that explored the dual nature of identity. Verhoeven's Robocop told the tale of a robot who discovers he was once human, and his subsequent Basic Instinct dealt with a central character who was either extremely psychotic or just awesomely, preternaturally astute.

Total Recall offers a similarly ambiguous scenario - is Quaid actually an amnesiac intelligence agent, or is he just getting the virtual adventure he paid for? - one that requires the viewer to make up his/her own mind about what is real and what isn't. Verhoeven certainly doesn't make it easy though - he deliberately blurs the line between fantasy and reality throughout the entire story, incorporating tantalising plot revelations and clever visual motifs designed to make us question the actuality of what we are watching. In this regard, two scenes in particular stick out - firstly, Quaid's discussions with the Rekall staff concerning the exact specifications of his 'virtual vacation' and secondly, his disorienting hotel-room visit from Dr. Edgemar later on in the film. The first scene is significant because as the story advances we become aware that the entire basic premise of Quaid's adventure (and indeed the movie) has been formulated both by the Rekall rep's sales pitch ("you get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet") and the answers Quaid provides when asked to help fine-tune his ideal ego trip adventure, which we learn is entitled "Blue Sky on Mars"! Yes, it might just be an amazing coincidence but the second example is even more befuddling, providing even stronger evidence that Quaid's journey has in fact been nothing more than a wild head-trip gone haywire. Thoroughly caught up in his action-packed adventure by this stage, Quaid - and the audience - suddenly finds his perception of his environment undermined by the calm and rational Edgemar's declaration that Quaid is actually still at Rekall but that he is "experiencing a freeform delusion…triggered by acute neurochemical trauma". Worse still, Edgemar goes on to say that Quaid will "be stuck in permanent psychosis" if he chooses to continue his virtual ego trip, and his description of Quaid's consequent destiny offers a chillingly accurate prognosis of the remainder of the movie. This was an audacious move by Verhoeven and the director ensures that our uncertainty as to Quaid's actual fate remains even as the end credits roll thanks to his decision to use an ambiguous fade to white over the film's final (triumphant?) image.

Unreality, or the intricate blending of reality and artifice, is a recurrent theme in Total Recall; one of the most impressive aspects of the film is its often spectacular visualisation of the story's futuristic setting but we could argue that even that is liable to the extravagant exaggerations of Quaid's ego trip. We see wall-mounted viewscreens, technologically advanced X-ray machines, even devices that allow women to change instantaneously the colour of their fingernails in Quaid's day-to-day life but following our hero's visit to Rekall, Total Recall's vision of the future becomes even more eye-popping. Holograms, robotic cab drivers, fabulous disguises (that double as explosives), and most memorably, the parade of increasingly bizarre and grotesque-looking mutants that Quaid encounters on Mars - surely all this can't be real, can it? One way or the other, the sheer outlandish spectacle of it all adds a sense of unreality to the proceedings that only enhances the dream/reality confusion of Verhoeven's mind-bending story.

Those acquainted with Verhoeven's work will know that the filmmaker's defining characteristic is his talent for making films rich in thematic food for thought that simultaneously satisfy the audience's appetite for more spicy, adult-oriented fare. Total Recall is no exception and the film was much criticised in its day for its abundant scenes of ultraviolence. This is admittedly very graphic, bloody stuff - one unforgettable moment early in the film pretty much sets the tone when Quaid uses one very unfortunate civilian as a human shield against the machine-gun barrage of Richter and his crew. While the poor sod bears the brunt of their assault, our hero casually dispatches a couple of the bad guys before tossing the blood-soaked, bullet-obliterated carcass down an escalator onto the other remaining pursuers. (Incredibly, Verhoeven notes on the audio commentary that this extremely brutal scene was even more intense before the censors insisted he tone it down.) OK, this probably sounds like nirvana for Arnie fans or devotees of action cinema, and, yes, it must be said that such scenes are shot and choreographed with such bloodthirsty exuberance that, for this viewer, the film remains quite a guilty pleasure. Nevertheless, one could also argue that that such a gloriously OTT and hyper-realistic depiction of violence is justified as it merely adds to the impression that what we are seeing is not actually real but rather a ludicrously entertaining attempt to give the customer (Quaid, us) what he wants. I mean, if what we are watching is in fact the Rekall ego trip, why grant the client anything as mundane as a reality-based 'virtual vacation'? Contemporary adult video games like the 'Resident Evil' series offer the player the chance to be a conscience-less killing machine so why should Rekall's vicarious entertainment be any different? [The video game analogy may also serve as a riposte to those viewers who contend that Quaid's adventure couldn't possibly be happening in his head since there are scenes in the film in which he is not even present. Since video games often employ cut scenes (featuring characters and events set apart from the protagonist) to further the narrative, it's reasonable to surmise Rekall might do the same. After all, they seem to have thought of everything else, even holiday souvenirs for the customer!]

