Film Notes

Film Notes #12: Total Recall (1990)

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be revealed!

Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi actioner is Number 12 in my Film Notes series.

For those not familiar with this series of posts, it involves me watching a film every day for 30 days.

The following rules apply:

  • It must be a film I have already seen.
  • I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  • Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  • It can’t be a cinema release.

The point is to capture my instant thoughts about a movie and my overall film diet for 30 days, as well as curate interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on Total Recall (1990) which I watched on DVD on Monday 2nd April. Give these people air!

  • Wonderful trailing opening titles that suggest SUPERMAN (1978)
  • Pounding title music by Jerry Goldsmith that recalls another Schwarzenegger film – Basil Pouledoris’s main theme to CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)
  • Love the intensity of the opening Mars scene – Verhoeven really knows how to sell visceral violence (e.g. You really feel those eyes are popping out of his head)
  • Slightly disappointed that he chose to go for the ‘it’s only a dream’ edit in which Arnie sits bolt upright. Has anyone ever woken up from a dream like this?!
  • Note that Sharon Stone is actually pissed off and jealous at the dream – a sign of things to come
  • Verhoeven got his Hollywood breakthrough with ROBOCOP (1987), which blended 80s action movie with surprisingly sharp political satire
  • TOTAL RECALL (1990) continues the trend with its social commentary blended within the framework of a sci-fi thriller.
  • Films like THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998), THE MATRIX (1999) and INCEPTION (2010) played around with similar concepts
  • Nice touches: fingernail polish, x-ray machines and video walls
  • The x-ray machines are now standard in US airports!
  • Production design is great – clever blend of sets and Mexican subway system.
  • Love the recall salesman / travel agent – he’s actually selling me on this holiday
  • Arnie’s line “don’t bullshit me” seems ADR’d
  • The scene where Arnie explains what kind of woman he really
  • Like the pacing in this film – no dicking around. 15 minutes in and we’re off.
  • Sharon Stone is at her glamorous best in this film – you can see why Verhoevan cast her in BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
  • The videophones are basically Apple FaceTime (they even have a portrait screen)
  • Fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed by Vic Armstrong – we really feel every punch and crunch.
  • Michael Ironside is a genuinely great villain. Charming, ruthless and we get the vibe he doesn’t mess around.
  • Subway shoot out is brutal fun. Think they had to make cuts for the theatrical release.
  • Notice how this is really a continuation of the previous chase (which hadn’t really ended).
  • The tracking device predicts the current debates about the surveillance society
  • Love the dryness of Arnie’s lines.
  • Verhoeven has been deftly handling action and narrative now for about 20 mins
  • Sound design and Rob Bottin’s make up work are A-grade in the bug removal scene
  • Good miniatures for the spaceships on Mars. Although this was made on the cusp of the ILM revolution ushered in by TERMINATOR 2 (1991) and JURASSIC PARK (1993) it still stands up for the most part.
  • Kuato is freedom fighter who in this film we are expected to sympathise with but I wonder how the remake will play around with this idea in a post-9/11 world.
  • Rob Bottin’s make up is excellent in the airport scene.
  • Note the use of a vertical set to simulate zero gravity (a trick Vic Armstrong
  • Cohaagen is to Mars what NCP was to Detroit in ROBOCOP (1987).
  • Sets are believable because Mars is an indoor world anyway.
  • Cab driver: “I’ve got five kids to feed!”
  • Apparently during filming the crew all thought Rachel Ticotin was going to be the big star, not Sharon Stone
  • The hotel room scene was almost certainly a big influence on INCEPTION (2010).
  • Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is a sci-fi starring Arnie – this is very good genre writing
  • Lot of product placement in this film (Sony, Fuji Film and Miller Lite)
  • Great female fight, expertly arranged by Vic Armstrong who really wanted to stage a memorable scrap
  • The pacing is brilliant during Quaid and Milena’s escape – back when action was cleanly edited and featured smooth camera work
  • Rob Bottin’s make up work is outstanding – especially the cab drivers arm and Kuato
  • The villains have a devilish wit which gives the film a pleasing light touch.
  • Obligatory ‘explanation scene’ is actually an interesting exercise in making the audience uncertain
  • Even by modern torture porn standards, the brainwash scene is brutally violent.
  • Quaid’s line “Give these people air!” was referenced in Judd Apatow’s KNOCKED UP (2007).
  • Even the goldfish die.
  • Quaid: “Screw you!!!”
  • Slightly dated rear projection work with the reactor
  • The pace in the second half of this film is absolutely tremendous
  • Sound design also excellent. You can really hear guns and punches.
  • The fight on the lift is another corker – notice the foley on
  • I’ve always loved Ronny Cox’s line about being “home in time for cornflakes”
  • Climax also features great use of vertical sets
  • Satisfyingly visceral gore of Cohaagen’s eyes popping out. More brilliant work from Rob Bottin.
  • I think the VFX crew used the old milk in tank trick to simulate to clouds on the mountain. Also used in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and POLTERGEIST (1982).
  • Nicely ambiguous ending which allows different interpretations (Verhoevan’s is considerably darker than Arnie’s)
  • Cameras by ARRI

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD Pick: Total Recall

One of the consequences of the recent hook up between Optimum and Studio Canal is that a selection of Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies from the 80s and 90s have been re-released in a box set and as individual titles.

The best of these is Total Recall, the 1990 sci-fi adaptation of Philip K Dick‘s story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale‘ which stars Arnold as blue collar worker who dreams of Mars.

When he visits a company who can offer him a virtual holiday by implanting memories it inadvertently unlocks his ‘real’ past as a secret agent and he then has to escape to the red planet for real.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven (after the success of RoboCop in 1987) it is definitely the best of Schwarzenegger’s films between the two Terminators and contains some interesting ideas, even if the emphasis is skewed towards action.

The production design is still impressive and the visual effects by Rob Bottin still stand up very well – in many ways they foreshadow how SFX as a whole would develop in the 90s with films like T2 and The Matrix.

One of the highlights on the extras is an excellent commentary with Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger recorded for the previous Special Edition, as they complement each other very well.

Arnold seems especially amused at some of the more gruesome scenes whilst Verhoeven has many thoughtful riffs and views on the plot twists and themes of the story.

The director also frequently reveals that he wanted the film to be even more violent (one scene in particular sent the MPAA crazy) which is saying something, as it is probably one of the most brutal mainstream action films of its era.

That said it is still a solidly entertaining and at times surprisingly clever slice of sci-fi.

The other extras include:

  • Imagining Total Recall: A fine 30 minute featurette exploring the original Philip K Dick story and how it came to the screen. Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Ron Shussett (who also write Alien) and Schwarzenegger all give solid contributions.
  • Making of Total Recall: A more modest 8 minute on set making of feature from 1990 that was presumably a TV promo from 1990.
  • Vision of Mars: Another short piece (5 mins) on how Mars was visualised for the film.
  • There are also storyboard comparisons and the requisite trailers and TV Spots.

Here is the original theatrical trailer:

The Blu-ray version is presented in 1080P 2.35:1 Widescreen (VC1) with English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.

However, it doesn’t feature any of the extras on the regular DVD disc, so unless you are desperate for the HD version of the film I think the regular DVD with the extras is much better value.

I realise it may be a space issue on the discs but if Blu-ray is going to take off as a format, extras are an essential part of any DVD package.

> Buy on DVD or Blu-Ray at Amazon UK
> Total Recall at the IMDb
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Find out more about Total Recall at WIkipedia