Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Before You Wake Up

It’s hard for me not to think about summer movies of the past during this time of year. Some are films that I love, some remain enjoyable, many aren’t as good as they once were and many were never much good at all. More than a few are probably best left back in whichever decade they were first released, never to be thought of again. Of course, revisiting some of these films doesn’t always get me to flash back to my childhood but considering I’ve done my best to block out most of my teenage years it’s probably for the best. And more than anything while once again recently watching TOTAL RECALL, a film which begins with someone waking up next to Sharon Stone, I found myself thinking about a certain woman I’ve known for some time now when I came to the unnerving realization how much Stone actually reminded me of her. Not in terms of looks but certainly in mannerisms and in the persona Stone sometimes projects there’s a slyness to her which makes it a little unclear just what she thinks of the guy she’s talking to, something that would happen to me at times when I would be with this particular girl—does she like me? Is she studying me? Does she think I’m an idiot? Even after all this time, I still don’t entirely know for sure. So anyway, I haven’t had much contact with her in recent months but I went to the movies the other night at the Vista to see the big new summer blockbuster, one that was meant to pay tribute to the glorious summer movies of years past, and as I was in my seat waiting for it to start I glanced over to the row in front of me and there she was, way over on the left, sitting with some guy. I sent her a friendly text saying hello and before a minute had passed she responded by simply texting back “You are strange.” So it was sort of like just about every conversation I ever had with her. And that’s what I had in mind while watching the film. But, really, I don’t want to dwell on all this and, besides, I’ve written about her before. I need to chill out, pull back from all that. Summer movies. Popcorn. The good things in life.

It’s probably a strange time to write anything about Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL for several reasons. For one thing, there’s the whole Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal and there really isn’t anything good to say about him in terms of that. Many of us probably knew for years how much of a prick the guy was (as some people I know will confirm) and I doubt many people in California have very much good to say about him right now anyway so I guess it’s no longer a surprise. And there’s the issue of a TOTAL RECALL remake, of all things, to be released in August 2012 but we all know that doesn’t have a chance in hell of being any good so there’s not much point in dwelling on it since we know it’s not going to contain much in the way of actual ideas. The director making it is one of the worst working right now and the film will feature a number of very talented people onscreen who will probably be very convincing in their portrayals of actors getting very large paychecks. Some might say that the one interesting area of potential in remaking TOTAL RECALL would have been to revive the script that David Cronenberg was famously going to direct back in the 80s for Dino De Laurentiis, possibly with Richard Dreyfuss to star, until that project fell apart (it should be mentioned that this wasn’t even the only version of TOTAL RECALL which never happened) and the director moved on to his own acclaimed remake of THE FLY. I don’t know what this redo is going to be beyond seeing press notices which report that it has nothing to do with Mars but…oh, does it really matter? If you’re reading this wouldn’t you be interested in seeing an adaptation of a work by Philip K. Dick that hasn’t been made yet? Sure you would.

Of course, since TOTAL RECALL’s release on June 1, 1990 there have been numerous other adaptations of Dick’s work (even recently with the not bad thriller THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) as well as other science fiction films clearly inspired by his twisty approach and even the very nature of the “You don’t know what’s really going on” sort of storyline has become all the more prevalent in films & TV shows over the past several decades, so it’s possible that anyone seeing TOTAL RECALL for the first time now wouldn’t be at all stunned by some of the plot revelations. And if I’m going to be totally truthful here, I’ll have to admit that I’m probably not as big a fan of TOTAL RECALL as most of the world seems to be. I like it, sure, it’s genuinely entertaining and like most people I naturally take pleasure in shouting “Cohaagen! Give the people air!” or “Get your ass to Mars” over and over whenever the opportunity arises. But it’s still not one of my favorite films directed by Paul Verhoeven—some of what he does best feels muted to allow it to be more of a Schwarzenegger vehicle than anything and it’s not even one of my favorite Schwarzenegger vehicles. Even some of the elements that are blatantly Verhoeven don’t always work for me in this context, as if they’re being shoehorned in by the director so he can put his stamp on the film as opposed to really exploring the basic concept with the genuine subversion he’s been known for at other times. What can I say. I do like it, honestly, but when held up against something like Verhoeven’s own ROBOCOP, which even now is pretty much flawless, for me there isn’t much comparison in terms of how effective it really is.

