The Original 'Total Recall' -- Classic or Crap?

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by Matt Singer
July 31, 2012 11:13 AM
7 Comments
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"Total Recall."

The folks at Vulture were nice enough to invite me to contribute to their recurring Nostalgia Fact-Check column with a piece on how the original "Total Recall" holds up. As I confess in the article, I'm not the most unbiased authority on the subject. Having grown up watching Schwarzenegger's movies, having used him as the subject for several grad school papers, I'm endlessly fascinated by his movies, even the bad ones. I could talk for hours about "The Sixth Day" -- wanna hear? Hey, wait! Where are you going?

Still, it had been almost a decade since I'd watched "Total Recall" and I honestly thought it held up really well.

"Time and hindsight have only enhanced 'Total Recall'’s impact. The Martian mutants’ revolt against their greedy, resource-hoarding corporate overlords now brims with Occupy Wall Street overtones while the “consider that a divorce” gag carries weirdly poignant weight in light of Schwarzenegger’s recent separation from his real-life wife, Maria Shriver. The film went on to inspire its fair share of knockoffs (including one, 'The Sixth Day,' starring Schwarzenegger) and it was a clear inspiration for 'The Matrix,' particularly the scene where a Rekall doctor tries to convince Quaid to swallow a red pill in order to acknowledge that he’s living in a fantasy world. Regardless, there’s something about 'Total Recall'’s blend of vicarious thrills and troubling themes that still feels unique, a throwback from a time when giant Hollywood blockbusters were allowed to take risks, when they weren’t all sequels, rehashes, or remakes."

I thought I made a pretty good case. When the story was published, and I got some nice feedback on Facebook and Twitter. "Total Recall: Original Recipe" is awesome. End of discussion, right?

Wrong! A day or so earlier, Will Leitch of Deadspin had penned a very similar piece on the original "Total Recall" with a very different conclusion. "'Total Recall' is a Lot Dumber Than You Remember" screamed his title, and once I stopped bawling over my fallen childhood, I read on to discover a whole litany of charges against the film. Heresy upon heresy!

"My memory recollected 'Total Recall' as a spooky, smart mind-bender about identity and cool aliens, but, upon watching it again, the main point of the movie seems to be 'the future is totally different, you guys.' The first two-thirds of the movie are one groaning 'whoa, future!' gimmick after another. 'Total Recall' is honestly just a couple step removed from Tomorrowland. The future will bring us full-body X-ray machines! Light pens that change your nail color! Telephones with cameras! Taxi cabs driven by robots! Newspapers called 'Mars Today!'"

I do agree that a few of "Total Recall"'s predictions about technology were a lot closer to Criswell than Nostradamus. On the other hand, director Paul Verhoeven got others exactly right; full-body X-rays are basically those newfangled airport security machines the TSA swears aren't taking pictures of our junk (they just sound like something out of a Verhoeven film, don't they?). Either way, most sci-fi movies eventually looks dated; that's part of their charm. They show us not our future, but what the future looked like to the people of the period in which it was made. In 1990, folks thought telephones would stay huge, no one would own a personal computer, and people who lived on Mars would sprout extra organs and psychic powers. Nobody's perfect.

Some of our conclusions about "Total Recall" are diametrically opposed. Leitch says the movie looks cheap; I say the visuals were one of the pinnacles of analog special effects. He finds it "serious" and "heavy-footed," I think it's hilarious. He says "Predator" and "The Running Man" hold up better -- I say "Total Recall" is amongst the handful of best films Schwarnzegger ever made. In other words, "Total Recall"'s strengths and weaknesses are totally subjective, which is particularly fitting in this case since "Total Recall" is about the subjective nature of all reality. I guess the only question now is which one of us is Quaid and which one of us is Howser.

That's where you come in. I had wrongly assumed that "Total Recall"'s cult was strong and unanimous. After both pieces were published, I watched arguments break out on Twitter about the film's relative merits: it's vulgar, it's hilarious; it's crass, it's uncensored; it's stupid, it's brilliantly stupid. My opinion of the movie hasn't changed, but now, like Quaid, I'm doubting my own perceptions of reality. Are people looking forward to the remake? Do they think "Total Recall" is a classic or a piece of crap? Have I been lied to this entire time?

Let me know what you think -- and I hope you enjoyed your ride.

Read more "How Does 'Total Recall' Hold Up?" and "'Total Recall' Is a Lot Dumber Than You Remember" -- and then get your ass to the comments section.

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7 Comments

  • Mark | August 1, 2012 11:45 AMReply

    Original Verhoeven Total Recall = classic.
    Remake Wiseman Total Recall = crap.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  • Danny Southern | July 31, 2012 9:24 PMReply

    I always loved that movie. It's pure Verhoeven; violent, colorful, silly, satiric...I'm also very found of the Jerry Goldsmith score which gave me shivers so many times as a kid.

  • Mattijs Grannetia | July 31, 2012 12:18 PMReply

    I have always had a soft spot for Total Recall. One reason being that I'm Dutch and I was incredibly proud of fellow Dutchman Paul Verhoeven getting to make these gigantic movies over there in the mythic Hollywood. I was deep into my teenage years when Total Recall was released and that was also the time for me that I really started to look at movies as more than entertainment. This movie was an epic experience, mainly due to the story and the cutting edge visual effects. I loved it and revisited it often since. But, however, recently I purchased Total Recall on blu-ray and I must say that the movie is starting to show its age and I have to agree with Leitch that the gimmicky nature of the movie gets in the way of the story. There are so many moments that scream "Look at me! Look at me!" that it becomes tiresome. Add to that the not so top notch acting (a Verhoeven problem in all his films) and you have a movie I will still watch, but do not consider a cult classic. On the new one: I am looking forward to it, although it certainly looks like Minority Report 2.0.

  • Jon Hastings | July 31, 2012 11:44 AMReply

    TOTAL RECALL is a great film. Also, a very strange one - stranger even than SHOWGIRLS or STARSHIP TROOPERS - full of elements that we might more readily associate with David Cronenberg's movies (even though the tone here is completely Verhoeven's own). It's also all of a piece: i.e., the different examples of future tech almost all deal with technology invading or replacing the human body. And the ridiculous number of times Arnold does violence to someone's neck - either by breaking it or stabbing it - gets at the the mind/body split central to the movie's concerns. I think it's Verhoeven's best Hollywood movie.

  • Mike Saulters | July 31, 2012 11:42 AMReply

    1) Rich, compelling score by Jerry Goldsmith
    2) Solid sci-fi premise by Phillip K Dick
    3) Sharon Stone at her hottest, Michael Ironside at his baddest, Ronny Cox at his evilest
    4) Special effects, digital and practical that still hold up 20 years later
    5) You are not you, you're me. Don't worry, just shove real hard. Get your ass to Mars. Get ready for a surprise. I've got five kids to feed. Consider that a divorce. You're fucking making it happen. Blondes. One-liners, but great and memorable ones.

  • Warren Spencer | August 1, 2012 4:57 AM

    Couldn't agree more Mike. Benny.....screwwww yooooouu!!!!!

  • Danny Bowes | July 31, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    I'd never thought there was anything like unanimous positive critical opinion of Total Recall; if anything, it seemed like more people thought of it as the movie Leitch describes. That's why I wrote this http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/03/qif-im-not-me-then-who-the-hell-am-iq-total-recall back in March.

    I'm on your side, Matt. I think it's a masterfully directed SF picture and a legit excellent Arnold performance. With all due respect to Leitch (whose work at Deadspin was instrumental in inspiring me to start blogging, I should say), I don't recognize the movie he describes in that piece.

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