When history recalls its greatest sci-fi visionaries, Philip K. Dick's name doesn't come up nearly as it should. While Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson are likely familiar to most, Dick remains largely unknown to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that more of his works have been adapted into motion pictures than any of those other sci-fi greats. While the merits of such Dick-inspired films as 'A Scanner Darkly,' 'Paycheck' and 'Minority Report' may be debatable, just the fact that 'Blade Runner' exists at all should be enough to earn Dick his rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic sci-fi greats.
Then there is 'Total Recall.' Perhaps Dick's most well-known tale after 'Blade Runner,' it also boasts one of his most intriguing conceits -- and that's saying a lot. Simple on the surface, yet rich with existential complexities, 'Recall' tells the tale of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an everyman toiling away as a laborer in the year 2048. Strangely, Quaid has a series of luxuries seemingly at odds with his lowly station in life, including a beautiful wife (Sharon Stone) and a surprisingly swank apartment. When we first meet Quaid, he's having recurring dreams of Mars, so he goes in for some "virtual vacation memories" via a hi-tech "transplant" service. Things soon go haywire, as Quaid's dreams appear to be buried memories of a former life. Is he really Hauser, the one-time rebel leader of an uprising against the evil Mars dictator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox)? As Quaid/Hauser descends further and further into this Kaftka-esque nightmare, he will question his very identity, and the blurry line that divides reality and memory.
A sizable box office hit during its initial 1990 theatrical release, 'Total Recall' is certainly Schwarzenegger's best film outside of the 'Terminator' flicks. I'd also argue that, after 'RoboCop,' it is Paul Verhoeven's best sci-fi effort (I was not a fan of 'Starship Troopers' or 'Hollow Man'). 'Total Recall' definitely boasts some great action, Verhoeven's typically bombastic directorial flourishes, and very cool pre-CGI special effects courtesy of Oscar-winning makeup maestro Rob Bottin. Yet despite all these plusses, I've never quite warmed to 'Total Recall' as much as its sizable cult following. Perhaps it's because 'Total Recall' ultimately succeeds more for its ideas then its action movie elements, which upon subsequent viewings don't hold up very strongly.
To be sure, on the surface, 'Total Recall' has all the right elements. Dick's story is undoubtedly captivating -- I've always been a fan of his literate, profound meditations on the merging of fantasy, reality and spirituality, and 'Total Recall' is fueled by some very heady ideas. Verhoeven, too, was in his prime here, and he was a smart enough filmmaker to avoid dumbing down the material into just another routine Schwarzenegger action flick. As he showed in 'RoboCop,' the Dutch auteur can be terrific at mixing dark human tragedy with ironic humor and sharp social satire. Though not quite as pointed and subversive as 'RoboCop,' 'Total Recall' is still laced with plenty of typical Verhoeven zingers at capitalism, governmental oppression and our culture's relentless avoidance of pain by wallowing in pleasure -- all of which helps to elevate the film above the run-of-the-mill piece of '80s sci-fi hokum.
However, unlike 'RoboCop,' sometimes 'Recall's 'Fugitive'-like action scenes feel a tad bit uninspired. Compare 'Total Recall' to 'Blade Runner,' and it is easy to see why the latter has transcended its genre and era, while the former arguably has not. With 'Blade Runner,' we still remember the film's haunting themes and characters as much as its milieu, action and incredible visual design. After watching 'Total Recall' for about the fourth time now with this new Blu-ray release, somehow I still don't feel I'm watching a true classic, but merely a great piece of pop filmmaking.
Then there is Schwarzenegger. For some reason, I've always pictured someone more slight of build in the role of Quaid/Hauser, like a Michael Biehn type. (James Cameron was certainly smart to cast Biehn as the hero in the first 'Terminator,' versus Schwarzenegger, who originally wanted the good-guy role.) Watching Arnie in 'Total Recall,' flexing his gigantic muscles and spouting Dick's literate dialogue in that clunky, thick accent, I just couldn't quite buy him as mundane Average Joe. (And I certainly couldn't buy him as a love interest to Sharon Stone!) By the time of Quaid/Hauser's revelatory paradigm shift at the end of the first act, it is hard to empathize with or feel any vulnerability in the character. We are so conditioned to see Schwarzenegger just pick up a machine gun and start shooting, that it's hard to feel much fear for him. As a character in the movie says, "A man is defined by his actions, not his memories." By the end of 'Total Recall,' I've always ended up feeling exactly the opposite.