Like I really need to do a plot synopsis here, but here goes: far in the future construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has incessant dreams of Mars and his own dream girl there but every time he suggests to his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) they take a trip there she turns him down. Wanting to satisfy his urge Doug goes to Rekall, an agency that can implant memories of a trip to Mars into your mind without your ever going there. Eager to go on the trip, Doug selects the special Secret Agent package which will give him the chance to not only go on the trip, but “get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet”. Only something goes wrong and as the procedure begins Doug begins screaming how his name isn’t Quaid and they’ve blown his cover. After the Rekall agents knock him out and send him on his way Doug has no memory of his trip to Rekall but soon everyone he knows, including Lori, is trying to kill him and Doug finds himself on the run with the ruthless Richter (Michael Ironside) on his tail. Soon Doug comes into possession of a mysterious package with a video of himself, telling him that his name is not Quaid but Hauser, a government agent who had his memory wiped. The Hauser tape tells Quaid to immediatey go to Mars to straighten everything out, which will involve tracking down his dream girl Melina (Rachel Ticotin) the ruthless Mars Governor Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the mysterious rebel leader Quato and the rumors of alien civilizations hidden under the planet surface. But who is Quaid? Who is Hauser? And is this all still a dream?

On one level you can feel director Paul Verhoeven thrusting his cinematic personality into each possible moment of this film with the whole take of male/female dynamics in this future, the mindfuck aspect of the whole plot and just the overall feel of ferocity that comes from every single scene. But I wonder now if some of the focus it takes winds up aimed in the wrong directions, diluting some of the impact. The argument could be made that TOTAL RECALL is the only real star vehicle designed to service the name above the title he’s ever made, either here in America or in Holland. The likes of ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS and HOLLOW MAN serve the story and effects more than anything (of course, the story in HOLLOW MAN really isn’t much to speak of but that’s another subject entirely), while every frame of BASIC INSTINCT seems designed to go directly against the expectations of Michael Douglas playing a cop in an action movie always one step behind the murder suspect played by Sharon Stone, the one who really became a star because of her performance in that movie. The concept of subversion in connection to how Verhoeven uses the screen presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in TOTAL RECALL is there and the director seems continually interested in how to shoot him but it’s not quite the same thing and it goes without saying that having this superstar playing a person stunned by how he’s single-handedly just killed several men isn’t the same as if a Richard Dreyfuss-type had played the role…or, to use an example that actually happened, the surprise of seeing how effective Matt Damon was at this sort of thing in the first BOURNE movie. There’s no way for it to have this sort of impact with Arnold so we’re left with the twisty mechanics of the science fiction plot, pieces of the puzzle that aren’t as surprising as maybe they once were and, unlike the complex ambiguity of how to really take what’s going on in STARSHIP TROOPERS which is all the more intriguing in the post-9/11 world, the is-it-a-dream-or-isn’t-it portion of TOTAL RECALL is too clear cut—it either is or it isn’t, no real shading either way beyond the sledgehammer-type clues that are laid out. It probably is. Or it isn’t. More than anything, the answer is that it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle so it really doesn’t matter and it’s not like there are more clues or layers to discover on multiple viewings.

There’s also the heavy violence Verhoeven is known for which doesn’t really bother me (though I’m sure it’s bothered many) but as opposed to something like ROBOCOP where it all had both a satiric and thematic point, in the secret agent fantasy world of TOTAL RECALL it just feels like a lot of…stuff that happens, more gunplay than is probably needed that is ultimately off-topic to the science fiction themes that maybe the film should be focusing on in order to allow for more layers. It’s clear that such ultra-violence is intrinsically part of the director’s approach which is fine but in this context that approach holds at some points more than others. Unlike the feel in ROBOCOP where the camera continually felt like it was roving down those hallways, making even simple dialogue scenes exciting, here he feels somewhat constricted by both the star he needs to be focusing on as well as all these sets meant to be the futuristic Earth and the indoors of Mars. Even the editing within certain action scenes, particularly some of the fights, doesn’t seem as sharp in a way that’s tough to precisely pin down when compared to several of his other films (let alone any number of other action movies from the period) and maybe TOTAL RECALL just seems slightly more slack than it should be to get the energy going. Many of those sets also wind up feeling a lot like sets and maybe make the film look cheaper than it really is, an artifice that along with the ‘futuristic’ production design and all those shoulder pads on the women makes the film feel about as locked into the era it was made in just as something like LOGAN’S RUN never looks anything like 1976. Those mutants buried under Rob Bottin makeup are cool looking and of course everyone remembers the three-breasted hooker as well as the revelation of Quato but not much is really done with the psychic powers the mutants possess and if there’s some sort of subtext happening here in terms of who the downtrodden of Mars are supposed to represent, it’s pretty half-baked. I still like TOTAL RECALL but I think even at the time I sort of felt, really? Is that it? The mind-twisting elements are fun but never really dealt with beyond a surface level making it all a sort of ‘sci-fi twist 101’ and neither is the look at both future Earth and Mars--one of the things that really works in ROBOCOP is how it sells the world, the insidiousness that is obviously going on within OCP that we never get to see and there’s a good deal of this in the later STARSHIP TROOPERS as well. The world of TOTAL RECALL, featuring product placements with logos that are distractingly how they looked in 1990, just never feels as rich or lived in. And a good deal of motivation feels tossed aside in favor of the Arnold-ness and general mayhem--Quaid kills a woman who he’s believed to be his wife after barely having much time at all to process that she presumably isn’t the person he’s always thought. Another film might have done something with this issue. TOTAL RECALL just makes the moment a misogynistic one-liner (a famous misogynistic one-liner, to be fair, and I’m going to pass on relating this moment to the star’s own marital issues) so this isn’t that movie. Whether it should be that movie may be another argument entirely.

