There are two essential facts about “Total Recall” (1990) that tell you everything you need to know about it, and you already know one of them. The first fact is, of course, that Arnold Schwarzenegger “stars” in it, which is a pretty good indication of what you’re in for. The second fact, and the one that really puts a bow on the movie, is this: the novelization of the film was written by centaur-fucking aficionado Piers Anthony. Here’s an excerpt:
“He looked at her. He noticed that she had three full breasts, prominently displayed in a special bikini top. For any man who got his kicks in that department, here was extra measure!”
I can’t help but read that in the voice of Jon Lovitz’s “Tales of Ribaldry” guy. Must be the “!” at the end there.
Now, I’ve got no clue how writing deals get meted out in the oleaginous morass of Hollywood film novelizations. I imagine it’s like construction bids, where prospective agents try to make the argument that their guy can deliver 2.5 words/penny, undercutting the competition by a cool 15% while providing their own coordinating conjunctions below market cost. Regardless, whatever cold, mechanical bureaucracy controls such a system must have been out for repairs when ol’ Piers Plough-man got the “Total Recall” contract, because that is some inspired recognition of Anthony’s authorial voice i.e., dude’s a fuckin’ perv. And, much like Anthony’s uncomfortably horse-flank-obsessed Xanth novels, I suspect that “Total Recall” was an important part of many a young person’s burgeoning sexual awakening. (You know what I’m talking about).
Proving the old adage that it’s the journey, not the destination, the movie-ification of Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) began way back in the 70s, including initial treatments by Dan O’Bannon (of “Alien” fame) and production plans by the Thinking-Man’s-David-O.-Selznick, Dino De Laurentiis. It drifted quietly through development hell, briefly attaching itself to Cronenberg before falling into the gravity well that is Paul Verhoeven, a specialist in shitty films that you pretend engage in winking satire when you’re forced to defend your shameful taste in movies. (In his defense, Verhoeven did direct “Robocop,” my third favorite movie about the life of Jesus Christ). It was Verhoeven who hired up Arnie, presumably while perusing headshots over his lunch of a big old pot roast.
“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” is an early example of Dick’s evolving tendency to reach over and jerk the wheel out of your hand, reminding you who’s really in control of the trip you’re on. The first half of the story is structured pretty strictly as pulp detective story, showing that Dick, had his proclivities tended that way, could easily have written nuanced noir, his characters steeped in existential unease and institutional fear. In the story, Douglas Quail is a standard Dickian middle-manager type, a generally bland schlub unique only in his driving desire to visit Mars. In a curious omission, Dick fails to inform us how much Quail can bench, what his alternating leg-day bulk-up routine is, or even what kind of protein schedule he’s on.
PKD’s skill as a world builder is often underappreciated. In this short story, he quickly sketches out Earth as a consumerist hellscape and Mars as a rigorously colonized police-state experiencing some unrest, precluding a Martian vacation for Quail. Luckily, he lives in a PKD story, where all manner of cheap and effective mindfuckery is available for the discerning customer interested in deliberate self-delusion. This includes the purchase of impossible experiences through the implantation of false memories, more real than real. In the story, this leads to a neat little scene where the jaded dream engineers assemble Quail’s proposed Martian adventure from bits and pieces of various prefab memory packets, a dark bit of commentary on the flattening of human experience in a consumerist culture. Quail wants memories of a Martian trip as a secret agent, and the company selling it to him slaps it together like an assembly line sandwich. The scene is defanged in the movie, where the dream assembly is more questionnaire based, including a tag cloud about Schwarzenegger’s dream woman, which is gross.
While they’re digging around in Quail (or, in the movie, Quaid’s) noggin, they find out that he’s already got memories of being a Mars-based spy. As in “Minority Report” or “Paycheck”, the divergence between source material and movie occurs after the initial Dickian fly gets into the ointment. In the story, Quail is unquestioningly a secret agent who has had his memory wiped, his fixation on a Martian holiday the result of having his mind melon-scooped.
In the movie, Verhoeven gives the movie his patented “illusion of depth” by keeping it ambiguous as to whether what we are witnessing is real or not. It’s possible (but, ultimately, meaningless) that everything in the movie occurring after Quaid begins the procedure is all part of the false memory, either completely made-up OR the false memory interacting with a real memory and producing a hallucinatory psychotic episode that ends in Quaid’s forced lobotomization. I say it’s ultimately meaningless because, in the context of the movie, there are no actual stakes for the character to have to decide whether it’s real or not. He’s not overly concerned with the nature of reality, with neither the script nor the acting providing any introspection or examination of how our perception of reality influences our worldview. In fact, a strict reading of the movie suggests that, IF it is all a hallucination, it was still better than Quaid’s old life, and he’s happier living in a dream that he thinks is real. Sometimes ambiguity provides a lens through which we can examine multiple outcomes or the construction of macrocosmic architecture out of the microcosmic bricks of character interaction and choice. Sometimes it’s just stupid.
The story doesn’t deal with whether Quail’s memories of Mars are real or not because they are. In fact, the story saves its weirdness for the end when, in the last quarter, it takes a dramatic and completely unexpected left turn that will make you laugh out loud when you get to it. It’s so unexpected it is actually a pleasure, no matter how goofy it is in retrospect. “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” is one of Dick’s sillier stories, a part of his transition away from the more “procedural” earlier fiction. He’s starting to ramp up the psychedelic imagery and out-and-out mysticism that characterizes his later work. I won’t give it away here, but if you haven’t read the short story I suggest you find it, if only for how really really really unexpected the ending is.
As for “Total Recall” (and its wan 2012 remake, of which we will say no more), I can only say: eh. And ew. Eh and ew. Schwarzenegger is incapable of conveying anything except hulking physicality, his enormous bulk occluding what little thoughtfulness there might be in Verhoeven’s movie. You never worry about Quaid, because he is a huge-ass superspy. In the story, the middle manager turns out to be a cold-blooded and extremely well-trained killer, which is surprising. The only thing surprising about Schwarzenegger is that he can find shirts that fit. He’s iconographically an Action Star, and that detracts from the interesting possibilities of an ordinary guy finding out he’s something else entirely.
As for ew: this is just a gross movie, scuzzy with a thin, sticky film of ultraviolence and nihilistic sex that just makes you roll your eyes. There’s actually a shockingly small amount of paranoia in “Total Recall” which, if you think about it, is pretty amazing. I mean, they must have actively REMOVED it from the script, since the whole scenario is “Pynchon writes an episode of the X-files” level of spooky. Even the pretty good puppetry of a psychic stomach twin can’t salvage this movie for me, since it just reminds you of what the film could have been in the hands of a more capable, less moronic director.