Memories of Philip… and Arnold: A Review of Total Recall

by Gary Westfahl

Hearing that a new version of the 1990 film Total Recall was being produced, one naturally hoped for a film that would be closer to the text and spirit of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” than the first adaptation, largely a violent rollercoaster ride tailored to match the proclivities of its star Arnold Schwarzenegger; and a reviewer would certainly like to report that is the case. Unfortunately, the new Total Recall, despite some changes in its story to be discussed, is for the most part a very faithful remake, replicating each and every one of the original’s plot twists and offering just as many fast-moving chases and violent battles. People who have seen the Schwarzenegger film may feel that they have watched this film before, and that is not exactly a case of false memory. But it was undoubtedly unrealistic to expect that any projected summer blockbuster would dare to present Dick’s final revelation that the hero’s uncovered memories of his outlandish adventures on Mars were actually concealing another set of even more outlandish memories of how he had single-handedly saved the Earth from an alien invasion.

Still, even though the trio who crafted the original film’s story are credited with this film’s story as well, this Total Recall is not, like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998), a shot-for-shot replication of its predecessor; instead, the story was altered in some noteworthy ways, apparently as part of a sincere effort to craft a more logical and thoughtful version of the first film. However, whenever director Len Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback were tempted to stray too far from their template, their knowledge of the tons of money earned by Schwarzenegger’s epic undoubtedly made them averse to doing anything too radical that might displease the masses. After all, why tamper with a successful formula in order to placate some annoying elitists?

One problem with the original, addressed by this remake, was its absurd dénouement on Mars, as Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid finally manages to turn on an ancient alien machine that somehow provides the barren world with a breathable atmosphere in a matter of minutes. So this film limits its action to a future Earth, which because of “chemical warfare” now has only two habitable regions: an autocratic Great Britain and its “Colony,” the continent of Australia. (One wonders precisely what sort of high-tech conflict would leave only those two areas unharmed – did an English scientist craft a lethal virus that only killed people without British accents?) Instead of fighting for the freedom of oppressed Martians, then, this film’s rebels are fighting to achieve independence for the Colony; and since that society has become a melting pot of people from numerous cultures, this situation potentially allows the story to resonate with all sorts of anti-colonial wars throughout history, though the film never takes advantage of the opportunity. Also, by making the British the bad guys, the film avoids any suggestion that its anti-authoritarian message is covertly anti-American.

To replace the earlier film’s space travel, the world’s residents journey from one inhabited area to the other by means of “the Fall,” a transportation system through a deep tunnel which employs gravity to propel a massive passenger compartment deep into the Earth and back to the surface again. (This is an old science fiction idea, explained at great length in Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 [1925] but not really explained at all in the film.) Without providing any details, one can comment that this device plays a role in this film’s conclusion, as the rebels achieve their goal in a manner that is only slightly more believable than Schwarzenegger’s instant terraforming.

The film’s story has also been modified to better accord with the sensibilities of the twenty-first century. The characters of Quaid’s duplicitous wife Lori, and his relentless pursuer Richter, have been combined into one agent of law enforcement, a more powerful Lori (Kate Beckinsale), so that this is a film dominated by two woman warriors: Lori keeps trying to kill Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), while his girlfriend and ally Melina (Jessica Biel) struggles to save his life. In one scene, the two women go at each other with great ferocity while Quaid deals with one of the film’s “Synthetics,” or robot police officers. In addition, the original film’s script, first written in the 1980s, is an indictment of unrestrained capitalism, as the corrupt Martian administrator Cohaagen is driven primarily by greed, determined to earn as much profit as possible from mining the valuable turbinium ore, and the Martian colony seems a typical company town, inhabited by workers who are cruelly mistreated by their employer. However, since successful businesspeople are getting better press these days, this film is all about the evils of governments, particularly governments that exploit fears of terrorism in order to exert dictatorial control over their citizens. (In this respect, the new Total Recall is similar to Children of Men [2006] [review here], another film that imposed a trendy terrorism theme upon source material that had nothing to do with terrorism.)

