Monday, 2 October 2017

Simulating catharsis: a look back at Total Recall

In the future, Earth is stuck in a perpetual war between northern and southern blocks. Mars is a North Block colony under the dictatorial rule of Coohagen (Ronny Cox), who uses his control of the air supply to control dissent. Back on Earth, a construction worker called Doug Quaid (Schwarzengger) has visions of Mars. Despite his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) and friends' warnings, Quaid decides the only way to get over his obsession is to get a memory implant of a vacation to the red planet, in which he plays a secret agent on a mission to save Mars and fall in love with a beautiful brunette.

Something goes wrong during the procedure, leading Quaid to realise that his entire life is a false memory and that he is really Hauser, a secret agent working for Coohagen who saw the light and decided to turn traitor after falling in love with Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a beautiful brunette. Cohaagen had him brainwashed and dumped back on Earth.

Determined to figure out what is going on, Quaid heads to Mars to discover his past and confront the man who destroyed his life...

Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Total Recall was inspired by the short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale', written by the late, great Philip K. Dick. The story is not very long - it is literally just the memory implant scene. The big difference is that in the story, when the technicians realise their client has already had memory implant, during their attempts to find out who he is, they discover another memory implant within the first one. The story ends mid-stream, as the baffled  technicians discover another personality buried under that memory implant. And so on, and so forth. It is a comic spin on notions of identity, memory and reality. If a simulation looks and feels real, how would you know? In both story and film, there are no easy answers.

In writing the movie, screenwriters Ronald Shussett and Dan O'Bannon (the creators of Alien) used the story as a jumping-off point. The project took over a decade to get to screens, moving through directors as diverse as Richard Rush (The Stunt Man), David Cronenberg (The Fly) and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). When the movie was finally green-lit, the man tasked with bringing the story to the screen was Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven.

I recently read an interview with Verhoeven in which he compared Total Recall to the idea of Schrodinger's Cat in the way that it never makes clear whether Quaid's experiences are real or all in his head. The movie is meant to work with both readings.

This analogy works for all of Verhoeven's movies. RoboCop is an 80s action movie that also subverts the genre - RoboCop is a one-man-army who kills the requisite number of bad 'uns, but what Verhoeven does is show the impact of his (and the genre's) arbitrary use of violence. Starship Troopers is more overt, acting as a war movie which is also a scathing commentary on  America's obsession with military power, violence and blind patriotism. Released at the dawn of a new decade, Total Recall is a summation and indictment of the previous decade's pop culture, both on and off-screen.

Total Recall takes RoboCop's satire of neoliberalism and takes it to its most logical extreme (not only do the corporations control the government, they control the very air you breathe). Like Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) in that movie, Mars' overlord Coohagen (also Cox) is an ultra-capitalist but even more extreme - he is less a CEO and more a futuristic version of a robber baron in the old west, or a governor in a far-flung colony. A hyperbolic extrapolation of 80s capitalism and saver-rattling geopolitics, its commentary is made all the more pointed by the casting of its star, the most hyperbolic emblem of the era's obsession with cinematic machismo.

The film is also the point where Arnold Schwarzenegger became the icon he is now. After a breakout role in 1982's Conan the Barbarian, he carved out a niche as a B list action star with a series of action and science fiction movies. Some, like The Terminator, Commando and Predator were decent hits and critically successful; others (Raw Deal, Reds Sonja & Heat) less so. And then in 1988, he made his first foray into comedy with Twins, co-starring Danny DeVito. The movie was a huge hit, proving his comedic chops and introducing Schwarzenegger to a mainstream, non-genre audience. Schwarzengger was now emerging out of the B list, and Total Recall was the movie which would consolidate his broad appeal, becoming the first of his traditional vehicles to become a genuine blockbuster.

I have theory about this movie, and why it is one of Schwarzenegger's best. It is the one movie which does the best job at skewering the excesses and deranged masculinity underpinning his star persona. In that respect, Total Recall continues RoboCop's emphasis on the fascistic implications of its hyper-violent hero, only here he gets to play with the persona of the genre's most emblematic star.

Arnie's movies have always had an ironic edge - most of the filmmakers he has worked with have shown at least a degree of recognition about the sheer ridiculousness of their leading man. The Terminator's most iconic humorous moment ('I'll be back') is not meant to be funny, but when it is set against Schwarzenegger's massive frame, it gains a strange ironic quality, a sense of black humour that was picked and carried through successive vehicles such as CommandoPredator and Total Recall.  Taken in overview, Arnie's filmography appears to be a meta textual dare: is this behemoth believable as a robot/soldier/twin/kindergarten cop?

Within the context of a story based on questioning reality (and a filmmaker hellbent on hedging his bets), Schwarzenegger's antics become even more ridiculous. Because of the information within the movie, Quaid's Martian adventures are easy to question - especially during the film's many action sequences (why is this hulking man not hit?; why are people not dying when the outer shields are breached?). Even the introduction of an alien MacGuffin which can literally solve all of Mars' problems in a few minutes adds to the sense of ridiculousness.

