The remake of Total Recall — which features Colin Farrell as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kate Beckinsale as Sharon Stone, Jessica Biel as Rachel Ticotin and Bryan Cranston as "Cohaagen give these people some air!" — opens a week from today. The original Total Recall came out in 1990, right on the edge of the end of the cheesy, fun, low-budget '80s action movie era and the beginning of the big-budget, special-effects laden '90s Terminator 2/Jurassic Park era.
I remember Total Recall somewhat fondly, as one of the transitional Schwarzenegger films, taking him from the Commando world into a more mainstream one that would ultimately end up with him in Junior. So I rewatched the movie this week, and I was a bit taken aback by just how poorly it holds up. The years have been far kinder to older movies like Predator and The Running Man.
You'll remember the basic plot, one that the remake seems to be mostly repeating. An "ordinary" man of the future—and this movie suffers from the same problem as a lot of more "mainstream" Schwarzenegger movies, asking us to believe the massively bulked-up, eye-bulging, head-popping Schwarzenegger as a regular workaday fella—visits a dream-implanting travel agency but ends up on the run from real bad guys who think, rightly or wrongly, that he's a secret agent turned revolutionary.
The concept itself is Hitchockian at its core: Average Joe suddenly accused and hunted for a crime he didn't commit ... or maybe he did. But needless to say, Schwarzenegger is no James Stewart or Cary Grant. You can see Ah-nold doing his best to be a relatable human being in Total Recall, but he's not quite there yet, so when he's working as a construction guy dreaming of a better future on Mars, you never buy it: You just keep waiting for him to rip somebody's arms off.
My memory recollected Total Recall as a spooky, smart mind-bender about identity and cool aliens, but, upon watching it again, the main point of the movie seems to be "the future is totally different, you guys." The first two-thirds of the movie are one groaning "whoa, future!" gimmick after another. Total Recall is honestly just a couple step removed from Tomorrowland. The future will bring us full-body X-ray machines! Light pens that change your nail color! Telephones with cameras! Taxi cabs driven by robots! Newspapers called "Mars Today!"
These are "jokes" not even thought through halfway as much as Back to the Future's. It was also depressing to learn that Total Recall found it important to point out that ESPN would still exist in the future, though, to be fair, ESPN was a lot more likable in 1990 than it is now.
Perhaps what stands out most about Total Recall is how chintzy it is: This is a schlocky low-budget film impersonating a big-budget one, poorly. The sets are boxy and artificial, the alien effects are famously underdone—honestly, what a strange way to personify "gasping for air"—and I'm pretty sure only one of those three boobs look real.
The movie is also oddly serious and heavy-footed; there's a scene in which a little-person prostitute shoots up a brothel and the movie doesn't even pause to find it even slightly amusing. Director Paul Verhoeven had created a wild, satirical landscape of madness in RoboCop three years earlier—and would top it seven years later with Starship Troopers—but he feels neutered here; there's precious little of that Verhoeven ludicrousness. There's no way the Verhoeven of Starship Troopers would have played that idiotic love story straight. This was the only time Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven worked together, and you can see why. Schwarzenegger's total lack of irony and Verhoeven's crazy-person perversity were never going to be a match.
The movie has its moments, or it wouldn't have lasted. I love the freaky alien-baby rebel leader, who, now that I look at him, has a striking resemblance to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness. It's pretty tough not to smile when Cohaagen—played by ultimate '80s villain Ronny Cox—fires off his "I'll blow this place up and be home in time for corn flakes" line. (I've spent 22 years trying to figure out what time, precisely, one needs to be home in order to have one's corn flakes.) No movie with Michael Ironside in it can ever be entirely bad.
And the best performance in the film is from Sharon Stone, as Arnold's evil, nurturing, ass-kicking wife. This was two years before Basic Instinct, and you can see why Stone was about to become a huge star: You know she wants to kill you, but you want to have sex with her anyway, despite that, maybe because of it.
But the movie itself drags in spots and bungles its central premise, that messing with one's memory could erase the notion of who someone is, what "identity" even means. That's the premise of the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" that the movie was supposedly based on, but Total Recall loses interest in that in a matter of minutes, instead turning into yet another series of scenes of people shooting machine guns at each other. There's a terrific concept at the core of Total Recall, and maybe the remake will cut closer to it. But good feelings for Total Recall are nostalgia, with perhaps fond remembrances of better Schwarzenegger movies seeping in. See The Running Man or Predator or Commando again instead. Or, even better, just go rent Starship Troopers again. Service guarantees citizenship.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.