While Wimmer and Bomback recognized that their film would have to emphasize violence and thrills in order to match the original’s box-office success, they apparently felt that they might, at least, attempt to make their dialogue a bit more phildickian. They use Dick’s title, minus one word, as the slogan of their Rekall company: “We can remember it for you.” Characters regularly have lines that reflect the author’s concerns about how difficult it is to determine one’s actual identity and distinguish reality from fantasy. Speaking to the technician at Rekall, McClane (John Cho), Quaid insists that “An illusion, no matter how convincing, is still just an illusion,” though McClane asks rhetorically, “What is life but our brain’s chemical reactions to it?” Trying to convince him that everything around him is an illusion, his coworker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) tells Quaid, “It is you who has to choose reality.” When Quaid confesses to Mathias (Bill Nighy) that he wants to determine who he really is, the rebel leader gnomically replies, “The answer to that lies in the present, not the past,” because “The past is a construct of the mind.” Later, as if he has accepted his point, Quaid responds to Cohaagen’s barb about his not knowing his identity by saying, “I may not remember who I was, but I know who I am” – and illustrates that by attacking the former mentor who knew him as Karl Hauser. In sum, the film has any number of lines that might find their way into a second edition of my Science Fiction Quotations (2005); however, when such portentous sentiments emerge only during brief interludes between incessant fistfights and gun battles, they really have no impact. One cannot make a Rambo movie profound by having Sylvester Stallone quote Shakespeare while he is killing people.

Just as a relentless action movie cannot make viewers think, no matter what characters say, it really can’t make viewers laugh either, even though Wimmer and Bomback also add a number of lines that light-heartedly reference the pretense that Quaid and his adversary Lori were once a married couple. Subduing her after her first attack, Quaid tells her, “Talk – or we can skip to till death do us part.” When asked who Quaid really is, Lori responds, “How would I know? I only work here,” adding that “I give good wife.” One of their consistently violent encounters is said to reflect their “seven year itch.” While she is pursuing and attempting to assassinate him in a flying car chase, Quaid tells Melina, surprised to hear their opponent is his wife, that “It’s safe to say we’re separated,” and after another vicious assault, Melina comments, “You really know how to pick ‘em.” Explaining her final effort to slaughter him, Lori says, “Did you think I’d let you leave without a kiss goodbye?” I watched the film with a fairly large audience, and I noticed that absolutely no one was laughing at any of these lines; for while funny comments might work in the context of some comic-book-style violence, this film is effectively chronicling a traveling slaughterhouse, depicted quite graphically, and thus really doesn’t encourage anyone to be amused.

The sad thing is that the filmmakers have sacrificed any opportunity to be genuinely thoughtful, or genuinely comical, in order to achieve a sort of entertainment that their target audience probably didn’t want: constant, nonstop action, as the hero is always about to be killed, is always accompanied by the static of machine guns or the booming crunch of breaking celery that now signals the impact of every cinematic fist. (One can epitomize the film’s obsession with violence by noting that Quaid discovers a new way to maneuver in zero gravity: firing a machine gun so the recoil pushes you in the desired direction.) After a while, it all gets to be tiring, leaving viewers longing for a respite. There is no reason why the film couldn’t have paused to give Melina a few minutes to talk about herself, providing her character with both a backstory and an actual personality. (In this film, only Farrell’s Quaid is even fitfully a genuine character, as opposed to a set of character traits.) There would have been nothing harmful about the insertion of a brief infodump to describe the operation of a gravity-assisted underground transit system, for the benefit of people who have not encountered the idea in science fiction, or a little more explanation of Cohaagen and Hauser’s amazingly convoluted scheme to locate the leader of the rebellion. (The original film does this very well; this film barely does it at all.)

More broadly, instead of merely paying lip service to the mindset of Philip K. Dick, the screenwriters might have tweaked the story line to foreground its only remarkable feature, underemphasized in both the original film and this remake. Western culture typically esteems the notion that people should be who they are, should value their own natural identities, and should properly resist any efforts to change them into something they aren’t. Yet Total Recall is the story of a man who, after having his old identity taken away from him, decides that he actually prefers his new, inauthentic identity and resolves to permanently become the man that he really isn’t, instead of going back to being the man he really is. Thus, the film presents the heterodox argument that in some cases it might be beneficial to have someone’s true identity erased and modified. And since Quaid had the opportunity to be transformed from a heel into a hero, why shouldn’t other miscreants be given the same chance? Yes, the Hollywood rule book insists that popular films must end with the villains lying dead in pools of their own blood, but this film might have concluded just as effectively with the triumphant Quaid resolving to go into the business of reforming despicable creeps like himself, with a final scene displaying his first efforts: Lori and Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), now given new names and believing that they are ordinary, law-abiding citizens who have long enjoyed a happy marriage. It is an ending that Philip K. Dick would have appreciated far more than a pair of mutilated corpses.