Alongside 'Stargate' and 'Terminator 2,' 'Total Recall' has to be up there with the titles that have been released the most number of times on disc. Lionsgate (previously LIVE and Artisan) has regurgitated 'Total Recall' again and again in various permutations, with the latest DVD version due for release later this year, under the studio's new "High Resolution" remaster banner. Judging by the fact Lionsgate is reissuing the film with that label, it's fair to assume this new Blu-ray release is also minted from a new master, and not the same source material used for the 2002 special edition release. Not that 'Total Recall' didn't already look quite good on that last DVD release.
In any case, 'Total Recall' is somewhat unusual for a big-budget late-'80s action film, in that it was originally presented in a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, not the wider and more cinematic 2.35:1. Lionsgate accurately frames 'Total Recall' for its Blu-ray debut here, and also bestows upon it a very nice 1080p video transfer. As with the Blu-ray 'Stargate' (released simultaneously with 'Total Recall'), I was surprised at how fresh this film looks. The source material is good shape -- not pristine, but dirt and blemishes are minimal and grain generally not distracting. And even better than 'Stargate,' there is no major print damage to speak of -- nor any reinserted bonus footage of poor quality.
Most other aspects of the transfer are generally solid for a catalog title. Blacks are deep and contrast consistent across the entire grayscale. While sometimes remasters of older titles like this have that jacked up, overly-processed look, 'Total Recall' looks pleasingly film-like. There is a slight wash of grain throughout, but it looks natural and appropriate to the age of the material. Color reproduction is also a pleasnt surprise. 'Total Recall's main color scheme is red (it does take place on Mars, after all), which is always a challenge for video to reproduce accurately and cleanly. Yet hues are very stable here with no apparent noise, and are certainly more eye-popping than on any previous standard-def DVD version.
However, detail is still lackluster compared to some of the better remasters of late-'80s material I've seen. To my eyes, it looks like the transfer has been softened a bit to reduce the visibility of film grain, which results in a flat look in almost every scene. The sense of depth and clarity of fine details is just not incredibly three-dimensional. Most impressive are the everyday early scenes before Quaid/Hauser takes off to Mars, while the more surreal nightmare scenes are the weakest. Still, despite these inconsistencies, overall I was quite satisfied with this presentation.
'Total Recall' is presented on Blu-ray in both Dolby Digital EX Surround and DTS-HD High Resolution (the latter of which is a lossy compression format, and not to be confused with the upcoming DTS-HD Master Audio lossless codec). Luckily, both tracks are quite good stuff, although lately, with all these new announcements of upcoming HD DVD and Blu-ray titles featuring Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, it is hard not to expect more.
In any case, I had few actual complaints with the audio quality of 'Total Recall.' Frequency response is especially impressive for a film that is now over fifteen years old. The mix sounds open, spacious and natural in the mid- and high-ranges, and there is some serious .1 LFE action throughout. Both the opening and ending sequences are particular highlights, and there was even one moment mid-way during the film, when a bomb goes off in a crowded mall, that was so deep and effective I was genuinely startled by how powerful it sounded.
Surround use is also well done and consistently engaging. The action scenes are the main beneficiaries, with some effective uses of panning effects between all four main channels, but ambiance is noticeable, too. Jerry Goldsmith's score is nicely directed to various speakers at key moments, such as the scene where the Sharon Stone character's true motivations are revealed -- subtle, but at least there was a sincere attempt by the film's sound designers to create a bit of atmosphere.
Though the previous Special Edition DVD of 'Total Recall' wasn't overflowing with extras, it did boast the participation of both Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger, by way of a new commentary and documentary. Unfortunately, both of those extras are not on this Blu-ray release, and the omission is sorely noted. My guess is that Lionsgate didn't want to pay Schwarzenegger any more money to use his commentary a second time (the actor made big news back in 2002 when he asked for -- and got -- $40,000 to appear on the original 'Total Recall' DVD), but then I'm cynical.
All we do get is the vintage "Visions of Mars" making-of featurette. Alas, it is such a total fluff piece that it might as well be a trailer. Yes, it is that lame -- if you skip it, it will be five minutes of your life well worth saving.
'Total Recall' is a fun sci-fi movie, infused with fascinating themes about the distinction between memory and identity. If not a true cinema classic, the film is certainly one of the better examples of the genre from the past couple of decades. Lionsgate has put together a solid (but not stellar) transfer and soundtrack for the film's high-def debut, but the lack of extras is a particular disappointment, and drags the overall grade down quite a bit. Still, this disc offers a nice upgrade over the previous DVD, so it may still be worth a purchase a purchase for fans, and not a bad rental for everyone else.