Douglas Quaid is haunted by a recurring dream about a journey to Mars. He hopes to find out more about this dream and buys a holiday at Rekall Inc. where they sell implanted memories. But something goes wrong with the memory implantation and he remembers being a secret agent fighting against the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen.
Something that should be born in mind whenever exposing oneself to Paul Verhoeven's particular brand of sensationalist entertainment is that the man, by a conservative estimate, is as mad as a snake. In the late 80s, with a maturing arthouse reputation in his native Holland, he abruptly ditched all vestiges of highbrow aspiration and headed for Hollywood. He quickly established himself as a master of nosebleed sci-fi/action with Robocop in 1987 and has obviously not felt the urge to don a beret or smoke a Gauloise since.
A series of liberal-baiting blockbusters, including underrated thriller Basic Instinct and the awesome Starship Troopers, confirmed that, in spite of his stylistic volte-face, Verhoeven had retained his auteur's commitment to uncompromising vision. On the other hand, 1996's lapdance epic Showgirls confirmed him as a borderline pornographer and a complete and utter fruitcake. Total Recall (1990) might be eclipsed by Robocop, but it's still a handy example of the Verhoeven modus operandi: crank the volume to 11, pile on the violence and invite the critics to go fuck themselves.
And if it does lack the satirical edge of his other sci-fi outings, it exhibits ample evidence of Verhoeven's queasy sense of humour and kaleidoscopic dystopian fantasies: violent, repressive and liberally splashed with hilarious surrealism. Adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall is what 1984 would have been if PlayStation 2 had figured as heavily in George Orwell's formative years as the playing fields of Eton. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his last truly effective roles and still the right side of terminal self-parody, plays Doug Quaid an ordinary Earth-bound Joe who is plagued by disturbing dreams of Mars, a politically unstable off-world colony ruled by a corrupt dictator whose draconian control of the air supply is fuelling a revolution. Quaid's wife (Sharon Stone), can't understand her husband's obsession with the hellish planet, nor why he is so keen to go there.
In an attempt to scratch his inexplicable itch, Quaid visits Rekall Inc. a memory implant service who promise him a virtual trip to Mars with all the trimmings. But during the implant procedure something goes disastrously wrong. Quaid discovers — or seems to, at least — that his entire memory has been erased and replaced with a manufactured version. His whole life is a pre-fabricated fantasy. The plot really kicks in when Quaid finds himself pursued by agents of the ubiquitous "organisation" and his wife tries to kill him. Acting on a mysterious tip-off he locates a device, apparently hidden by himself before his memory was wiped, on which a recording of his previous self spills the beans — he was once in the employ of the organisation and stationed on Mars.
The right hand man of dictator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) he was a key element in the regime until he converted to the rebel cause. In retaliation, Cohaagen erased his mind and dumped him on Earth. Or did he? When Quaid journeys to Mars to unravel the mystery (disguised, it appears, as Claire Raynor with an exploding head), we begin to wonder whether this is, in fact, reality or simply the recreational memory implant he bought on Earth going into overdrive.
It's a clever and intriguing premise, the stuff of many of Dick's stories, including Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, and Verhoeven exploits it to the full — embroidering it with plenty of brutal violence and big bangs, naturally. The scene where a representative of Rekall Inc. turns up on Mars, with Quaid's wife in tow, to persuade him that he is dangerously lost inside his own head is painfully tense. A bead of sweat on the Rekall tech's forehead gives the game away and Quaid simply blows them away — "Consida dat a divoors," he quips after putting a bullet through Stone's skull. Vintage Arnie, vintage Verhoeven.
Things get a little formulaic after that, with Quaid throwing in his lot with the rebels to defeat Cohaagen, liberate the air supply and solve the riddle of the monolithic alien machines found in a vast cavern beneath the planet's surface. But there's at least one more major twist round the corner and the action keeps coming thick and fast. With a budget of $63m, Total Recall was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. That wouldn't buy you a Jennifer Anniston romcom these days and, to be honest, the film doesn't have quite the jaw-drop factor we've come to expect since the CGI revolution. That said, the blood-red mountains of Mars (actually Mexico) look splendid and there's some exceptional modelwork.
Among a myriad of Verhoeven's delights to savour are a machine gun-toting midget whore and her triple-breasted colleague; a rebel leader who looks like a foetal Winston Churchill growing out of someone's stomach; a subterranean sin city peopled by mutants; and Arnie plucking a glowing red, golf ball-sized tracking device out of his nose. A benchmark in head-banging movie sci-fi.