At some point in every person’s life, no matter how happy they are, they wish they were someone else. It could be an eight-year-old in math class, dreaming of being a knight fighting off a fearsome dragon in the days of kings and queens. It could be a single mother of three, wanting to be a successful business owner and providing for her family. It could even be something as simple as walking down the street and seeing someone more attractive than yourself, and thinking, “How nice would it be to look like that?”
No matter where we are in time and space, every person wishes, however briefly, that they could walk in someone else’s shoes. So it’s not surprising that
Dennis Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the main character in the 1990 classic Total Recall, wants that too.
A regular joe, Quaid has a surprisingly slammin’-hot wife played by the ever-foxy Sharon Stone, a job in construction, and constant dreams about him and a brunette woman standing on the barren surface of Mars. His wife pleads with him to forget about Mars, but Quaid can’t shake the desire to walk on the surface of the red planet.
That desire turns to resolution after Quaid decides to visit Rekall, a place that can provide realistic memories for a price. Quaid opts in to a “mission to Mars” adventure starring him as a secret agent who will uncover a conspiracy, saves the planet, and gets the girl. But the moment the memory-implanting procedure is activated, Quaid comes down with a sudden case of schizoid embolism (whatever that is) and a memory cap is apparently popped.
What follows next is a non-stop action sequence involving Quaid killing a group of assailants, fighting his wife—who is actually a secret agent assigned to handle him just six weeks earlier—getting a message from a man claiming to be Quaid’s real identity, and blasting off to Mars. He then meets the woman from his dreams (along with a whole bunch of mutants), runs into a government plot to subjugate the people of Mars via oxygen control, and meets the leader of the rebels who are fighting to free the planet: the psychic mutant Kuato.
Then there’s a massive showdown in which Kuato is killed, Quaid turns on an alien reactor that terraforms the surface of Mars and makes it inhabitable for humans—thus freeing the planet from government control—and kisses the girl before the screen goes black. Overall, it’s a pretty good story. It’s almost textbook in its plotting and story arc: it takes an ordinary man from zero to hero in no time flat, letting him save an entire planet with nothing more than his brains and a lot of really big weaponry.
Now, I don’t watch a lot of eighties or nineties movies. I mean, this movie came out before I was even born. So I don’t know if I have what’s considered the “right” perspective to examine this movie. But maybe the fact that I’m from a completely different generation than the one this was intended for means that I’m exactly the right kind of person to review it. Or not. I’ve heard it both ways.
From a casting standpoint, Arnold Schwarzenegger shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a video camera. His delivery is wooden, his accent is nigh-unintelligible at times, he’s probably actually beating the crap out of people by accident, and it looks like his co-stars are having a pretty tough time making their own performances convincing when they’re working alongside all that. I know he was a big deal way back when, but it’s pretty apparent that, like so many of the action stars today, he was chosen more for his muscles than for his ability to carry a movie.
Rachel Ticotin, his love interest, is an interesting element and an unknown sum to me. The only things I’ve seen her in are two episodes of Lost and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, and she didn’t deliver a particularly memorable performance in either. One thing that struck me in Total Recall is that she’s passionate the the point of near-irrational, and she’s gutsy to the point of recklessness. Her character is hard to the core and great with the gun, although I didn’t see either of the “demure” or “sleazy” characteristics that Quaid ordered, which could potentially be telling. But we’ll get to that.
Then there’s Sharon Stone. She should absolutely be allowed all over video cameras, because she can capture the screen like nobody’s business. This was 1990, two years before her infamous role in Basic Instinct (which I haven’t yet seen and probably won’t review because my family sometimes reads my reviews. Hi, Mom), and the high point of Stone’s career. She’s utterly convincing as both the devoted wife and the cold-blooded agent, and even after her character is shot between the eyes, we have no idea which she really is.
Because that’s the thing: from about the fifteen-minute mark in the film, we have no idea if what we’re seeing is fact or reality. And that’s the thing that turns this movie from pretty-okay sci-fi movie with mutants and weird technology to a mind-blowing commentary on the human condition.
I’m not going to bother trying to prove which way the ambiguous ending goes, because that’s the whole point of ambiguous endings: you don’t know which way it goes. People don’t seem to get this, and that’s how we ended up with entire treatises on Blade Runner and the spinning top at the end of Inception. We don’t like not knowing, so we analyze and we poke and we pry to see exactly how it ended, because the uncertainty just kills. But that actually works here, because the ending can go one of two ways depending on how you interpreted the story.
Scenario One: Quaid did, in fact, have a schizoid embolism at Rekall. The events that follow are entirely inside his own head, and attempts to draw him out of the dream state only pulled him in further. His concerned wife is standing over his body, waiting for him to wake up. Right after the movie ends, Quaid wakes up in the chair and returns to his old humdrum life, either satisfied with his adventure or still convinced that there’s something missing from his life because none of it was real.
Scenario Two: Everything that happened was real. Quaid terraformed Mars, freeing the planet’s people, and got the girl at the end. From that point on, with the corrupt government official defeated and the rebels triumphant, Quaid and his lady friend can do whatever they want. The rebel forces are likely in tatters after Kuato’s death, so it seems likely that Quaid takes over as leader and either a) becomes head honcho of the entire planet, or b) fights against/works alongside the new government leader, depending on whether or not there’s a United Federation of Planets overseeing interplanetary affairs.
If, right at this moment, you’re satisfied with the course your life is taking, it’s possible that you believe Scenario One. You like the odd bit of excitement and entertainment, but you don’t see the need to uproot your life and seek a new adventure, because you’re perfectly happy with the one you have.
On the other hand, if you want to change the course of your life, it’s more likely that you believe Scenario Two. You’re itching for something to happen to you, for it to turn out that you’re someone important and just haven’t known it until now. You’re waiting for your moment to shine in the spotlight, for the world to see that you aren’t just another face in the crowd but that you’re actually someone of value. And you’re more than a little terrified that you aren’t.
These are just my opinions, of course; you could fit into either camp for any number of reasons, and it’s not up to me to pigeonhole you. In my opinion, the overarching idea of this movie isn’t “was it fact or fiction?” It’s “it doesn’t matter what you believe in, as long as you believe in something and pursue it wholeheartedly.” Quaid didn’t falter for long; he chose which reality to believe in, and every choice that followed was based on that decision. So whether it was so-called “real” or just inside his head, it was real to him.
And that’s the ending I’m gonna stick with.
Final Grade: B+
- Seen below: my favourite part of the movie.
- Can we just discuss that title sequence. No, we can’t, actually, because there are no words for that title sequence.
- Those Johnny cabs were by far one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. How are they in public circulation? Wouldn’t they scare the crap out of drunk people forced to cab home after a night out?
- What was with all those weird pseudo-sexy noises during the fight scene? It was not attractive. It was not sensual. It was just plain uncomfortable watching these women slamming each other around while making sex sounds.
- Didn’t see the taxi driver betrayal coming. That was a good one, although to me it was lacking in motivation. Why would the mutant betray his own species, especially when he doesn’t, in fact, have five kids to feed?
- Suuuuper weird seeing Arnold in drag at airport customs. I fail to see why that was even necessary—seriously, hasn’t he heard of dark glasses and a baseball cap?—and the whole “surprise it’s Quaid” reveal was drawn-out to the point where I just wanted it to be over, because of course it was Quaid.
- Can we also discuss how apparently the sexiest possible mutation for women is not adding a bigger butt or more lady-parts, but is in fact just adding more boobs? It’s neither practical nor particularly appealing, because as the cab driver pointed out, dudes only have two hands. I also feel bad for that chick because bra shopping must be a nightmare. That is all.