Everything about Schwarzenegger's character, Doug Quaid, is hyperbolic. When he is introduced, Quaid is depicted as an ordinary working man, but it is a vision of domestic bliss pushed to the extreme. He also has a beautiful blonde housewife, who is introduced as a sex object for his gratification. He also has an insane degree of financial stability (his apartment including a holographic tennis instructor, virtual scenic views and he can contemplate vacations to other planets). He works as a construction worker, a job made all the more macho in the one scene of Quaid at work. Like Rambo at the beginning of Rambo II, he is shown breaking rocks, his massive arms holding a massive drill - it is everyman as cartoon.

And then there is the violence. It's what you expect from an Arnie movie, albeit leavened with a wink and a one-liner (ala James Bond). With the mad Dutchman at the tiller, the violence comes with an added bite. Verhoeven's movies are extremely controversial for their violence and sexual content, but there is always a sense of purpose to the excess. Unlike previous Ah-nuld vehicles, with Verhoeven the excess is never the punchline. The basis of Verhoeven's subversion does not come from a desire to turn reality into a cartoon, but the inverse. No matter how crazy the violence gets, Verhoeven blends it with a dose of reality that grounds it and highlights how horrific it is.

One example of subversion is the shootout on the escalator - specifically the beat where the villains shoot at Quaid and accidentally hit an innocent bystander. As the shootout continues, Quaid uses this corpse as a shield while he blows the villains away. When another group of villains appear at the base of the escalator, he spins the corpse around to catch their fire. The human shield is a familiar action movie trope of the era, and recognisably Schwarzeneggerean (gleefully lampooned in Austin Powers 2). By having this character be an innocent, rather than an antagonist, it draws attention to the often careless cruelty of eighties action heroes. When the character is a villain, we as viewers quickly reframe it as right and moral. But in Verhoeven's hands, we are forced to contemplate the violence stripped of its moral justification.

While this approach does subvert the cartoonish-ness of the action, it also gives the film a real sense of stakes. The sequences in which Coohagen's troops, backlit by the drills, gun down the resistance fighters, and the earlier scene in which the residents of Venusville have to watch as the fans pumping oxygen into their sector slow to a standstill. Verhoeven grew up during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and has talked about how the juxtaposition of childhood banality and sudden violence shaped his work. That tension between violent escapism and its consequences is an underlying dynamic in Verhoeven's work, and within the paranoid frame of Total Recall he has the perfect vehicle for his duelling occupations.

There are aspects of the film which do not stand up to snuff - my major criticism is the relative marginalisation of the female leads into a simplistic good-bad girl dichotomy. While Rachel Ticotin lends her character Melina a toughness that makes her believable as a partner to Schwarzenegger, the character is little more than a male fantasy - a hooker with a heart of gold who can also kick ass.

However while Melina and Lori's roles are barely more than archetypes, it does offer an opportunity for Verhoeven to undermine Arnie's machismo, and offer a re-working of the stock romantic leads of Ah-nuld's previous movies. Throughout the movie, Quaid is on the back foot with both of his lover interests (which is a nice flip-side to his borderline rape tactics in The Running Man). At various points Quaid is beaten up, objectified and rescued by them. This had never happened in one of his vehicles before. In previous movies, female characters are desexualised tagalongs (Commando, Predator) or arbitrary love interests (Raw Deal, The Running Man) that Arnie gets because he's the lead of the movie. Here, one woman is only with him to monitor and imprison him on Earth; the other is a self-sufficient freedom fighter who might be a figment of his imagination.

Could more have been done with these characters? Definitely. Romantic leads in action movies are generally the least well-drawn in the genre. Total Recall deserves credit for highlighting the limitations of the archetype (Quaid's description of his dream woman ('athletic build, sleazy but demure') could be mapped onto most of the throwaway love interests in the genre), but it does not do much to expand upon the template.

The dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' woman is one of the elements Total Recall shares with classic noir. Through this lens, Quaid is a fall guy in a situation he does not full understand. The ambiguity of the ending, where his fate remains in the air, is a perfect distillation of the film noir protagonist's dilemma - almost every noir, from Double Indemnity through Chinatown and Blade Runner, is about someone who loses control of events and finds themselves unable to get back to a place of equilibrium. That description fits Total Recall perfectly - it is a great juggling act between different interpretations.

Am I talking rubbish? Is Total Recall just a big dumb action movie? Yes, but that overlooks the fact that it is also tonally and thematically ambitious. The joy of this movie versus, say, Terminator 2, is that rewards whatever expectations you bring to it. Terminator 2 is a great movie, but it is meant to be taken as a straightforward dramatic narrative. Total Recall is the rare case where the filmmakers are having their cake and eating it, and it actually makes the movie better. You could make the argument that the movie's satirical edge is not intentional, and its excess is just mean-spirited - which is totally valid. The demands of the story and the generic requirements of being an action movie throw every choice the filmmakers make into doubt. It gives the movie another layer of ambiguity - which makes the movie more interesting to discuss.

Ultimately, Total Recall is whatever you want it to be.

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