not in our stars, but in ourselves
50/52: A movie set in the future
The best science fiction, whether on the page or the screen, often takes present-day neuroses and transplants them to an imaginary other time and place. By offsetting the big issues of the day just a bit, the author/filmmaker can address them in a more subversive and outspoken way than if they’d stuck with straight drama. I can’t think of anyone who would ever try to argue seriously that Total Recall is “the best,” as sci-fi or anything else, but it is (a) good dumb fun, and (b) oddly prescient, despite having been made in 1990 and adapted from a 1960s story by Philip K. Dick. Maybe, like the film’s hero, we just keep doing the same thing over and over, wiping our own memory after each new disaster. Or maybe that’s giving it too much credit.
In 2084, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) works as a construction worker on Earth. He keeps dreaming about Mars and a brunette woman, to the chagrin of his sexy blonde wife, Lori (Sharon Stone). Mars has been colonized, but the Martians – mostly mutants due to poor oxygen supplies – are violently rebelling against their terrestrial oppressors. Despite the unrest, Quaid wants to go on a trip to Mars. Lori refuses, so Quaid instead decides to go to Rekall. They implant memories of vacations, so Quaid signs up for the two-week Mars package. During the implantation, he goes berserk: it turns out that he’s already been to Mars, and had his memory wiped out. In fact, Quaid turns out to be an important player in the Martian rebellion – important enough that the governor, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronnie Cox), personally saw to it that Quaid’s mind was cleaned out, with new “memories” of his life as a construction worker and his marriage to Lori implanted. After Cohaagen’s goons try to kill Quaid in his home – with help from Lori – Quaid escapes to Mars. There, he finds Melina (Rachel Ticotin), his ex-girlfriend who was royally pissed off when he disappeared and seemed to have switched sides, from the rebellion to Cohaagen. He wins her back over, and finds all kinds of secrets buried in his mind, and saves the day, and they all live happily ever after.
It’s all pretty silly stuff. Paul Verhoeven is the director of such modern classics as Robocop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers – movies that aren’t necessarily as dumb as they look, but that you have to examine pretty closely to prove that’s not the case. (A former professor of mine defends Showgirls as critically worthwhile, arguing that it’s actually a Western in disguise. Maybe!) Total Recall is very much of a piece with these other films: bright, garish, goofy, dated, but compulsively watchable. Somehow, Schwarzenegger’s blankness becomes an asset: of course this is how someone whose mind had been completely altered would speak and act. Somehow, the hairpin turns from would-be serious moments (Quaid communing with a parasitic twin who’s also psychic and who’s leading the resistance, yes really) to frat-boy comedy (a prostitute with three tits) to surprisingly graphic violence (the governor’s men shoot up the bar where the rebels meet, and turn off the oxygen) all work together. Somehow, none of it falls flat on its face. It’s hard to explain how it works (and of course, some people – like my boyfriend, whose reaction when I told him I was watching this was a simple “UGH” – think it doesn’t work at all), but I really think it does. There was an episode of The Simpsons in which a doctor examining Mr. Burns tells him that he has every disease known to medical science – but that they’re somehow all keeping each other in check. A similar principle applies to Total Recall, I’d say.
More interesting and less silly is how correctly the film predicts what a war for scant resources will do to us. We know more now than we did in 2015 about what climate change is doing to the planet, and how we’re overfarming and overeating and over-everything, and how these things hit the poorest people hardest. In Total Recall, a creepy government-business conglomerate owns all the air on Mars, and makes Martians pay to use it. Now, we have – for example – rich pricks who make Patrick Bateman look like the philanthropist of the year, buying a life-saving drug and jacking the price up far beyond what all but the wealthiest can afford. I doubt it will be long before similar blood-suckers, whether an individual or a corporation, will start pulling similar stunts with water, air, food, etc., etc. For such a wacky movie, Total Recall feels pretty on-the-nose. We’re probably not far off wars breaking out over drinkable water; we’ve been fighting wars for oil for decades now; and if things get bad enough on earth that we do end up colonizing another planet, as in Total Recall and The Martian and even Interstellar, we’ll probably screw that up too. We’ve gotten really bad at the for-the-greater-good aspect of living in a modern society together; it’s scary to think what it will take to drill that necessity into our thick skulls.
Don’t worry, though. Total Recall is not a “message” movie. It’s a couple of hours of what plays almost as a madcap dream, as if someone had put the Marx Brothers and Star Wars into the machine from The Fly and hit “purée.” Sometimes it’s intentionally funny; more often than not, no one on screen seems to be in on the joke. (Verhoeven might be.) At one point, Schwarzenegger – who’s been using a hologram of himself to throw people off – says: “You think this is the real Quaid? IT IS.” Bang, bang, bang. After escaping an attempted memory wipe organized by Cohaagen, who tells him he should stop by the party he’s throwing that night – an invitation that enforce Richter (Michael Ironside) repeats mockingly – Schwarzenegger manages to use an elevator to cut off Richter’s hands, at which point he yells, “SEE YOU AT THE PARTY, RICHTER.” Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be serious? I just don’t know. I’m not sure I care either way.