Every time I reach for the original Total Recall on DVD or Blu-Ray when I'm in the mood to enjoy one of my favorite dumb action movies, I'm always surprised by how layered and intricate the screenplay is. In fact, it might contain one of the best-structured and written scripts for any action movie.
Up until A Scanner Darkly came out in 2006, Total Recall used to be my favorite Philip K. Dick adaptation. As a Dick Head (Don't get excited, it's the code word for die-hard fans of Dick's work), I don't throw this distinction around lightly. A lot of science fiction fans who are not very familiar with Dick's oeuvre usually point out Blade Runner as their favorite.
It's science fiction blasphemy to even hint that Blade Runner might be a little bit overrated, but after watching each of its theatrical, director and final cut versions multiple times, I still haven't grown entirely fond of its Kubrickesque coldness and seriousness mixed with a typical Western bounty hunter story structure.
If you're familiar with Dick's work, you'll know that he often uses a sick and twisted sense of humor that set him apart from more straight-faced sci-fi authors of the time like Asimov or Clarke. This is why Total Recall worked better as a Dick adaptation than Blade Runner did.
In many ways, Douglas Quaid (Ah-nold) is a very typical Dickian (or Dickish?) protagonist. As much as Hitchcock used The Wrong Man as a constant protagonist, Dick used The Man Who Loses His Identity. A lot of his best stories involve people who are suddenly stripped from their identities and find themselves in entirely different and disorienting universes.
This change usually happens through a glitch in the protagonist's mind and a lot of the time they eventually find out the strange new world they inhabit takes place completely inside their minds. Decades before the concept of virtual reality was brought into pop culture, Philip K. Dick had already perfected it. Some great Dick books that deal with this concept are Ubik and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
Although it's a typical American action movie, Total Recall follows a more ambiguous, almost more European structure. I'm surprised that Dutch director Paul Verhoeven didn't direct more Dick adaptations. His trademark politically satirical approach to Robocop and Starship Troopers also resemble Dick's sense of humor.
The story, I hope, is well known by now. The way the screenwriters and Verhoeven execute it makes sure that enough information is peppered throughout that support the opposing ideas of whether or not Quaid's highly unlikely secret agent adventure to Mars is a dream or not.
There are of course a lot more clues to support the dream theory. The Rekall salesman basically lays out the entire story of the rest of the film while pitching the secret agent ego trip. The type of woman he wants in his Rekall trip comes up with the photo of the woman he meets later on in Mars.
The doctor who wants to bring Quaid back to reality tells him that if he doesn't come with him, the walls of reality will come crashing down and that he will even find himself to be best friends with the bad guy, which is exactly what happens. The fade to white at the end instead of the more typical fade to black was used in order to visualize the idea that in real life, Quaid is being lobotomized.
But there are also some other clues that hints Quaid might really be a secret agent who got his identity stolen. Before he goes to Rekall to start the dream, Verhoeven makes sure Quaid's wife and best friend give him suspicious looks behind him. Also, how come he dreamed about that exact same woman before he even went to Rekall?
Therefore, the audience can make up their own minds about whether or not Quaid is dreaming, and both answers would be right. A thinking person's action movie, who'd have known?
Even with the mind-bending storyline, Total Recall is still an unapologetically corny Arnie shoot-em-up, complete with cheesy one-liners and over-the-top violence. It's a combination that shouldn't work, but it does.
My admittedly somewhat nostalgic love of Total Recall prevented me from seeing the Colin Farrell remake. A Total Recall without Mars? That's as nutty as a blue-collar construction worker turning out to be a secret agent.
Total Recall is now available in a glorious new Blu-Ray presentation transferred from a meticulous restoration. Make sure to get your hands on the Mind-Bending Edition and not the original Blu-Ray release, which sports a sub-par transfer.