Lowdown: A man whose memory was erased ends up a freedom fighter for Mars.
The recent spate of high quality science fiction films (District 9, Moon) made me recall another quality science fiction film I have been in love with for a long while and haven't seen for a while, Total Recall. Mind you, my feelings towards this 1990 film weren't always the way they are now: when it first came out to the cinemas I refused to go and see it because I had felt films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to be too stupid to watch.
It was only when another Schwarzenegger film, Terminator 2, came out to knock me off my senses that I went looking for more. One such avenue was Total Recall, and a good army friend (Yair) gave me the film's video. I watched it twice in one afternoon in the company of my father, and we both agreed this was one hell of a film. A couple of years later, when I got my own laserdisc player and my first home theater setup, Total Recall was one of the first lasers I ended up buying and one of the films I ended up watching the most. As it is, Total Recall and I go a long way; and now, with the laser long gone, I wanted to see what the Blu-ray format has to offer for this film I had visited so many times before.
Time for the token summary of the plot, loosely based on a Phillip K. Dick short story that was made into something much bigger and better by the screenplay. Total Recall is set in a future where the earth is at a global war between the north and the south, with the north receiving vital mineral help from Mars to help its war effort. Those minerals are dug at the expense of the exploited Martian human population, which is left with minimal breathing air and mere cheap radiation protection that turns lots of them into mutants and causes them to rebel.
Enter Schwarzenegger, a lowly earth construction worker married to a sexy pre Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. We learn earth's society is a lot like today's China: people live in a dictatorship, washed by government prepared news, yet are generally free to live their day to day lives under Big Brother like supervision. In our hero's case, that supervision is something he prefers to ignore when it comes to his weird fetish with Mars. Schwarzenegger can't afford going to Mars, so he goes to a company called Rekall that sells memories of vacations and buys himself a vacation to Mars. Things go wrong, though, and his brain rejects the memory implants; Rekall chucks him out, and the next he knows the whole world is trying to kill him. Help comes from an unexpected direction: himself, as he receives instructions and aid sending him to Mars to help the freedom fighters there set Mars free using some secret the authorities strive to keep a secret.
Total Recall was the first Paul Verhoeven film I got to see. Since then he established himself as one of my favorite directors with the likes of Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. In general, all his films bear his trademarks: extreme violence, sex portrayed in its full glory (for better and worse), and messages of the type you'd expect to receive from a director who spent his childhood starving under Nazi occupation. In Total Recall's case, the main question is whether the events transpiring over Schwarzenegger are real or the result of Rekall's memory implants; that is Verhoeven's way of asking, Matrix style, whether the world we live in is real or not. Verhoeven expands on the point of what is real and what isn't and what we should believe in vs. what we should be questioning when he shows us TV news broadcasts saying riots in Mars have been peacefully subjected and then showing protesters shot in cold blood. But Verhoeven is not into petty new age philosophy; his message is loud and clear: "You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory." As in, get a move on, be practical, and sort the world you seem to be living in. On this point, as on most of the other points - graphic sex and violence included - I am with Verhoeven. If we consider ourselves adults, we should confront the world as it is, with all the harshness reality has to offer.
P.S. What do I think, was Schwarzenegger dreaming or not? I say he was dreaming, otherwise how can you explain Mars' gravity not having an effect on visiting earthlings?
Best scene: Oh, there are many candidates there, with scenes most memorable for their one liners. There's "consider it a divorce", "give these people air" (spoken with a very harsh Austrian accent), and "see you at the party Richter". My favorite, though, is "two weeks", the quote repeated when Schwarzenegger first arrives at Mars' passport control disguised as a fat lady with an explosive head. Because of Total Recall, every time I'm asked to quote an expected duration for a job, my answer is "two weeks".
Technical assessment: This is a rather minimalist Blu-ray in the sense it doesn't offer any special features, not even subtitles (thank goodness I know the film by heart). The picture is average for a Blu-ray yet obviously way better than my laserdisc of old; it's also anamorphic widescreen compared to the old laser's pan & scan, which means I could finally see bits of the picture I have never seen before. The 5.1 sound is not bad but it shows its age, lacking in low frequency effects that are now as common as muck. On the positive side, the laser's rather strident sound is gone in favor of a version that is much gentler on the ears.
Overall: Poetry in motion picture, 5 out of 5 stars. If it wasn't for Blade Runner I would have said Total Recall is the best serious science fiction film ever; I might still make that claim, as it seems Total Recall is excellent by design whereas Blade Runner became good through a series of flukes.