And now we’ll take a short look at Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven’s ’90s American pictures, for during the 1990s Verhoeven was one of the few mainstream directors consistently operating at heightened level of mania and adventure in the film world, ever-pursuing and challenging his particular brand of satire until it became almost indistinguishable from truly making the bad movies he was satirizing. Plus I just reviewed Robocop, so it seems like I might as well continue on from there…
Ultimately, Paul Verhoeven’s American films, especially his American action films (always the more sensible and less delirious of his offerings) live and die as much by the strength of their satire as by how well they ape what they are critiquing. Now, Total Recall, his adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, is a satire of sorts, but not a particularly wide-reaching one. It’s not marinated in quite the same joie de vivre to decimate aspects of the corporate cultural capital excess and disregard for human life prominent in Robocop, but nuggets pop through. The central idea is a joke at the expense of modern American society, largely that they would rather live an imagined reality than genuine affection, adventure, or meaning found in everyday reality. And at that, they would prefer not to find real pleasure but to purchase false ones through a company, to purchase “memories” of events through a corporation rather than to actually experience them, thus turning joy and memory into corporate products. This is heightened material for an action film, especially one in 1990, and if Verhoeven explores this theme less than he would explore his themes in his preceding and subsequent American films, it is admirable that he tackles it at all. Not to mention, as with Robocop, he made a pretty damn fine action film, satire or not, anyway.
To this extent, the narrative has Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dreaming incessantly about Mars (which, in the year 2048, is colonized if tormented and somewhat apocalyptic). Unable to quell the dreams, Quaid goes to a company “Rekall” where dream vacations are planted into human memories, and, naturally, he opts for one where-in he is a secret agent on Mars, at which point things go awry and Quaid begins to remember previously repressed memories of actually being a secret agent on Mars. There, as it turns out, governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, giving the platonic ideal of a Ronny Cox performance) is suppressing the general populace to find a hidden artifact that will allow him to control the planet more harshly. Quaid eventually ventures to Mars in hopes of recovering his secret identity, in hopes of foiling Cohaagen’s plan, and in hopes of discovering whether his visions are real or whether they are simply themselves the Rekall fantasy vacation he paid for and is currently in the process of imagining.
This is all clever and insightful, and shockingly pinpoint for a big-budget action film, and the subtext about imagining reality through corporate products is, at least, something that plays into the very texture of the film. Quaid’s actions are indeterminately real; we never truly learn whether or not he is supposed to have gone to Mars, or whether all of this is itself a fiction caused by the machine. This tension itself is a manifestation of how this film that we as an audience are watching is itself a manufactured corporate product designed to court our enjoyment at the expense of actually, you know, us experiencing life outside of the cinema for once. It certainly helps that the film makes a point of accentuating the way in which it is a loopy action movie variant on what could have been a more thoughtful piece of disturbing science fiction foresight.
Thus Verhoeven’s meta-text is alive and well, but it is worth noting that, even if Verhoeven is aware that this is a corporate product and mocking us, he is still making a corporate product after all, and if his tone were one of open criticism and smug superiority, this would not do. He is after-all making the film we are watching, and getting paid for it, and if he is to criticize us for watching an exciting action escapist adventure while he is giving us one all the same it would be a touch unwelcome and distasteful. He himself is clearly making too good of an action film to actually earn the “you shouldn’t be enjoying this” card, which is why he wisely never pulls it. No, this is very much of the “I’m just having fun with what I’m making even though I enjoy it” school of Verhoeven action films. He clearly wants us to enjoy it, even if he’s having fun with us for doing so.
It’s no secret that Verhoeven was one of the happiest men in the world to be directing big budget American actions films, and his joy shows through the roof. He could never honestly posit himself as superior to the films he poked holes in (at least in Robocop and here, if not his later films, where things get would much weirder indeed), for he loved them dearly. Total Recall is largely an effective treat not because its satire of action films is especially nuanced, but because it ends up largely working as an action film itself. The same is true with the more famous, and better, Robocop; it is a sharp satire of action filmmaking and ’80s corporate excess, but it is plainly happy to be an ’80s corporate action film, and its status as a great film of the time, like it or not, is marked by the fact that it uses the tools of ’80s action films to make a damn good ’80s action film for its audience to enjoy.
And enjoy it we do. Total Recall is not as good as Robocop in the realm of pure escapist thrills, but it’s clearly the work of a talented director. There’s a real propulsive quality to the action found in the editing and staging matched at the time only by the works of McTierman, Cameron, and (soon enough) Bigelow. It just has a certain impact left longing in so many other action films, a good deal of which is delivered by the sound design (the bones really crunch in this one, almost comically, which I take to be the benefit of Verhoeven’s desire to exaggerate action beyond its own sense). At some level, though, this is all it is: a pretty good action picture with an interesting subtextual commentary on action pictures. It’s a film of consistent strengths, but not revelatory ones.
Of course, that’s still the makings of a sharp film, and it’s saying something that this ostensible Schwarzenegger vehicle has become an honest-to-god serious science fiction film of note twenty five years on. It probably shouldn’t be one, but considering the quality of many films looked upon as “classics”, Total Recall will do in a pinch. It’s not great cinema, but it works cleanly and efficiently and it has a satisfying metallic tinge for the modern early. Best of all, it is clearly a Verhoeven film, very much indebted to the “pick a genre as a reflection of a certain aspect of American society and skewer it” sense, and it is one of the last sane ones he would make. It is undoubtedly among his more conventional American films, and it might be his least interesting (the generally irrelevant Hollow Man excepted), but even mundane Verhoeven is a twisty, transgressive enough ride to be worth watching.