And as I sometimes want to do when I’m being just a little too critical, it would be unfair for me not to point out how much of the film really does work—the male-female dynamics are always interesting whether it’s Arnold and Sharon Stone wrestling in bed at the beginning or even the Rekall doctor played by Rosemary Dunsmore giving a good hard slap to the face of the dweeby lab tech. Random sly moments give it all its own unique feel such as when Schwarzenegger is asked which sexual orientation he prefers while going over the details of the Rekall package or the ridiculously random humor of the Johnny Cab (given the features and voice of the easy-to-spot Robert Picardo) that drives Quaid home. The tension provided every time Michael Ironside’s Richter shoots things up tenfold every time he enters the frame to make sure no one else touches Stone’s Lori and there’s enough sleaze, violence and willingness to stick giant things up Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nose to make one drop to their knees, grateful that there are directors like Paul Verhoeven willing to take full advantage of the R rating. And more than all that, as much as I may criticize the movie it still flat-out plays. With writing credits that probably give only a glimmer of the project’s complicated history in its myriad forms--“Inspired by” Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (several demerits for misspelling Dick’s name in the opening credits), Screenplay by Ron Shusett & Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman, Screen Story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O’Bannon and Jon Povill but no indication about who wrote the line about being home in time for corn flakes--the plot is continually moving forward, barely resting for a minute and just taken on its own it succeeds as a funny, fast-paced Arnold action movie which is definitely more entertaining than lots of other such films from this period.

Given a slight touch of the James Bond template the story is laid out to continually unfurl new aspects of both the character of Hauser along with the mysteries of Mars that everything leads to and even if it’s not as mind-blowing as it once was, the way the most famous scene questioning everything that is happening when a certain character played by Roy Brocksmith turns up works extremely well with just the right feel of rising tension delivered as the scene goes on. With the film coming at that point during the transition from old school to digital, even some of the imagery as things move to the big climax comes off as reminiscent of covers of old science fiction novels in a way you never get anymore so even if things do become a lot of sound and fury enough of it manages to stay with me. And there’s the exciting score by Jerry Goldsmith, which after an odd intro that resembles the opening bars of Basil Poledouris’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN theme a little too much, builds into an exciting and memorably energetic sci-fi action score. This was one of Goldsmith’s biggest hits of the period, at least until he teamed again with this director on BASIC INSTINCT, and while it doesn’t necessarily transcend the formula of this film in a way his work for that next Verhoeven film would do, it’s very much a reminder of how during this period there really wasn’t anyone better for this sort of thing. He not only scores the TOTAL RECALL we’re watching but he scores the TOTAL RECALL that it really should be and it raises the level of the entire movie as a result--after spending time writing all this I find I can’t get some of the action themes out of my head and feel like I should go run around for a while as if I were being chased. The final result of the film still feels like less than what it could be but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. Look, I’m just grading the whole thing on a very high curve. It happens.

