WARNING This entry contains spoilers for the Total Recall movies from 1990 and 2012
The 2012 Total Recall remake feels like it’s a bunch of winking and nudging at people who remember the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from 1990. Remember the three-breasted prostitute? Oh look, it’s the two weeks! woman. Wow, another mook lost his arms to an elevator. What, no Johnny Cab? The nods to the 1990 film are countless and pervasive as if the new film was less intended to be a new interpretation of the same story, and instead just a giant nod to the magic that happened when Verhoven and Schwarzenegger were in the same room.
There’s even a conspicuous planetary physics oversight in each movie that brought me to wonder if it, too, was supposed to be another nod moment. In the 1990 film, Mars’ atmosphere was downgraded to vacuum.* All the Mars planetary weirdness in the Verhoven film take place during the implanted memory sequence, so it’s debatable if it’s a movie error, a factual error within the implanted memory construct or even Quaid’s interpretation of memory (which I’ll get to below). In the 2012 film, the fall is a transport tunnel through the center of the earth and the mechanism of free fall** is established pre-implant, so it’s a factual error at the movie’s layer of reality, not something that can be dismissed as an artifact of the memory implant.
Pro-tip for movie development people: At the point that you make nods to prior versions, it’s going to raise the question why are we not watching the classic version right now? If you’re depending on production values, don’t make this movie. There are some rare exceptions, including pastiche films that celebrate a lost genre (see Kill Bill) or films that acknowledge their roots but modernize the story and the world as well (See Star Wars: A New Hope even the version with the lame bit where Han didn’t shoot first).
To be fair, the 1990 vehicle had some advantages in being an 80s style action movie (a genre that includes a deliberate degree of camp). Douglas Quaid was a construction worker who operated a pneumatic jackhammer, and Schwarzenegger looked completely out of place trying to be just another guy in a hardhat. Maybe he is a sleeper super-spy. The hallmarks of 80s action were blatant to the point of conspicuousness, from post-mortem one-liners to incompetent mooks to architecture well suited for running battles. Maybe it is all just an implanted memory.
Rather than borrowing from the 80’s action movie style, the 2012 remake took instead from the Bourne Identity school of spy thrillers, which is already thinkier and less funny. The newer film engaged in some futurism with surgically-implanted hand-phones and magnetic hover cars and robotic law enforcement officers. And the fun spy trivial details of the Bourne school are strangely absent, replaced instead with lots of pretty CGI and a couple of shiny and slightly-too-video-gamey action scenes which I wonder if they were meant to inspire a tie-in video game.
Like Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger both Total Recall movies leave the ending up to the audience. Was it just an implanted memory, or a real deep-cover secret agent plot? Paul Verhoven, director of the first one, acknowledged there was also an additional question which split the all just a dream option further. Mid story, a familiar figure comes in and suggests that something went terribly wrong with the implantation process, and unless Quaid fights to wake up (making a diegetic choice that would signify his cooperation) he’d end up lobotomized or comatose or otherwise critically disabled. Verhoven opined that the memory was successfully implanted in Quaid without trouble, but the inserted wake-up agent scene was added to keep Quaid invested in the outcome and in suspense to the end.
I wanted the new Total Recall to do for human memories what Inception did for dreams. The inconsistencies of the stories of the Titanic disaster were exemplary of how our brains only process so much of what we observe and then seamlessly insert prior data to fill in the the blurry bits. I would have liked to see repeated flashbacks where the details changed. Sofas from the wrong sets appearing in recollections. Details from multiple events blending to make new memories. The disappearing vein-stamp at the end would have felt less like an afterthought if it kept vanishing and reappearing and changing positions as the movie progressed. Total Recall 1990 was known as the thinking man’s action movie. The 2012 release should have kept us thinking, and thinking harder.
Then there’s the free will issue. It’s an indulgence of the movie medium that it takes place in present tense. It’s implicit that we see things as they’re happening (unless it’s expressed that we’re seeing a flashback or an anecdote, but usually then it’s as it’s being recalled, or as it’s being told), but memories, even engineered ones, are past tense. They’re what happened, rather than what is happening.
And at Rekall, memories are authored. Our memory-encoding storytellers don’t have to worry about (for instance) what would have happened if Quaid decided to play along with the wake-up agent, because they also decide how he chose. And yet, Quaid remembers making that decision, not it having been made for him. In fact, our Rekall writers could have Quaid do anything, choosing love over safety or money, choosing to save the world today in a high-risk suicidal mission rather than retreat to fight another day, and Quaid remembers also making those choices for himself. And because it’s a memory, Quaid survives to remember it, no matter what outlandish universe-bending schemes he is able to pull.
Quaid may even find himself second guessing the nature of reality. If this is all an implanted memory, what can’t he do? What can’t he survive? Of course
these pauses to reflect are, themselves, part of the Rekall script, including those doubts about reality. All that Quaid does is not Quaid at all. He cannot will to do anything. Quaid is not even a passenger, but, like the proverbial vehicle, is driven, himself.
Taking a step out, Phillip K. Dick stories are about challenging the common notions of reality, identity and self by introducing technology (speculative technology during Dick’s lifetime) that raises questions about these things. The point of making a movie about a Dick story (rather than just any generic spy-action script) is to raise these questions and the moral questions that are posed by the existence of the tech. If Quaid was once Hauser, and led an entirely different life, does that make him less Quaid? Is it his right to choose to stay Quaid, knowing Hauser would have chosen to revert back to Hauser? And do any of these choices have any weight, considering that all of Quaid’s choices are what the memory-authors decided he had chosen in the moment?
That’s the Total Recall I wish I got in the 2012 release.
Maybe in the 2017 remake.
* Disregarding Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere is easy to do given on paper it has only 0.636 kPa of pressure (Earth has 101.325 kPa at sea level). That is still pretty awful thin, but still enough to have a daytime sky. It’s also enough pressure to prevent human ballooning effects. Gale-force depressurization is right out, but to be fair, total vacuum won’t cause the kind of depressurization that sucks fat people out of skinny airplane windows. For that you need high speed winds, such as caused by a fast-moving airplane or a hurricane.
It is -63°C on Mars, so while Quaid wasn’t at risk of getting exploded by depressurization he’s rapidly going to have a hypothermia problem without some very cozy winter gear.
** The Fall, the elevator through the Earth is the cinematic take of an old and fun thought experiment, and Total Recall 2012 has given plenty of movie-debunkers cause to weigh in on it. Since my own thoughts on it took up a bit, I’ll add it soon as a separate thing.
Image is signed by Matt Cavanaugh, who I am going to assume is not the Washington Redskins coach but someone who created a sweet graphic that is used all over the web. Thanks, Matt!