Paul Verhoeven is a very eclectic director who between the late Eighties and the late Nineties made three science fiction / over the top action films that deserve to be seen: Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997). None of the three is a no brainer. In Robocop there is an allegory with Robocop as an American Jesus bringing justice with guns. In Starship Troopers there is a very strong satire against militarism and imperialism. And Total Recall… let’s talk!
It is not easy to summarize the plot because Total Recall makes of ambiguity its strong point. For example, one way to summarize the plot is the following. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a bored worker trapped in a routine life (despite his wife being the beautiful Sharon Stone) and dreams of going to Mars, recently colonized and where there is a rebellion against Governor Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). At the end he decides to go to Rekall, a company that sells memories so realistic that they are indistinguishable from real memories (via brain surgery). Douglas buys a nice trip to Mars and among the optionals he chooses to be a secret agent and also chooses his love interest, the beautiful brunette Melina (Rachel Ticotin). From there on his dream begins, and it’s an incredible adventure full of action that will end with him solving the rebellion issue on Mars, making it a habitable planet thanks to a very ancient alien technology, and even conquering the beautiful brunette.
But another way of telling the plot is this one: things at Rekall do not go as planned because apparently someone else had already played with the brain and memory of Douglas Quaid! Quickly we discover that his true identity is different and that the people who seemed close to him are only undercover agents, his wife included! Quaid manages to escape and goes to Mars where he begins an incredible adventure full of action that will end… ok, I guess you got it.
So, did Douglas Quaid go to Mars or not? Are the things that we see on screen true or are them just the memories implanted by Rekall? The film does not clarify it, and at the same time gives us a series of plot twists in an escalation that ends with the terraforming of Mars! Exaggerated and over the top? Absolutely yes. But does it work? Of course it does! The film is fun, violent and action packed, the dialogues are memorable, the special effects are spectacular, the soundtrack is phenomenal (by Jerry Goldsmith), there is Verhoeven’s satire against power and militarism… and of course, it’s not realistic. But should it be? First of all, it’s science fiction, and therefore it is difficult to define the acceptable level of realism. And second… it’s all a dream, isn’t t? So anything can happen!
But… is it really a dream? If it were, Quaid after waking up would see on TV the news about the ongoing rebellion on Mars… and then what would he think of his “real” memories in which he had solved that problem already? Then, the only possible interpretation is that he really went to Mars… and I guess that we could continue to debate forever! Total Recall will never bore you and its ambiguity gives it an infinite replay value. Highly recommended! Ciao!
PS: the great Marc Alaimo plays a soldier in this movie, he’s the unforgettable Gul Dukat in Star Trek: Deep Space 9!