Total Recall at 30: a thrilling reminder of Paul Verhoeven at his best

Scott Tobias

Total Recall is a movie about a totalitarian government that’s colonized another planet so it can charge ordinary people to breathe. There would be no conflict in the film without it: no serpentine Philip K Dick plot about a construction worker whose dreams of being a secret agent on Mars are rooted in real memories. No skirmishes between the authorities and the pocket of mutants, deviants and ne’er-do-wells who rebel against them from Martian red-light district of Venusville. And certainly none of the scrotum kicks, impalings or gruesome fusillades of machine-gun fire that audiences had come to expect from an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie. 

Related: The Shining at 40: will we ever fully understand what it all means?

For the director Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall was the next step in his own improbable colonization of Hollywood, following RoboCop three years earlier. Verhoeven had already established himself in his native Holland as a craftsman and provocateur of the first order, eager to test the extremes of sexuality and violence – his first English-language film was appropriately titled Flesh + Blood – and indulge a fetish for Hitchcockian blondes and mankind’s darkest impulses. As a small child, Verhoeven had lived through the Nazi occupation and the experience shaped him, not only in films that would address the war directly, like Soldier of Orange and Black Book, but in genre entertainments that smuggled themes about life under fascism.

From a distance of 30 years, it’s now possible to look at Total Recall as the middle part of an unofficial sci-fi/action trilogy about authoritarian governance, bookended by RoboCop and Starship Troopers, but it didn’t seem that political at the time. Verhoeven’s talent for delivering the hard-R goods has always given him the latitude to slip more subversive sentiments into his work, and even the overt satire of RoboCop and Starship Troopers was often ignored or misunderstood during their original run. Now that the future Verhoeven predicted has come to pass – in corporate and militarized law enforcement, in the propaganda used to sell the public on pointless and endless war – his intent seems more obvious. But his career in Hollywood, for as long as it lasted, was often about getting away with something. 

Loosely based on the Philip K Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, Total Recall is about Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger), a beefy construction worker in 2084 who lives a modest and happy life with his wife Lori (Sharon Stone), but keeps having vivid dreams of Mars. To scratch this insistent itch, he visits a company called Rekall, which promises interstellar vacations without the risk and expense of boarding a shuttle. Through memory implants, Quaid can order up a two-week trip to Mars that’s as vivid as if he’d gone there himself – and for a few hundred credits more, he can travel as another character, so he chooses “secret agent”. The procedure goes terribly awry, due to the fact that the Rekall implant clashes with Quaid’s actual memories of being a secret agent on Mars, which nefarious forces have suppressed. It turns out that his current life has been a lie, and it’s going to take an actual trip to Mars for Quaid to unravel this conspiracy and discover who he really is. 

From there, Verhoeven, working from a heavily fussed-over screenplay credited to Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman, departs from the text. Like a lot of Dick’s short stories, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale retreats into metaphysical space where Quaid’s real and false memories collide, but Verhoeven has a Schwarzenegger movie to make. That means Quaid’s journey of self-discovery takes the form of other Schwarzenegger sci-fi/actioners of the period like Predator or The Running Man, with him shooting and punching and bludgeoning his way to the truth. It eventually puts him at the heart of the resistance in the mutant-filled Venusville area on Mars, where he finds the girl of his dreams, Melina (Rachel Ticotin), armed and ready. 

Drawing from his unrivaled gallery of heavies, Verhoeven cast Ronny Cox, who had played the corporate shark “Dick” Jones in RoboCop, as Vilos Cohaagen, the nefarious governor of the Mars Colony, and Michael Ironside, who would later play a military recruiter in Starship Troopers, as Cohaagen’s sadistic right-hand man. We get only bits and pieces of Cohaagen’s business on Mars, but it involves the dangerous mining of turbinium ore, an energy source with military applications, by an oppressed mutant population. The big twist of Total Recall is that Cohaagen knows Mars has the natural potential to create an atmosphere to sustain human life, but it’s more profitable to control an artificial environment himself. Why should these lowly meatsacks get their oxygen for free?

Verhoeven pushed the politics of RoboCop and Starship Troopers more to the foreground than he does in Total Recall, but he shows again how propaganda networks brand the resistance as “terrorists” and describe their indiscriminate slaughter as “[restoring] order with minimal use of force”. Total Recall suggests that colonization is an opportunity to terraform a reality that’s entirely managed by the terraformers, without a scrap of land that regular people can call their own. Cohaagen is a delectable villain for Schwarzenegger to knock off, but he’s not an evil genius with some generic or arbitrary plans to be unraveled. He says he’s happy at his job because he gets to do whatever he wants. Controlling who gets to have air is as God-like a power as any mortal can imagine.

Of course, Verhoeven is still making a Schwarzenegger movie, and Total Recall is one of his most purely entertaining, full of cartoonish violence, cutting-edge special effects and the types of one-liners that made Schwarzenegger a dad-joke Dirty Harry. (After shooting the duplicitous Lori in the head, Quaid deadpans, “Consider that a divorce.”) As Quaid makes his way to the Mars underground, the film fills the screen with memorable future-world innovations: The walk-through X-ray scanner, the automated driver-less “Johnnycabs” that imitate the banter of actual cab drivers, the erotic possibilities of a three-breasted mutant call girl. Those looking for a good time in a dystopic, totalitarian colony can still find it.

Verhoeven and Hollywood would part ways a decade after Total Recall – consider Hollow Man a divorce – and he’s currently on a retreat to Europe that’s resulted in two great films, Black Book and Elle, that are more in line with the more modest Dutch films that put him on the map. (His new film, a lesbian nun story called Benedetta, would have probably premiered at Cannes last month were it not cancelled because of the coronavirus.) Seeing the film again is a reminder of how much American blockbusters miss an iconoclast like Verhoeven, who could manage mega-productions without losing his voice in them, and who wasn’t contented by merely turning out slick product. He would prove to be irreplaceable.