Ultimately, Total Recall is a popcorn movie but one with a little more to offer than the average blockbuster. Mutants on Mars and rapidly transformed biospheres may make for a pretty silly and ludicrous plotline but credit must go to Verhoeven and his screenwriters for preserving the intelligence of the story's underlying themes. The fragile nature of memory, the distorted boundaries between reality and fantasy, and the search of identity are all explored in some fashion and even the topic of political repression finds its way into the film in the form of main villain Cohaagen. Total Recall's harsh, even satirical view of the future is highlighted by the revelation that it is the Mars despot himself who is responsible for the mutations suffered by the planet's native inhabitants. And the reason that his totalitarian system is allowed to perpetuate? Aside from his monopoly of Mars's oxygen supply, Cohaagen also possesses an overriding control of the planet's natural resources. Yes, Verhoeven's film also manages a hint of topicality in its depiction of a ruthlessly oppressive government whose authority goes (mostly) unopposed because of its territory's overall economic importance. Not too shabby for a summer blockbuster, eh?

Generally speaking, this is a great example of the science fiction action movie; the pace, especially during the film's first half, is frenetic, the storyline is clever and intriguing, and the visuals are a treat. Arnie is his usual larger-than-life self, spouting his trademark one-liners ("Consider that a divorce") while slaughtering the bad guys in droves. Rachel Ticotin is given little to do but she makes a credible action heroine, particularly in a memorable catfight with the diabolical Sharon Stone. As is often the case in Verhoeven movies, the villains turn out to be the most colourful characters and Total Recall has a trio of lovably loathsome sadists in Stone, Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox. Indeed, the director has stated that it was Stone's sexy and enthusiastically devilish performance in this film that earned her her career-making role in Basic Instinct. Jost Vacano's splendid cinematography and Rob Bottin's extraordinary make-up effects deserve a special mention for their contribution to the film's visual impact, and the film's sometimes epic feel owes greatly to both William Sandell's production design and a robust and hugely cinematic score from Jerry Goldsmith. That said, Total Recall is by no means flawless: some of the bluescreen and model work FX has aged woefully, and Arnie's limitations as an actor are occasionally all too apparent, as in his cringe-worthy love scene with Sharon Stone. The exaggerated gore and tongue-in-cheek violence may also be off-putting to some viewers, and maybe the film loses momentum after its killer first-act set-up, settling into a more conventional groove as the story mostly abandons its philosophical speculations in favour of a straightforward shoot-'em-up scenario. However, such complaints do not detract from the fact that Total Recall is great, sick fun, a violent spectacle never less than outrageously entertaining and a grand reminder of how unapologetically, bloodily excessive Hollywood blockbusters used to be.


The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 and the transfer appears pretty satisfactory for the most part. Blacks are deep and solid, colours are natural if subdued (although reds seem a little overwhelming at times - the scenes in Cohaagen's office, for example) and shadow detail is reasonably good. Flesh tones appear accurate and contrast is generally fine. There is some grain visible but little sign of compression artefacts or edge enhancement. Admittedly, print damage in the form of dust and scratches does tend to rear its head in the early part of the movie along with occasional shimmering in some of the wide shots but the image improves as the film progresses. Overall, this is a pleasing enough video presentation of the movie.


Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the audio quality of the disc is similarly commendable. The dialogue is clear, clean and distortion-free, and Jerry Goldsmith's grandiose and dramatic music is very nicely conveyed, especially during the "open your mind" flashback sequence, something of a musical highpoint. The front soundstage is used the most, with good separation of both score and sound effects and some impressive LFE activity. The rears are used mainly for ambient effects or during the film's larger action set pieces, such as the film's smashy climax. Plenty of deep, forceful bass here as well to give the subwoofer a good workout. Generally speaking, the soundtrack is strong, well balanced and punchy, with some terrific use of surrounds. A fine effort.


A note on the packaging: This is Artisan's Special Limited Edition release and the disc itself is held on top of a hard sponge inside a (Mars-shaped) embossed metal tin case. The case itself rests on a flimsy cardboard cradle. It's a nice idea but I discovered marks on the disc from its resting on the sponge so a standard Amaray/Alpha case would be preferable (and is, I believe, available). The tin also includes a small circular booklet containing some liner notes from Verhoeven explaining that he provided the makers of this DVD with all his personal files for the movie.

[The movie is contained on 27 chapters and the disc features excellent moving menus modelled on the film's futuristic technology, accompanied by Goldsmith's winning score.] Aside from a 30-second trailer for JVC on the setup menu, the extras are as follows:

Cast & Crew Information: Biographical info and filmographies of stars Schwarzenegger, Ticotin, Stone, Ironside & Cox and of director Paul Verhoeven, source writer Philip K Dick, screenwriters Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill & Gary Goldman, and producers Mario Kassar, Andrew Vajna & Buzz Feitshans.

