Total Recall is among many of the short story adaptations of the author’s work, something that makes sense from a screenwriters’ standpoint, and hopefully from the producers’, because as Cronenberg has said of adaptations, they’re less translations than they are transformations. A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner are polar opposites when it comes to the method of their respective adaptations, and they serve as telling analogies to the difficulties of not only adapting novels, but adapting Dick. To the screenwriter, novels have structures that can be broken down into three acts, which based on the novel, may be true, but isn’t always, and thus these movies aren’t always successful. Look at Dune – well, don’t. I’m sure there were other problems with that one. *blek*

With a short story, the screenwriter sees story elements, and these can be transcribed onto film. And Philip K. Dick shorts usually have strong, high concept premises, so that’s what you’ll see in Minority Report and Total Recall and others – the premise, and story elements. Unlike Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau and Paycheck and the other PG-13 Dick flicks, Total Recall is lousy with MPAA-here’s-the-middle-finger-you-assholes moments. Bullets don’t rip people to shreds like this in movies, not even in John Woo. This must be the work… of Paul Verhoeven.

Before Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven was a force to be reckoned with as a champion of science-fiction film. He did a lot to sell the genre as an effective medium of satire, with each of his entries in an unofficial scifi trilogy – Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers – becoming increasingly bolder in their sociopolitical statements. They also share something even more important: they’re all great, fun movies. Big and full of explosions and car crashes and guns, guns, guns.

 

Total Recall, based on “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick, is not quite as successful in its introspections Robocop, but at least as successful as Troopers, and this is just fine. At the end of the day, Total Recall is an Arnold movie, meaning it’s an iconic action movie with a lot of macho. Arnold is a presence, he’s the face of American action cinema, spanning just as many subgenres as Sly Stallone but with more success (in that, for example, The 6th Day was technically better than Judge Dredd), and he makes any movie he’s in an Arnold movie. Just think – Aliens almost had Arnold playing Hicks; it was very close to being an Arnold movie.

This particular Arnold volume has an interesting twist – it offers a few phildickian questions into the “What is real?” half of the author’s preoccupations, going so far as to create one scenario about mid-way through that’s reminiscent of Ubik. Sharon Stone and some fellow ‘working for’ Rekal approach Quaid and try to explain this scifi adventure away as a fantasy, that they’re simply avatars trying to reach Quaid from the other side. For a moment the audience is confused. Perhaps this isn’t real?

Then Arnold shoots the guy and there’s an action scene, which is great, though it washes away all that ambiguity in favor of what Total Recall prioritizes: action with a capital a. To be fair, there is enough narrative evidence to throw out the question, for example this has the John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness issue of insanity, where the audience can’t really be convinced of one character’s mental hiccups when the movie isn’t told exclusively from his viewpoint. Not every scene has Quaid in it, just like not every scene in Carpenter’s flick has Sam Neil. Yes, it would be interesting to have that question, and it is a good idea, but the scifi action movie is a popular medium, an audience’s medium. The Philip k. Dick novel is not, certainly not in the year 1990, at least, or whenever this film was first brought to the studios – a guaranteed long time before release.

For all its charm, Total Recall was a troubled development. Of all people, David Cronenberg was attached to it, which to me is just wild. To think that Total Recall could’ve been more Naked Lunch than Commando is an intriguing thought, but if Cronenberg was to adapt any Dick I’ve read so far I hope it’d be Ubik: there’s plenty of body horror in that one, with all the people dissolving and the android bomb and the guy who eats people whole. I could see it. Unfortunately Cronenberg’s sort of gone in a different direction, but A Dangerous Method still looks amazing.

Anywho, Total Recall eventually (or perhaps always was, I don’t rekal) got the treatment of Dan O’Bannon, another cult favorite, also responsible for genre favorites like Return of the Living Dead and (funnily enough) Screamers. I don’t know who did this, but somebody along the way did something really cool to the short story, which for quick recap, is much simpler, and quite the good laugh, though a different brand of humor than “Consider that a divorce.” There is dedicated imagination in Total Recall; it’s filled with a great many ‘things.’ The number of inventive gadgets and SF elements is staggering, each unique and often offering a set piece or clever moment (bursting through X-Ray wall, for example) as cinematic application.

In addition, there’s an element of metanarrative here that I’ve always found interesting, and this seems to be a common theme in Arnold movies, from Commando to Last Action Hero, and even Terminator 3. At some point filmmakers realize that the Arnold movie can be a delicate art – one that’s self-aware. This isn’t quite like that, but references to a secret agent hero defeating the badguy and getting the girl in the end are made by Rekal yuppies, and there’s no better quintessential secret agent hero than the Arnold. Layers of unreality, I suppose – stories within stories.

Total Recall is bursting at the seams with stuff. One-liners and gratuitous violence galore, it’s a perfectly, characteristically paced Verhoeven action picture. We never move from scene to scene without a big set piece, without Michael Ironside or Dick Jones running and gunning through a rich world. The production design in Total Recall is pure joy. The interiors kind of remind me of the Citadel and other planets from Mass Effect, where alien landscapes are in plain view right out the windows. The mutant effects, from the vagina-face dude to Benny’s arm, are all charmingly practical makeup effects. The big vehicles and the weapons are cool, so it goes. Check this one – it’s a classic.

See you at the party, Richter.

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