Total Recall (1990)

total recall

“Now get your ass to Mars.”

The Scoop: 1990 R, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, and Michael Ironside

Tagline: They stole his mind, now he wants it back.

Summary Capsule: Man voyages to Mars to get his memory, life and squeezable woman back

Justin’s rating: Infinitely better than Mission To Mars AND Red Planet combined!

Justin’s review: As with many older genuinely good scifi blockbusters, Total Recall suffers from the faulty public perception that it’s not as good as once thought. This happens, and it’s usually due to backlash toward anything that was mainstream successful in theaters, and also due to the more recent, more glitzy scifi endeavors on the market. We must also deal with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-1992 dethroning as Action King, so that everyone looking back more than a decade or so just throws out cheap jokes as to the nasally-inspired performance of Arnold and dismisses most of his projects.

Total Recall has another unfortunate reputation attached to it, which any red-blooded male will attest to when asked to describe the movie. “Oh yeah. That’s the one with the chick with three boobs, right?” That’s a fact you should avoid mentioning when trying to convince your girlfriend to rent this, by the way. You know how some girls can feel self-conscious about their limited number of breasts.

Sweeping all of these concerns off the desk of our consciousness in order to allow a fair view of this flick, we’ll just cut straight to the movie itself. While marketed as a mainstream action-scifi film, Total Recall is surprisingly brainy even with its expensive special effects and sets (Independence Day could never be accused of knowing what a brain was, in contrast).

It begins in the future (ooh), where construction worker Quaid (Schwarzenegger) on Earth has a subconscious, nagging fixation with the goings-on of the Mars Colony. In an effort to satiate his curiosity, Quaid undergoes a medical procedure to implant fake memories of a vacation to Mars into his brain. Then something goes wrong, horribly wrong – or does it?

One of the sheer joys of Total Recall is that you, the viewer, have the complete freedom to watch the movie from one of two points of view. The first is that Quaid’s operation is a botched success, and the ensuing action, adventure and conspiracy are all part of a complicated memory implant program (thus, the entire film from the implant on is a dream) before crashing down at the last moment.

The second is based on the operation conflicting with actual memories of Quaid being a spy on Mars (unknown to him, due to amnesia) and the implant triggers these memories, urging Quaid to actually go to Mars and put a short end to some very nasty people. The whole movie is set up to cast doubt in both Quaid’s and our minds as to which view is the correct one. If you pay close attention, there are plenty of pre-implant clues (“Huh, blue skies on Mars, that’s a new one”) to suggest the dream theory, but just as many clues to side with the It’s Actually Happening theory.

In either case, it’s a heck of a ride. Pursued by bad fellas left and right, Quaid becomes the muscle-bound action jock we’ve loved since the early 80s. This being a Paul Verhoeven flick (RoboCop, Starship Troopers), we can also expect plenty of deliriously happy blood squibs going off everywhere, and memorable death scenes galore. I can’t back this up with any certainty, but I’ve always thought that Total Recall has one of the highest civilian body counts of any action films. In most similar flicks, good guys and bad guys will have enthusiastic gun battles while magically missing everyone else except for each other. In Total Recall, it’s a turkey shoot of passer-bys; bad guys apparently not caring for their perfect “No Civvies Killed” score at the end of the game, and Little Timmy is all the worse off for it:

MOM: [holding her son’s birthday balloon] So Timmy, what would you like to do next?

TIMMY: Well, I —

BAD GUYS: Bang! Bang! Bang! Ba-BOOM!

TIMMY: – I wouldn’t mind a new pair of legs, Mum.

Nothing is really exceptionally terrific in Total Recall; it’s merely a solid, well-done effort. Imaginative settings and technology, dashes of humor, a couple memorable lines (Johnnycab, the creepy yet quotable robotic driver), and as much Mars-based action as you can shake a well-oiled bicep at.

No matter which perspective you view this movie from, it’s impossible not to be entertained by it. While not exactly doing Shakespeare (I think the closest he ever came was the one scene in Last Action Hero), Arnold is handed a more-complex-than-average role and does a decent job with it – complete with Arnoldisms we’ve grown to love and mock.

Director Verhoeven’s cynical, hard-edge scifi slant gives us a lot more to feast on than just bullets and boobs, too; enjoy mutants, nose-bug-extractors, atmosphere decompressions, cool looking security machines, and plenty of other fun eye candy that brings this scifi universe into its own right. Even with the up-in-the-air ending, this might well be Verhoeven’s most positive film, giving us a hero to really root for and a “little people triumphing over the heartless corporations” motif as well.

Hey, what are you waiting for? Get your booty to Mars.

Thrill! To Arnold picking his nose!


  • How to film Mars: take any ordinary Earth landscape and shoot it through a red filter.
  • Arnold has massive biceps and pecs
  • X-Ray monitors should be everywhere in the future
  • Hehe! tech lab guy gets slapped down
  • Cars in the future are very angular
  • Four guys down, and then he tosses the gun away? Why do they always toss the gun away?
  • Guys can take kicks to the groin and be combat ready in one second
  • One human male can be very useful as a bullet shield
  • Hologram watches are so very choice
  • Hey, even rats aren’t spared bloodshed in this film
  • Lots of easy-to-shoot windows in a place where the outside atmosphere can kill you
  • Mars Today newspaper
  • The trickle sweat was a well-done moment
  • The cab drivers arm, nice special effect
  • Nice transition between the gasping goldfish and the suffocating mutants
  • They make such cute bulgy-eyed faces
  • The film fades to white, leaving it up to you whether it’s just a happy ending, or if Quaid is lobotomized
  • Johnnycab whistles the Norwegian national anthem.
  • References to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” include the annoyingly polite robot (Johnnycab), wrapping a towel around your head to avoid being found, and the triple-breasted whore.
  • Actor Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) was the model for the “Johnnycab” robot’s face.
  • Is “inspired by” the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick.
  • Both the adaptation of the screenplay (written by Piers Anthony) and early drafts of the script had the main character’s name as Douglas Quail. The original Philip K. Dick story has the name Quail as well. The film was being made during the Bush administration, with Dan Quayle as Vice President and it is presumed that this was the reason for the change.
  • One of the early versions of digital rendering of real-life objects was used in the scene where Quaid removes the fat lady mask.
  • Marshall Bell had a full-body make-up for the Kuato scenes. The head of Kuato was fully animatronic.

Groovy Quotes

Benny: [to the three-breasted hooker] You make me wish I had three hands.

Quaid: If I am not me, den who da hell am I?

Quaid: I’ll be back!

Lori: Doug. You wouldn’t shoot me, would you sweetheart? Sweetheart, after all, we’re married!
[Lori goes for her gun, Quaid shoots her]
Quaid: Consider that a divorce.

Quaid: Now get your ass to Mars.

Kuato: You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.

Lori: Sorry, Doug. Your whole life was just a dream.

Quaid: Where am I?
Johnnycab: You’re in a Johnnycab.
Quaid: What am I doing here?
Johnnycab: I’m sorry. Would you please rephrase the question?
Quaid: How did I get in this taxi?
Johnnycab: The door opened. You got in.

Kuato: Quaid, Quaid.
Benny: Forget it man, his fortune telling days are over.
Kuato: Start the reactor, free Mars…

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