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America Doesn't Need Another 'Total Recall' Movie -- And it Says a Lot About Us That There Is One

The remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 sci-fi classic has hit the box office, another example of America's obsession with our own doomy death spiral.
 
 
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For both sci-fi nerds and movie fanatics, Total Recall is a holy grail of a film, one of three made in the 1990s that base their premises on stories by hailed writer Philip K. Dick. Shot in 1990 during the high point of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career (including the governorship in this timeline), it's a high-stakes, futuristic spy story as seen through the colorful, pop-arty lens of director Paul Verhoeven. The film was made at the start of a Dick-ensian renaissance, in which filmmakers began to mine the cult sci-fi author's strange, often paranoid, usually brilliant works. Total Recall was no different. 

A Platonic meditation on the concept of reality that incorporated brainwashing, double agents and a nefarious shadow government intent on wiping out all resistance, Total Recall set the tone for a whole slew of similar treatments to come -- from The Matrix to Bourne Identity to Inception. Recall also had that classic face-eroding scene in which Verhoeven forshadows his forthcoming surrealist, broad-stroke repertoire of weirdness and wonder, and a malfunctioning Schwarzenegger costume acting as an early avatar of Showgirls' Nomi Malone or Starship Troopers' Johnny Rico.

Twenty-two years later, Hollywood thought it time for a remake, as it often does. Because of Hollywood's terrible track record with remakes (see: Psycho, Let The Right One In, Planet of the Apes, et al.), revamping any iconic movie seems like an unequivocally bad idea, particularly one with an audience as dedicated and passionate as Total Recall's. Moreover, as with plenty of contemporary revamps of classic American films, it didn't seem to have any rhyme or reason.

Sure, advancements in special effects could make a new version of Total Recall look cooler, and redux director Len Wiseman's proven his dark vision for the future through Underworld, among others. (It was also convenient that Wiseman's attractive, ass-kicking real-life wife, Kate Beckinsale, decided around the time he picked up this project that she'd return to film after a long break in the theater.) But there was no reason, it seemed, to revise a film so rampant with symbolism.

The premise is a thorny narrative in which Douglas Quaid, an ordinary working-class man, uses Rekall, a new, experimental technology that implants memories in human brains to make people feel as though they've just been on luxurious, relaxing vacations. Unfortunately for Quaid, Rekall shakes around the marbles of reality and he starts to remember his alternate life as a brainwashed government revolutionary, setting off a chain of unfortunate Big Brother-like events that kick off when his wife reveals she's not really his wife, and also she's gonna kick his ass. For the 1990s Schwarzenegger version, it was a perfect premise: future California governor and staunch conservative plays gun-slanging pawn duped by conservative government! And it certainly was not because sci-fi fans were dying to see wormy-looking Colin Farrell take on the protagonist's role of powerhouse construction worker Dennis Quaid, previously played to action-hero perfection by old-school Arnie. Aside from the obvious—the producers hoped to pull in wads of dough on a late-summer blockbuster starring a middling yet visually attractive cast—why does Hollywood keep pitching us these softballs, and why do we accept them?

Because zeitgeist, that's why. We're paranoid—with good reason—and we want our belief systems validated and reinforced. Total Recall's plot, a sort of Manchurian Candidate for the cyber age, worked as a healthy slice of sci fi in 1990, a cutting spoof of American ideals midway through the end of the Reagan-Bush reign. In 2012, though, it takes on a much more sinister turn. Similar to our appetite for films depicting every painful detail of the imminent apocalypse, in this epoch American sci fi tends to be both escapist and masochistic. Total Recall's director offers no illusions about his intent for the claustrophobic plot: his interpretation is an allegory for the CCTV society, and a cautionary tale of a political big brother that can not only watch you but dig into the core of your brain. Len Wiseman on the premise of putting together his Recallremake:

"In my experience, Dungeons & Dragons was something where you could create your own personality. Some people get so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons that the alter-ego that they build up they're more connected to than their real life. We've got that in videogames that are fully immersive. And you look at Facebook, and you create whoever you want to be. You put a profile together, and what are you doing? You're selecting: "I wanna be this! I wanna be thought of as this!" And this is a profile of 'who I am' out there -- and some people, I think, live as a different person, that they want to be, on Facebook. Which is not that unlike than what's happening in REKAL. It's an ultimate escape -- and it's not always a safe one."

With this awareness, Wiseman's not exempt from his own political assumptions either—the Internet's already abuzz with the Obama-emblazoned dollar bills he included. Already, the reviews are scrutinizing his concept of the politicized present via the dystopian future. CNN called it "infinitely pedestrian entertainment," whereas the New York Times said it "might have fared better without the baggage of expectation and comparison that it inevitably carries." The Washington Post lamented "it would be nice if TotalRecall had attempted to engage on an intellectual level." 

As Hollywood tries to predict and satisfy our doomsday scenarios—the end-of-days paranoia palpable in so much pop culture right now—not to mention our tech anxiety and our election fears, at least it's clear that a smart plot still triumphs over pandered-to pathos.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.