Production Notes: A description of the making of the film. Verhoeven discusses the assets and pitfalls of making a sci-fi movie, and explains how the specific look of the film was achieved with regard to set design, visual effects, miniature work, bluescreens, and makeup & animatronic effects. (11 pages.)

Photo Gallery: Behind-the-scenes images of the set. (These images can't be paused but can be cycled through faster with the chapter skip button. 10 seconds per image x 12 images = 2 minutes worth.)

Theatrical trailer & T.V. spots: Theatrical trailer - 2 min 9 sec. Theatrical teaser - 1 min. Six T.V. spots - all run approximately 30 sec.

Conceptual art gallery: Concept drawings of Mars landscapes, futuristic machinery, etc. (As with the photo gallery, these images can't be paused but skipped through quickly if required. 10 seconds per image x 20 images = 3 min 20 secs worth.)

Storyboard comparisons: The original storyboard is presented as the main image while a corresponding (smaller) image from the actual movie runs against it in the bottom right corner - Scene 1: Opening dream sequence set on Mars (1 min 24 sec) Scene 2: 'Turning on the reactor' action scene (3 min 2 sec) Scene 3: 'Mars gets an atmosphere' end sequence (2 min 37 sec)

"Visions Of Mars" featurette: A short film on the scientific study and exploration of Mars, discussing the similarities between the red planet and Earth. Could there have once been life on Mars? Interesting but way too short. (5 min 27 sec)

Rekall Virtual Vacations: A pointless extra enabling the viewer to choose between three different 'virtual vacation' scenery packages: (1) Dunes of Mars, (2) Mountain Expedition on Planet Lumina or (3) Earth Beach. Each choice displays a picturesque scene for the observer's 'enjoyment'. (Re-cycles every 30 seconds until you get sick of it and push the 'menu' button - which should be pretty damn fast!)

"Imagining Total Recall" documentary: A 30-minute (unsubtitled) piece featuring new interview excerpts from Verhoeven, Schwarzenegger, Ronald Shusett, Gary Goldman, Jerry Goldsmith, cinematographer William Sandell and FX man Eric Brevig (as well as archived stuff with Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone and Rob Bottin) detailing the film's production history. Topics include the initial difficulties in adapting the story for the screen, the 'somewhat' arduous work environment of a Verhoeven film set, the problems encountered during the shoot in Mexico, the set design, the choreography of the fight scenes, the visual FX, and the controversy with the American censors over the film's violence. There is also some discussion of the film's central dream/reality theme and the story's political background. Although all the important points are covered by the documentary, nothing is dealt with in any great detail and so I can't help but feel that it would have benefited from a longer running time.

Audio commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger: Verhoeven is always worth listening to and considering that Schwarzenegger was paid $70,000 to record this track, you would think that this is one audio commentary to get excited about, right? Well, it is and it isn't. The bad news is that both participants tend to simply narrate the onscreen action too much - always a potential source of irritation on this type of DVD extra. Verhoeven seems keen to emphasise the 'it's-all-a-dream' interpretation of the story while Schwarzenegger apparently favours the reality-based 'I-really-am-the-hero' version. This means that the star spends way too much time informing us when his next big fight scene is coming up and then admiring the ever-growing body count. (Actually some of their remarks here are quite amusing but I wish the two men had spent more time talking about the film instead of revelling in it.)

The good news, however, is that there is some interesting stuff to be gleaned from the pair scattered throughout their discussion. For example, did you know that the Earth-set sequences in the film were actually shot at a military academy in Mexico City, one that required minimal set dressing thanks to its perfectly-suited architectural style (known as 'New Brutalism')? Or that that the production team had help from NASA with the designs for the living spaces on Mars? Or how about Verhoeven's assertion that the scene in the catacombs that has the Martian guerrillas hiding out from Cohaagen's persecution was intended to mirror the Roman catacombs which secreted Christians from the Roman empire? (And you thought this was just another brainless Schwarzenegger bloodbath.) Verhoeven also refers to Minority Report and its conceptual link to a long-mooted Total Recall 2, i.e. the basic idea for the sequel had the Martian mutants being used as clairvoyants to prevent crime before it happens - ring any bells? Other topics discussed include the budgetary compromises made during filming (and indeed Arnie's invaluable presence in securing enough money to complete the more costly FX shots), the cuts made to the film to appease the MPAA, the influence of Hitchcock (a recurrent source of inspiration in Verhoeven's work), the realisation of certain special effects, and so on. Above all else, it's obvious from listening to the commentary that both men are very proud of the movie and recognise its importance to their subsequent careers.


The picture and sound on the DVD are both worthy of praise, and although individually the extras may come up a little short, altogether they prove to be an entertaining and illuminating guide to the film and its production backstory. Most importantly, aside from some antiquated special effects, the film itself has held up pretty well over the years and is therefore heartily recommended to all sci-fi nuts and violent action fans everywhere.

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