‘If I am not me, then who the hell am I?’: ‘Total Recall’ Recalled (1990)

total recall“You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.” — Kuato, Total Recall (1990)

Director Len Wiseman’s variant of the science fiction action film, Total Recall, has reinforced the importance of the original 1990 film’s story. Inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Total Recall entangles one man’s reality with memories both real and illusory.

Taking place in 2084, Total Recall follows Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a seemingly unremarkable working class man, battling disconcerting dreams about the now colonized planet Mars and a mysterious woman (Rachel Ticotin). Quaid seeks out Rekall Inc., purveyor of implanted memories, to perhaps uncover more about his dreams and to escape his own “reality” for a spell. The memory implantation goes awry and Quaid’s reality begins to elude both himself and the audience. As a result of this new attempt at memory implantation, Quaid recalls a life as a secret agent who became a government threat. The government, in turn, created for Quaid a domesticated existence, complete with a loving trophy wife (Sharon Stone) to quell Quaid’s influence on corrupt government affairs.

While the specific plot intricacies of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall are mostly unique, the film’s overarching themes are standard.

An average person, man or woman, wrestling with their grip on reality and sense of self, is enticing to audiences because it is a very real, very average struggle. In the fantastical, we can live out our own commonplace problems in uncommon settings from Mars to cyberspace; we can be secret agents in the guise of ordinary people. The fact that Wiseman sought to recreate the cult classic is not surprising. When you hear a good story, you want to share it with others even if, perhaps, you are a mediocre storyteller. But with every variant of a tale, the storyteller brings something new to the table.

In 1966 Phillip K. Dick tells a story with elements relevant to his time and place. Verhoeven weaves this tale’s basic themes to suit his own environment in 1990, in turn influencing Wiseman in 2012, who turns Total Recall into a heavily political dystopian nightmare. The stories themselves are reminiscent of one another and their plights are the same; only the details change. For instance, the protagonist, Douglas Quaid (originally Douglas Quail in the 1966 story), goes from being a clerk at the West Coast Immigration Bureau to a construction worker to a factory worker. The antagonist goes from being a government agency employee to a corrupt governor to a war veteran. The surface conflicts of the stories vary drastically as well, from assassination plots to alien artifacts and the exploitation of resources and citizens of Mars to the aftermath of World War III.

While the 1990 Total Recall is not without its problems, this does not change the core value of its story. It may be said that Verhoeven’s film cannot hold a candle to the special effects of its successor, but by the same token, Wiseman’s modernized Total Recall may be viewed as lacking the campy charm and earnest storytelling of its predecessor. A good story can still be discerned even from a poor or lacking execution, thus giving birth to remakes/reboots/etc. Total Recall, simply by virtue of being remade, has demonstrated its lasting relevance.

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