"Sorry, Quaid. Your whole life is just a dream."
As you can see from the scoring, I absolutely love Paul Verhoeven's wildly crazy actioner, 'Total Recall.' I have since the first time I watched it in the theaters the week it was released. And in case you're wondering, I'm also a Phillip K. Dick nerd, so that could have something to do with my cinematic love-affair with the flick. The box-office hit of 1990 may not be up to the sheer brilliance or as intellectually perceptive of the human condition as Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner,' but this ultra-violent sci-fi spectacular still comes with a good deal of smarts and even plays an important role in the history of filmmaking. (Please save your comments about my sanity, credibility or your oh-so insightful, one-word critiques about the quality of my review until after I'm done, please. Thanks.) Let's start with the simple stuff first, and then move from there.
"See you at the party, Richter!
While watching the movie again for the n'teenth time, I kept thinking to myself of what ever happened to these wonderfully gory R-rated movies we use to enjoy in the 80s and the early 90s? Verhoeven was actually threatened with an X-rating when he presented his original vision until he was forced to tone down the blood. These types of movies aren't made nearly as much anymore, or at least not to the extent that Verhoeven seems to exaggerate and relish in the violence. Take the escalator scene, for example, fairly early on after Arnold Schwarzenegger's Doug Quaid learns his comfortable middle-class life is a sham. (Remember that last tidbit; there'll be a pop-quiz later.) Some poor, random bystander is used as a human shield by our soon-to-be hero, and the blood squibs are massive, leaving behind big gaping holes in the clothing of the stunt performers.
"Consider that a divorce!"
We can laugh at the sequence today, which is made even funnier by the fact that the Austrian actor became governor of California the following decade. Anyhow, the point is that 'Total Recall' came at the peak of a public outcry of the amount of violence seen on screen, and the hesitation from major studio productions for big-budgeted, ultra-violent, hard R-rated movies started growing. But even more significant is this actioner hitting theaters right at the cusp of the CGI furor, completely revolutionizing the filmmaking industry forever. (James Cameron's 'Terminator 2' hit theaters the following year.) At the time, the visual and practical effects by Rob Bottin were thought of as ground-breaking and excitedly innovative. From being one of the last to see large-scale use of miniatures to lifelike animatronics like Schwarzenegger's memorable woman disguise when arriving on Mars, 'Total Recall' is ultimately one of the last great Hollywood blockbusters to be made in what we can now affectionately call old-fashioned or classic special effects, which oddly includes the gruesome violence.
"You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory."
But other than thinking of the film with such fondness and nostalgia, to which I admit being guilty, the script by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the same pair that penned another sci-fi classic in 'Alien,' also lands with some highly intriguing concepts within its narrative. What I find most fascinating are ideas of a class struggle and secret desires for a meaningful life cleverly underscoring the violent mayhem moving the plot forward. Quaid is a regular Joe suddenly growing apathetic at the monotony in his bourgeoisie existence, possibly feeling it's all just an illusion (told you there'd be pop-quiz later). We could argue the visit to Rekall, a company which implants fake memories, accidentally makes him conscious of this illusion. Investigating its origins reveals the manipulation of a major corporation by the wealthy elitist Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), wielding his power to suppress the lower class, represented by the mutants of Mars (the whole mutant thing is David Cronenberg's contribution to the several rewrites, by the way), by controlling the basic essentials for a decent life, like oxygen. In Quaid's fantasy for creating purpose out of the mundane, he is the ultimate working class hero, defeating those who profit from the lives and material labor of others.
"Who told you to THINK? I don't give you enough information to THINK!"
Another beauty to the whole film is the nagging question of whether or not it's all in Quaid's head. We're never given a definite answer, although some would point out the suspicious behavior of Quaid's wife (Sharon Stone) and his best friend (Robert Costanzo), but we could just as easily say they're simply concerned for his unhappiness and well-being. In his dreams, his suspicions of loved ones are justified. Once at Rekall, the lowly construction worker is told the fake memory implants are only a means for kick-starting the outlandish vacation. The rest of the fantasy and the minor details within are controlled by the user. We hear specific words and are shown fairly explicit images which later become part of Quaid's fantasy, such as the weird designs of so-called alien artifacts on the TV screen. The only mention of mutants is Cohaagen referring to freedom fighters during a press conference but meaning it as a spiteful insult. The best friend is the one to plant the idea which later transforms into the funnily named "schizoid embolism." And the real kicker is the beautiful Melina (Rachel Ticotin), who is precisely as he requested and looks identical to her CG renderings.
"Well, Cohaagen. I've got to hand it to you. That's the best mind-fuck yet."
