Take your average summer action movie spectacle. Any given action blockbuster, really. Dip it in Philip K. Dick’s brand of science fiction founded in paranoia, distrust of authority, and systemic conditions. Put a post-Robocop Paul Verhoeven in charge of what goes in the frame and these basic yet frantic ingredients yield one serving of Total Recall. Despite his less-than-subtle oeuvre, Recall is much more than it seems underneath its exterior. Verhoeven ably weaves a healthy thread of uncertainty (one that would make P.K. Dick proud) all along our protagonist’s journey. Schwarzenegger’s mere presence suggests a playful self-aware nature towards the audience’s expectations. This is just part of that thread Verhoeven so deftly weaves.
Any moviegoer seeing marketing for Total Recall around its release would assume that since Schwarzenegger gets top billing, his action star status would be put to good use on the screen. In this they’re absolutely right but not in the way that they would think. Schwarzenegger’s presence is directed at the audience’s expectations of him. Since audiences would accept him in any role tied to an action film, and Recall is commercially billed as an action movie, it doesn’t matter how his character’s journey begins in the film. It’s the payoff that’s promised here. Schwarzenegger is introduced to us as a regular Joe, or rather Doug; a construction worker whose daily routine includes making breakfast, watching the news and coming home to his loving wife every day. The audience buys into it in the anticipation of seeing him turn into the macho action hero they expect.
Something during the news broadcast strikes him as odd but he can’t place it, and neither can we. We don’t know anything about him other than what we’ve just seen. We do see him go to work at a construction site which makes sense for his build but here he stands out against the rest of the workers. None of them are nearly as chiseled as Schwarzen — Doug. He chats up his co-worker about Rekall, a facility that provides artificial memories for people who have always wanted experiences that were out of reach for them either financially, medically or just completely out of the realm of the possible. His co-worker’s response was that someone else on the job site had gone there and got brain damage from it. “Don’t fuck with your brain. It ain’t worth it.” Anyone receiving instruction to steer clear of something will likely gravitate towards it, every time.
Doug visits Rekall to explore what they have to offer. Their ‘secret agent’ package piques his interest (and is the most expensive) so he opts for it. Once his procedure starts on camera, the secret agent memory begins. Or it doesn’t. That’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide, but what follows is a series of imagined or dramatized sequences connected to the fantasy that Doug paid for, and that same fantasy is part of the audience’s as well.
Total Recall employs a sleek exterior while its true contents suggest something of a simplistic pointed attack on the natures of perception. There’s evidence of facades and deception everywhere in the film; Doug uses a disguise that falls apart when he’s trying to sneak past a security checkpoint, a robotic self-driving taxi service employs an anthropomorphic dummy ‘driver’ yet only a bust of the dummy is in the driver’s position (achieving a grotesque uncanny valley effect), and ultimately the Rekall chair itself, the image of cutting edge technology, is betrayed when Doug rips out of its restraints to reveal crude and cheap re-bar underneath (which he then uses to gouge a river of blood from one of the Rekall scientists to the audience’s satisfaction).
Naturally, Total Recall’s threads culminate at the climax of the film where some reveals are not what they seem. Doug is even given an out by a doctor telling him that what he’s experiencing isn’t real but manufactured by Rekall, producing a pill for Doug to take in order to wake up. There’s something peculiar about this moment though. If Doug’s experiences thus far are all due to Rekall, does living the fake memory of being a secret agent happen in real time for him when he’s really physically unconscious? Memories are just that, memories, not a sequential order of events where you can remove and examine specific levels of minutiae as if it were happening right now. But arguing logistics like this is ultimately a defeatist approach given the creative license and criticism of the simplified action movie Verhoeven is deconstructing. But perhaps what Verhoeven is also deconstructing here is how memories are perceived and simultaneously challenging that perception by redefining it for his own unique and vibrant language of film.