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Total Recall

Entry updated 13 August 2022. Tagged: Film.

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1. Film (1990). Carolco. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Gary Goldman, based on a story by Shusett, O'Bannon, Jon Povill, inspired by "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (April 1966 F&SF) by Philip K Dick. Cast includes Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin. 113 minutes, cut to 109 minutes. Colour.

At a purported $60,000,000 budget this was one of the most expensive films ever made (though Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991] would cost even more). Verhoeven, whose sf film debut was RoboCop (1987), is a deft, intelligent director good at tough action sequences, but with a strong liking for gratuitous violence which, for all its over-the-top comic-book harmlessness here, still has about it a faint whiff of sadism. Exported versions were mostly cut to the requirements of the relevant country's censorship code.

Some of the strengths of Dick's original story remain in this tale of a man who, in attempting to purchase false memories (see Memory Edit) of a trip to Mars, uncovers some real ones, and is pitchforked into a heady sequence of exotic adventures, leaving Earth and fighting with rebels against a power-crazed Martian establishment. False memories clash with true ones and, since both look the same on the screen, it is as difficult for the viewer as for the muscle-bound protagonist to tell illusion from reality. Total Recall is entertaining, information-dense and packed with intriguing detail, some of which seems due to the work of Ron Cobb as "Conceptual Artist", but has most of the usual faults of big-budget sf sagas: too great a reliance on grotesque special effects (the bugging eyes of victims exposed to vacuum are merely absurd); with-one-bound-Jack-was-free plotting; and in this case a finale of protracted idiocy in which Mars's long-disappeared atmosphere is replaced through vents in a mountain in a matter of minutes. (However, it is also arguable that the entire Martian sequence can be viewed, and perhaps should be, as a false purchased memory – transposing the finale from scientific absurdity into a wish-fulfilment fantasy entirely in keeping with the film's basic premise.) Ideas are "borrowed" eclectically from diverse sources: an air-machine from Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars (February-July 1912 All-Story as "Under the Moons of Mars" as by Norman Bean; 1917), disfigured Mutants from Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963), a two-headed mutant from Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959), archaic alien machinery from Forbidden Planet (1956), and so on. It would take a fresh and ignorant viewer to suspend his or her disbelief throughout the film: sf aficionados tend to giggle through the whole of the second half. [PN]

2. Film (2012). Columbia Pictures presents an Original Films production. Directed by Len Wiseman. Written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon and Jon Povill and Wimmer, inspired by "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (April 1966 F&SF) by Philip K Dick. Cast includes Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Colin Farrell, Ethan Hawke (Director's Cut only), Bill Nighy and Bokeem Woodbine. Theatrical version 118 minutes; Director's Cut 130 minutes. Colour.

A jumble of irrelevant ideas, some of them grafted in from a discarded earlier sf project of Wiseman's own, season this affectionate but witless tribute to Verhoeven's version at 1 above, restoring Philip K Dick's hovercars (for an action sequence) but otherwise drastically reconceiving key elements of its source. Mars is eliminated from the plot entirely; instead, the film presents a post-apocalyptic world whose only habitable zones are the British Isles and Australia, connected (absurdly) by a commuter elevator running through the Earth's core. The film's principal asset is the outstanding production design by Patrick Tatopoulos, which yields the most richly visualized future London cityscape yet seen on screen, but the Memory Edit games with Paranoia and Identity are much less interestingly played. Though the makers appear to believe they have boosted the possibility that the entire film is a false memory, the reverse is true; even the hero's motivation has been softened by having him switch sides to the rebel cause before rather than after his induced Amnesia. The Director's Cut restores some plot convolutions pruned in the theatrical version: the hero has been given a new face and was previously played by a different star; the heroine is the resistance leader's daughter; and the villain's scheme is marginally more joined-up, though not notably more credible. [NL]

see also: Scientific Errors.


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