I can keep going on and on and on about this highly entertaining sci-fi actioner, the type moviegoers like to call a "thinking man's action movie." There's a great deal more happening in Paul Verhoeven's 'Total Recall,' and I can spend hours picking the whole thing apart, both in the production, the narrative and its place in moviemaking history. (There's the Mars train with little screens showing Schwarzenegger looking out onto the planet as the camera pulls back, and how about the original pitch for a sequel years later that evolved into Steven Spielberg's 'Minority Report.') And best of all is never knowing if it actually happened or if it's all part of Quaid's vacation fantasy. The bright light at the very end could mean something really did go wrong and he's just been lobotomized. Or, Quaid did indeed get his money's worth by living the most realistic dream of his life, which brings up a larger philosophical question over the dilemma of appearance vs. reality. Like I said, I keep going on and on and on, but I'll just stop for now and go watch 'Total Recall' again because it's more fun to simply allow the mind to enjoy the journey through Quaid's possibly deluded fantasy of heroism.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings 'Total Recall' to Blu-ray for the second time and dubs it the "Mind-Bending Edition." The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside a blue eco-lite keepcase and kicks off with a series of skippable trailers of other flicks from the distributor's catalog. Afterwards, viewers are greeted by a main menu window with full-motion clips and music.
Verhoeven's 'Total Recall' takes another mind-bending trip to Blu-ray, and as promised, arrives with a slightly better-looking presentation, supposedly taken from the original elements according to information from Lionsgate and approved by Verhoeven as the way he intended the film to look.
For the most part, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) is an improvement over the previous edition, which suffered noticeably from several artifacts. And yet, the picture quality doesn't quite compare to other Blu-ray releases from the same period and doesn't really satisfy our high-def expectations. Then again, the movie has never actually been much of a looker in the first place, so expectations should be reasonably soften in order to enjoy the several positives. Any qualms we may have or find are more than likely inherent to the negative used, possibly making this presentation faithful to its source, and understand the rough, gritty cinematography was never meant to demo one's HDTV.
Immediately apparent are the somewhat poor black levels, creating a generally flat image and making most of the entire movie into a very dreary experience. But to be honest, it's better and truer than the digitized shadows and crush seen in the first release. We can see more of the finer details in the background. Besides, this goes back to the deliberate photography of Jost Vacano ('Das Boot,' 'Robocop') and Verhoeven, wanting the feel of a dystopic, lifeless and morose future. The color palette is severely affected by these artistic decisions, also looking fairly glum and downcast, but primaries are cleanly rendered and stable. Several scenes have sadly not aged well, looking blurry and poorly resolved.
Countering some of those perceived negatives is a well-balanced contrast. The video does lack the sort of punch and pop we've come to expect from the format, but it's comfortably bright nonetheless, allowing for great visibility and doesn't cause any of the blooming seen before. With a consistent ultra-fine layer of grain present and coming in slightly thicker in a few darker sequences, the transfer offers an attractive cinematic appeal, boasting strong detailing in the surrounding architecture and on the rocky environment of Mars. Facial complexions admittedly appear flushed and pale, but they're also pretty revealing and nicely textured.
All in all, the quality of this Blu-ray presentation will be up for debate, but the transfer is an upgrade nonetheless and very likely faithful to its source.
Along with the video, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is an improvement over the high-rez tracks found on the previous Blu-ray release. It may not be a night and day difference, but this lossless mix feels fuller and a tad more energetic, creating a highly engaging and broad soundstage. Imaging offers a great deal of presence and fidelity, delivering crystal-clear dialogue in the center of the screen with pleasingly fluid movement of background activity that's convincing. Dynamics and acoustics are terrifically detailed and sharply rendered, giving each gunshot and explosion striking clarity without the slightest hint of distortion. Low bass is accurate and appropriately responsive given the movie's age, never seeming boomy or exaggerated. This goes a long way in bringing Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score to life and providing it with a wonderfully robust feel.
The rears are generally silent and non-existent, save for some barely noticeable bleeds of the music to enhance the soundfield. This is a front-heavy mix, as it should be, and it sounds terrific.
Lionsgate corrects the lack of worthy supplements seen on the previous Blu-ray by finally porting over some of the bonuses from the DVD releases. Missing is "Rekall Virtual Vacations" and the "Visions of Mars" featurette.
Aside from the nostalgia effect and the action-packed excitement, Paul Verhoeven's 'Total Recall' is the sort of sci-fi spectacular some affectionately refer to as a "thinking man's action movie." With Arnold Schwarzenegger as the working-class everyman Doug Quaid, the movie actually has its place in cinema history and does offer its audience something to think about while enjoying the ride through another man's heroic fantasies. The Blu-ray might not impress some, but it's a satisfying improvement over previous releases, with a high-def transfer that's true to its source and highly engaging audio presentation. Some supplements from the DVD have been ported over, and Lionsgate throws in a couple more extras for good measure. This is recommended.