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Should I Watch..? 'Total Recall' (1990)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Total Recall is an action-packed sci-fi adventure movie released in 1990 and is loosely based on a story by Philip K. Dick. The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. The film is about a construction worker who unexpectedly finds himself embroiled in espionage and is forced to a colony on Mars to attempt to figure out what is happening to him. It was possibly the most expensively produced film in history at the time but the film would still be a huge success at the box office with global returns of more than $261 million. The film also received a largely positive response from critics who cited the intelligent screenplay over the film's amount of violence and gore.


What's it about?

Douglas Quaid is a construction worker troubled by dreams of a mysterious woman on Mars. His wife Lori dismisses these concerns and dissuades Quaid from journeying to Mars where Governor Vilos Cohaagen is violently attempting to suppress a rebellion. In an effort to rid himself of his dreams, Quaid visits a company called Rekall who can provide memory implants of peaceful holidays. However, Quaid asks instead for a 'secret agent experience' on Mars. Unbeknownst to Quaid, something appears to go wrong during the procedure.

Shortly after leaving Rekall, Quaid finds himself attacked by men loyal to Cohaagen's chief operative Richter and even his wife Lori, who tells Quaid that their marriage is a sham and that she works for Cohaagen. Evading his attackers at every turn, Quaid decides that he has to get to Mars to discover the truth. Is he a victim of mistaken identity, an actual secret agent or just experiencing his own apparently suppressed memories?


What's to like?

Sci-fi film fans will get excited by seeing that the film is based on one of Philip K. Dick's works - the same author behind seminal sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner. While it doesn't quite share the same sort of smarts as Ridley Scott's epic, Total Recall does have plenty going on in the screenplay behind the explosive action scenes and lashings of gore. The central question of whether Quaid is actually a secret agent or not lifts this beyond the norms of sci-fi action and is fundamental to the movie's narrative and success.

As for the action scenes, has there ever been a more natural coupling than Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven? Fresh from the acclaim that greeted his satirical sci-fi shooter RoboCop, Verhoeven's bloody and guttural style is a perfect fit for a world of mutants on Mars and Schwarzenegger delivers a decent performance as the magnet for all this mayhem. However, he doesn't quite convince as Quaid the man opposed to Quaid the hero - there's no hint of doubt on his face as to what is actually going on, which obscures the film's true nature somewhat. Stone illustrates how great a femme fatale she can be as the scheming Lori (no doubt in Verhoeven's mind when he cast Basic Instinct) while Cox and Ironside can be villains in their sleep. The film's effects may look a little crude these days but they are ambitious and effective - I loved the mutant with another character emerging from their torso, naturally covered in slime and gunk to make it look as repulsive as possible. For a film that feels like a dumb shooter, it's actually much deeper than you might think.

The old school visuals don't distract from the powerful narrative and, for my money, enhance it.

The old school visuals don't distract from the powerful narrative and, for my money, enhance it.

Fun Facts

  • To coincide with the film's release, Stone posed nude for Playboy magazine and showed off the results of her training schedule for the film, pumping iron and learning Tae Kwon Do. Stone trained so hard for the role that Schwarzenegger referred to her as the "female Terminator".
  • Screenwriters Shusett and O'Bannon originally started work on this film back in the 1970's but abandoned the idea when it became clear how expensive such a film would be to make. Instead, they focused on another project about an alien terrorising the crew of a space ship - a project that would become Alien.
  • The voice and model for the robot taxi-driver was Robert Picardo, who would go on to play the hologrammatic doctor in Star Trek: Voyager.

What's not to like?

I know it can't be easy to allow the narrative space to flourish when you're having too much fun blowing stuff up and Verhoeven does like blowing stuff up. Unlike Blade Runner which used incredible visuals and the performance of the cast to tell its story, Total Recall loses its way slightly when the film moves to Mars and all that talk about whether what Quaid was experiencing was real is kinda side-lined in favour of constant shoot-outs and mutants with three boobs. Sure, there are clues in there to remind the more watchful viewer but it isn't given nearly enough room to recover.

There are other things as well like Ticotin's appearance which is so similar to that of Elpidia Carrillo's in Predator that I had to check to make sure that they weren't the same actress. It lacks a little of the sci-fi foresight that Dick might have brought - why are people still using machine guns in an age where we have started to colonise the Solar System and enjoy other sci-fi gimmicks like nose-based tracking devices and lifelike robotic masks? Of course, having an unreliable narrator like Quaid can cover a multitude of sins like this but it didn't feel as sci-fi as I wanted it to. Maybe it should have stuck closer to Dick's original work?

Schwarzenegger can obviously handle the action scenes but I fear the conflict at the heart of the character is lost on him somewhat.

Schwarzenegger can obviously handle the action scenes but I fear the conflict at the heart of the character is lost on him somewhat.

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Should I watch it?

Total Recall offers plenty to two types of audience. Action fans will appreciate the splattercore violence on offer while more savvy viewers will try and work out what is real and what isn't. It is better than the rather soulless Total Recall remake due to the complexity of the narrative and better performances from the cast as well as a slightly lighter tone. Combining brains and brawn doesn't always work and this movie leans too much towards the "brawn" half of the equation but it's worth a watch.

Great For: action fans, Philip K. Dick fans

Not So Great For: anyone expecting another Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick, the squeamish, the remake

What else should I watch?

OK, I'll stop banging on about Blade Runner but there are other films based on Dick's writings. The under-rated Minority Report sees Tom Cruise become a fugitive from the police of the future after he is identified as the murderer of a man he is yet to meet while A Scanner Darkly blew critics away with its amazing rotoscoped animation visuals and its hypnotic look at a world losing the war of drugs. But not every film-maker can get the best out of Dick's work - Paycheck was an action thriller from John Woo which failed to set the box office alight and The Adjustment Bureau was just a long chase involving Matt Damon and Emily Blunt running from lots of men in hats.

Weirdly, Total Recall reminded me of another film which was released much later but featured a story from another classic sci-fi writer. I, Robot is loosely based on a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov but buried the writer's ideas about robotics beneath a digital canvas of Will Smith hunting a mechanical killer apparently able to feel emotions. Shame.

Main Cast


Arnold Schwarzenegger

Douglas Quaid / Hauser

Rachel Ticotin


Sharon Stone

Lori Quaid

Ronny Cox

Vilos Cohaagen

Michael Ironside


Mel Johnson Jr.


Marshall Bell


Technical Info

*based on the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick

DirectorPaul Verhoeven


Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon & Gary Goldman*

Running Time

113 minutes

Release Date (UK)

27th July, 1990


Action, Mystery, Sci-Fi

Academy Award

Special Achievement Award For Visual Effects

Academy Award Nominations

Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing

© 2018 Benjamin Cox

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Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on July 22, 2018:

I do get the feeling that a better film is still to emerge from the short story, if only given the chance. If only Hollywood could stop turning intelligent sci-fi into action flicks...

Sam Shepards from Europe on July 22, 2018:

I really liked PKD's short story "we can remember it for you wholsesale". Allthough it is a short it was more fulfilling.

Still the movie is a fun sci fi for the time and better than the remake. This could be a better movie, when done right.

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