Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Recalling Total Recall

I always love to hear about a new movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story or book.  But I’ve been on the fence about the new Total Recall remake, mostly because I’ve always enjoyed the 1990 original movie.  It seems like almost every movie that comes out now, especially the big summer blockbusters, is just recycled garbage, reboots of comic book franchises that don’t need yet another reboot, or movies based on TV shows, video games, board games, and I’m predicting that by next summer, they’re going to do movies based on classic fast food items.  (Seriously, if you could get Jerry Bruckheimer to turn out McRib, it would do at least $100 million if you marketed it right.)  Most remakes are nothing but the lamest parts of the original movie, with a bunch of fake CGI and needless chase scenes.

I almost went to go see the new Total Recall this weekend, but I chickened out.  Instead, I dug up my DVD from the original 1990 version, and decided to give it a spin.  What’s interesting is that pretty much every reviewer that slams the new version says “the original was better,” but after a decade of distance from the movie, the 1990 version… kinda sucks.  I remember it as being pretty incredible, but after a re-watch, I’m of the opinion that aside from as the basis of a drinking game, it’s probably not worth watching again.

Here’s my list of reasons I thought the movie was much worse than I remembered:

  •  Arnold Schwarzenegger simply cannot act.  Or maybe he can act, but he can only play the kind of tough guy caricature that doesn’t work for the film.  I could see why the Terminator franchise was so good for him: the role of an emotionless killing machine with mechanical movements, minimal lines, and no required facial expressions works well for him.  Here, there were lots of places where the role of Quaid/Houser needed some finesse, and he simply did not have any.  Like the scene at the beginning of the movie where he’s in bed with his wife is like feeding peanut butter to a dog and watching him try to lick it off the roof of his mouth.  It’s so horrible and cringe-worthy, it eventually becomes hilarious, and none of those are the emotions needed for the scene.
  • Speaking of that scene, it’s a good example of how this 113-minute movie could have been better in a 90-minute cut.  It goes on and on and on about his dream, and his wife’s (phony) reaction, and it’s like a 14-second scene dragged out to nine minutes.  It’s like when someone writes a one-page paper and then fucks with the margins to get five pages out of it.  I’m almost tempted to rip a copy of this whole movie, drop it into an editor, and crank out a hot 88-minute version, but that would involve watching it a hundred more times.
  • I think enough fun has been made of Arnold’s one stock yell (“aaaaaiggh!”) but he does it so damn much in this movie, it’s almost like he registered it with ASCAP and gets a fixed royalty every time he says it.
  • A lot of the technology has not aged well.  There are huge CRT screens all over the place, like in the subway or at the hotel registration desk.  I don’t know if this was just because they wanted to throw real graphics on them, or because the idea of just having a flat screen seemed unrealistic in 1989.  (It’s not like they couldn’t have thrown the images on there via chromakey.)  And the blocky futuristic cars and trains all look silly.  The biggest laugh is when he’s on his way to Rekall and he stops at a kiosk in the lobby to look for directions.  The kiosk has a clone IBM Model M keyboard glued onto it, which dates the whole thing almost down to the year.
  • Speaking of graphics, every place where there are computer graphics looks absolutely stupid.  When they show something like a graph on a screen, you can totally tell it’s done on an Amiga.  And in places where there are terminals, they use a lot of green monochrome monitors with screens that look like a timesheet program written for an IBM mainframe back in 1986.  I almost expected someone to open up VAXPhone or an emacs window in one of them.
  • It’s always hilarious when 80s cyberpunk movies decide to show the world of the future as being wall-to-wall advertising by plastering the sets with logos from companies like Curtis Mathes.
  • This was probably one of the last movies to rely on miniature models instead of CGI for all of its effects, and it shows.
  • Aside from the technological anachronisms, the sets in general convey this 80s feeling of the future.  There’s a lot of brushed aluminum and stainless steel and poured concrete walls and neon tubes.  It’s an interesting little time-slip issue, when you look at a scene that is supposed to scream “2071” at you, and it’s very much “1990”.  I haven’t watched Blade Runner recently, but from what I remember, it had a different kind of griminess to it, probably because it didn’t try to look like the far future, and because the lighting design was much more subtle about the way it conveyed the grunginess.
  • There are plot holes that are catastrophically obvious because of the timing of the movie, as I mentioned above.  For example, when Quaid arrives at Mars and pulls off the fake head, the scene where he “loses control” of the fake head’s voicebox must go on for minutes, with everyone in the spaceport standing still and staring at him.  From the time the bad guys spot him to the time he throws the head at them, you could seriously count out a 100-Mississippi.  By act 3 of the movie, every fight scene is exhausting, because you know it’s going to be like when British troops in the American revolution would line up in a straight line, fire, and then wait until the other side fired until they returned fire.
  • There are tons of minor gaffes, mostly attributable to the editing down of the movie from an X to an R rating.  People get stabbed once and then at second glance are drenched in blood from head to toe; people shot in the back suddenly have bullet holes in their head.
  • I still like the overall plot of the movie, the “is this real or is he dreaming?” aspect of it.  But the hammy acting fat-fingers all of the scenes explaining this so much, it’s impossible to take it seriously.

Overall, like I said, the movie has not aged well.  I don’t know if that’s because effects are so good now and we’re all accustomed to lightning-fast edits and action sequences, or if I was just too excited about cyberpunk movies twenty years ago and needed the distance to see all of this.  Either way, I think I’m going to pass on the remake, or at least wait until it’s a free movie on Netflix streaming, so I don’t have to shell out money to see it.


2 responses to “Recalling Total Recall”

  1. Harsh, Jon, harsh. But accurate.

    1. jkonrath Avatar

      I feel bad about talking crap about the original, especially if the new one is as bad as it sounds from the reviews.

      I also feel bad I don't have the time to write a lengthy essay about Verhoeven, but I'm not about to re-watch Starship Troopers and Showgirls to do it.