Sunday, 27 March 2011

Paul Verhoeven Film Restrospective - Total Recall

Philip K Dick is a writer whose stories have influenced some of the best sci-fi films of recent years, from Blade Runner to The Adjustment Bureau, with Minority Report in between. Total Recall was the second big Philip K Dick adaptation, being based on his story We can remember it for you wholesale and ties with Blade Runner as the best.

Total Recall had been in development for over 10 years before Paul Verhoeven became attached. Earlier attempts saw Patrick Swayze in the lead role before production fell through, while David Cronenberg was also interested in directing a version before he left to make The Fly. Arnold Schwarzenegger then became interested in starring and, being a huge fan of Robocop managed to persuade Paul Verhoeven to direct.

It's hard to picture it but at the time Arnie wasn't yet the huge star that he was to become. Before this, he'd had reasonable successes with both Predator and Commando and was well know as the cyborg in The Terminator, but Total Recall was to be the big one. Despite having one of the largest budgets ever seen at the time, the film would go on to be both a massive critical and commercial success, cementing Arnie's status as the biggest star on the planet.

This success is fully deserved. In only his second Sci-Fi film, Verhoeven has created a classic that is not only really great fun, but one that also requires you to think as you watch it. Although Total Recall can be viewed in 2 different ways, I've always watched it at face value, where the events in the film are real and reasonably straight forward. Arnold has had false memories implanted and upon realising this, travels to Mars, gets the girl, kills the bad guys and saves the entire planet. However, the other way of perceiving the film is that it is all a dream. Nothing weird happens to Arnie until he starts to have false memories implanted, and everything that happens to him afterwards is suggested to him by the team doing to memory planting. Even the imagery of the films climax appears on monitors in the surgery room.. Also, half way through the film, a doctor walks into Arnie's hotel room and lays out the plot for the rest of the movie, again suggesting that everything which occurs after the initial memory implant all takes place in the heroes head. It's this level of duality and hidden meanings that typifies Verhoevens films, but this is the first time any of it forms such a huge part of the plot

Also being typical of Verhoeven, the director doesn't shy away from showing the realities of violence, when firing a gun in a crowded subway station results in the horrific death of an innocent bystander. Another shocking yet memorable image occurs on the surface of Mars when, devoid of any atmosphere, Arnie's head horrifically expands, his eyes bursting out of their sockets. Rob Bottin, who created the iconic Robocop costume also created the animatronic effects for this and many more amazing images throughout the film.

Other than Arnie, the film also features a great cast of supporting players, the most noticeable being Sharon Stone in a role that finally allowed her to say goodbye to a string of poor B-movies and finally have a taste of stardom. She is genuinely great in this film and looks amazing. Verhoeven was so impressed, he cast her as the lead in his next movie, Basic Instinct, which turned her into a global superstar. It's unfortunate that the films she made after Basic Instinct were such duds.

Despite playing against type as a bad guy for the first time in Robocop, Ronny Cox did such a great job that he plays a near identical role here, while Michael Ironside plays the film's other main baddie. Michael Ironside is one of those great character actors whose face constantly appears in TV shows and B-movies, usually involving him losing and arm or two. That is a strange craze that began with Total Recall, and after Verhoeven recast him again in Starship Troopers as another character who horrifically loses both arms, he would go on to repeat the trick in both Guy X and the excellent The Machinist.
When reviewing Soldier Of Orange, I considered it to be Verhoeven's best film, but after watching Total Recall again, I realised I was wrong. For the few people who haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend the film as it is quite rightly regarded as one of the best sci-fi movies ever made. Coincidentally, rather than letting the man make a new film, this is the second Verhoeven film in a row that is getting the remake treatment, with Colin Farrell in the lead role. This is strange as it's the only time I can think of that they have remade a film that is based on a book, rather than re-adapting the book itself. Despite advances in technology since this film was made, I doubt the remake will be anywhere near as good as this version, especially as it's being done by Len Wiseman, the hack behind the Underworld movies and Die Hard 4. On the plus side, it may very well make some people realise just how good a job Verhoeven did, allowing him to make some new films.
IMDB currently gives Total Recall an impressive 7.4, but I'd have to give it a far higher 9. Great fun that requires a certain amount of intelligence, and outside of Terminator, remains Arnold Schwarzenegger's greatest film.

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