But it is fun and even if I have a problem with the basic concept of how Verhoeven meshes with his star it still feels like a shame that they never worked together again, even though the epic CRUSADE was very much on the drawing board in the early-to-mid 90s, which has to be one of the great unrealized projects. He might be a prick, he might be miscast, but Arnold seems completely determined to make himself right for the part, widening his eyes as he prepares for the Rekall injection and selling the desperation when he still doesn’t know what’s going on. This was the period where between this and something like TWINS Arnold seemed to be attempting to tweak his established persona and play things as a more normal guy—here, he seems determined to pull off the balance of somehow being an innocent among all this, ready to be ruthless when needed and also seeming very much in on the joke of being Arnold, as if he somehow knows that years later people are going to quote “Give the people air!” just as much as the obvious one-liners. As for Sharon Stone, it’s no surprise that she caught the director’s eye for his next film and pretty mesmerizing to watch. Stone is so phenomenal in her clear determination to make the most of every moment she has like that one giant close-up in her final scene where she shifts personalities right before our eyes and the Kim Novak vibe she gives off which couldn’t be more appropriate makes it hard not to wish that they had somehow rewritten things to take a little more advantage of her, particularly since though Rachel Ticotin sells how “Athletic” Melina is and never gets intimidated by sharing the screen with Schwarzenegger she really can’t compare in terms of sheer screen presence. That close-up on Stone when she says “Sorry Quaid, your whole life is just a dream,” has more impact than any visual effect here does and also makes me wonder just how much Sharon Stone’s stardom is owed to Jerry Goldsmith. Michael Ironside also rules through every nasty moment that he has, doing more with his henchman part than you may expect just through his own sheer physical intimidation and Ronny Cox chews through every piece of scenery he can as Cohaagen, sort of a more cartoonish version of his ROBOCOP exec but since he’s more of a clear bad guy the whole way there’s not quite as much he can do with the part.

In the end, my feelings for TOTAL RECALL are kind of summed up in the moment where the cab driver played by Mel Johnson Jr. reveals to all present that he’s actually one of the mutants of Mars in a strikingly staged moment which is ruined when the film loops in someone offscreen saying, “You’re a mutant, huh?” as if they were worried somebody in the audience wasn’t going to figure it out on their own. Just to make it clear, I still think some of the movie works very well, not so much as a demonstration of the madness its director can brilliantly demonstrate at but as an enjoyable sci-fi vehicle for its star, even if he is basically a prick. I’m just saying that I don’t think it remains as interesting, well-made or enjoyable as some of the very best films made by some of the people involved. I even kind of find myself imagining a better version that I think they were capable of but since the movie is about imagining certain fanciful things anyway maybe that kind of makes sense. Still, I feel like I’m going to be getting phone calls from people saying, “Hey, why’d you have to be so hard on TOTAL RECALL?” There’s not much I can do about that. At least the movie still does something for me, even if it’s just to get me to think about certain women in my life. There’s not much I can do about that either and I’m well aware that they have absolutely nothing to do with what’s onscreen beyond the reflection of my own dreams. Even summer movies are sometimes able to bring this sort of thing to mind.


jerebo said...

Another great piece. I know a lot of folks love Predator, but I always thought it was boring and that Total Recall was more more exciting.

I remember loving TR's score and remembering that part of it did resemble Conan. (I even geeked out and bought the soundtrack on cassette tape!)

How great would it be if Cronenberg was hired to do the remake based on whatever screenplay he was attached to back then?

And boy do I miss Rob Bottin? Whatever happened to him?

Adam Ross said...

In my recent viewings of TR I find myself more drawn to the FORBIDDEN PLANET aspects of it: how we see lovely hints of the extinct Martian race, and the idea that they were ready to "turn on" this contraption before everything went wrong. I wish there was more of this, but also think it may not work as well if it was focused on more closely.

le0pard13 said...

Great write-up on this one -- and fine commentary on our former governor and Kennedy in-law. I'm sure neither constituency will miss him. The film does have a number of good things going for it. Stone and Ironside, in particular, are so damn good when they are on-screen (paired or on their own). TOTAL RECALL has one of my all-time favorite opening title sequences, too. Fantastic score by Jerry Goldsmith. Paul Verhoeven's direction is decent here, too, but like you I prefer his ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS work, better. Another very enjoyable read, my friend.

Emily Blake said...

I love the movie, but I also agree with you on most of these points. I have always felt like the dream thing wasn't ambiguous enough. The film should have been asking that question repeatedly - is this real? We should always be questioning what's real and what isn't, but we're not, really. There are a few scenes, but then we get a pretty solid answer halfway through the film.

Take the end of Inception, where people argued like crazy over whether it not he was still in the dream. I doubt anyone had such passionate conversations about the ambiguity of the dream with Total Recall.

The movie didn't take enough advantages of its opportunities.

Unknown said...

Love Michael Ironside in this film. He is one of the few baddies that I felt could actually give Arnold a run for his money and provide an actual threat. Ironside snarls his way through the film like he really means it and he and Verhoeven must've gotten along because the director used him to fantastic effect on STARSHIP TROOPERS.