Experienced science fiction readers might further complain that the film’s future seems, in several respects, strangely anachronistic, suggesting a disinclination or inability to imagine what the world might really be like “at the end of the 21st century.” It was revelatory to show Quaid reading a paperback James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, demonstrating that his former life as an undercover agent was dominating his fantasies, but with books now being increasingly replaced by electronic tablets, are paperback books likely to endure several decades into the future? In a world where robot police officers move and act like human beings, it is difficult to believe that these machines will be built on assembly lines by human workers, which is Quaid’s job at the beginning of the film. And with people mostly getting their news by means of computers instead of television, one doubts that people will learn about important events in the future by watching breaking news on television, with journalists announcing the latest developments to rapt audiences. (These purportedly futuristic broadcasts even duplicate a depressing feature of contemporary news programs, recurring spelling errors, as the television shows regularly render Cohaagen’s name as “Cohaagan.”) Perhaps one could defend these lapses by arguing that, in keeping with the ambiance of its dark, Blade Runner-influenced future, the film is conveying the poverty of its world’s multi-ethnic denizens, unable to afford Kindles or personal computers and so downtrodden that they are willing to work for wages that make them cheaper than robots; but it all seems as plausible as a future society envisioned in the early twentieth century wherein the wretched inhabitants of the future can never enjoy extravagant luxuries like cars or indoor plumbing. Perhaps the real explanation is that the filmmakers were afraid to alienate audiences by depicting what humanity’s future might really involve, such as people reading novels or getting their news by having tiny images beamed onto their retinas.

In another respect, the film seems to be focused on the past, as the screenwriters cannot resist including a few knowing references to the original film. One of its most striking scenes featured Schwarzenegger’s Quaid trying to sneak past Martian security by disguising himself as a corpulent woman. In this film’s comparable scene, another corpulent woman walks through British security while the person behind her, an elderly Asian man, is stopped for a second screening. Since the camera focuses on the woman far more than a typical extra, viewers who have seen the original will naturally assume that she is Quaid, about to evade detection while an innocent person is hassled; but here, the woman is the innocent bystander, and the man is really Quaid. In order to incorporate another famous image from the original film – the three-breasted woman – this film ingeniously locates the Rekall office visited by Quaid in a seedy neighborhood filled with prostitutes, though this has the unfortunate side effect of forcing filmmakers to make that facility, which logically resembled a doctor’s office in the first film, look more like an opium den. When the film mentions “Hauser’s memory,” it is explicitly referencing Curt Siodmak’s 1968 novel Hauser’s Memory, and the 1970 film adaptation with that title, another tale of manipulated minds which some have argued was an influence on the original film. Finally, during a visit to the deserted and uninhabitable “No-Zone,” a large poster on a ruined building shows a man resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger, wearing a suit and glasses, suggesting that the former star is now a forgotten relic of the past.

In fact, however, this film recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger far more than Philip K. Dick, demonstrating that he played a significant role in shaping Hollywood’s long-term relationship with that enigmatic author. Indeed, since the paranoid Dick loved to detect hidden patterns in the world’s events, he might have discerned some eerie significance in the fact that the new Total Recall appeared in the year 2012. He would note that during the thirty years of his writing career – from 1952 to 1982 – the film industry, except for a 1962 British television program, scrupulously avoided all of his works. Then, during the next thirty years, from 1982 to 2012, Hollywood became enamored with his stories and figured out how to make money from them, with Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall representing the first great triumph of its chosen approach: include the weird ideas, to be sure, but polish their rough edges and smother them with so much conventional action and violence as to render them unthreatening to the general public. (My discussion of The Adjustment Bureau [2011] [review here] explains the usual process.) This new version of Total Recall, then, signals the beginning of a third 30-year cycle in which producers will remake or reboot all of their flawed redactions of Dick, trying to do a better job but still compelled by the realities of the business to force this unformulaic author into their tried-and-true formulas. (Coming up next: Ridley Scott revisits Blade Runner, and given what happened when he revisited Alien [1979] with Prometheus [2011] [review here], one cannot be optimistic about the results.) So, will we ever see a film that is as genuinely strange and unsettling as “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” or other classic Dick stories? If one could ask Philip K. Dick that question, he might speculate that, after making and remaking one disappointing adaptation after another, Hollywood just might try doing justice to one of his singular works …. sometime in the year 2042.

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009), its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), the co-edited anthology Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future (2011), and The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012).

2 thoughts on “Memories of Philip… and Arnold: A Review of Total Recall

  • August 5, 2012 at 3:47 am

    “Western culture typically esteems the notion that people should be who they are, should value their own natural identities, and should properly resist any efforts to change them into something they aren’t.”

    The socialisation process is designed to teach people to conform and limit the level of difference between the natural identity and the norms. Those who do not conform and produce behaviour considered antisocial are punished whether by the peer group or government when public safety is threatened.

  • August 6, 2012 at 5:58 am

    DIARY OF A WIMPY KID was getting better and more solid reviews than TOTAL RECALL. Several respected bloggers have begged people to save thier money.

    Philip K. Dick weirdness can be had on the first show of EUREKA season 5. And it isn’t even an hour long.


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