in Movies

Netflix Review: ‘Total Recall’ (1990)

total recall netflix

And here is the timeless question: what if it was all a dream?

Inspired by the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Total Recall (1990) is considered a cult science fiction classic.

There’s a certain ironic sense of déjà vu I had while watching this film, before I finally remembered why. This movie, complete with gratuitous gunfights, exploding cars, and blood-spurting, limbless bodies is what gave me nightmares as a kid, when I watched this movie back in the late 1990s.

I don’t think I was able to quite appreciate all the nuances of the film back then (I was 7, after all). It was a great experience to be able to revisit it now, for the first time in 13 years, and be recalled to the finer points of science fiction movies in the ’90s.

This movie is, if nothing else, one of a kind. With an intriguing script, the film is told in a way that places you directly in the shoes of Douglas Quaid, our large-muscled and slightly bumbling main character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Except this movie, to the contrary, doesn’t assume the audience is stupid. Instead, they leave you to extrapolate on what could be happening, much like Quaid is, and just when you think you might have it all figured out, they rip the carpet out from underneath you so quickly that you’ll be angry you didn’t figure it out earlier.

Carefully crafted and executed with glee, this movie looks as fun to make as it was to watch. While the “futuristic” cars and “x-ray gadgets” in the movie seem outrageously prehistoric compared to the technology we see in the futuristic movies of today, one has to remember that none of them could have happened without Total Recall paving the way. Heralded as innovative with its use of visual effects, this movie pushed technical movie-making boundaries, and was even nominated for an Academy Award for its visual effects.

total recall poster

Perhaps the first of its genre, Total Recall is a mind-bending movie that ultimately leaves you questioning what was real, and what could have all been a dream. It is this notion, at the end of the day, that adds a deeper dimension to what would have other been a simply entertaining, action-packed film.

Try as hard as I might to pick out things that are wrong with such a campy, over-dramatized, and poorly acted film, I found myself enjoying it immensely.

It isn’t only an action film with an unexpected cerebral twist. It’s also surprisingly witty and thoughtful, with moments where it blatantly makes fun of itself and the ridiculousness of the whole plot.

With lines like “screw you!” and “who am I?” delivered in the accented, dulcet tones of the future governor of California, Schwarzenegger does what he does best: flashes his muscles, tells a corny line, and blows stuff up. There isn’t much acting in Total Recall on his end, but in this film, somehow it works out for the best. No tough acting is needed, because the story is supposed to be about an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and Schwarzenegger gives just enough for it all to be believable.

While this film doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, it comes closer than any other large-scale action movie of its time does. Namely speaking, the main female character (Sharon Stone), while objectified at times, ultimately doesn’t end up playing a damsel in distress at the end. The film definitely tried to incorporate women in a larger capacity than ever before in action films, and I can appreciate what they tried to do in a time when women in film were largely soft-spoken figures of the male gaze.

Total Recall is considered a classic sci-fi action film, and one can only hope that if humans really do settle on Mars someday, we won’t have to face the terrors of aliens… or for that matter, air shareholders.

Total Recall is available to stream on Netflix right now.

three and a half stars

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Gary Goldman
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Runtime: 113 minutes