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Total Recall Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007

Image Director Paul Verhoeven, coming off of the surprise success of “Robocop,” turned his attention to another science-fiction script, based on Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You, Wholesale,” which had been in development hell for over a decade.

Set in the future, “Total Recall” relates the story of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) a happily married construction worker, plagued by nightmares about perishing on Mars, which has been colonized. When his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) shoots down his idea of a vacation on the cold red planet, he finds an alternate way to experience Mars-- by having a faux vacation memory implanted by a company named “Rekall.” When the procedure causes Quaid to have a paranoid psychotic episode, the memory implant is halted, the “Rekall” visit wiped from his memory and he’s sent home in a cab. Quaid is almost immediately besieged by attackers sent from Mars Administrator Cohaagen (Cox) who reveal that Quaid isn’t an ordinary construction worker-- he’s a spy who had his mind wiped to stop him from revealing the dark things he learned about Cohaagen and Mars. Quaid, bafled, heads off to Mars, tracing the steps of his previous identity, in an attempt to find out who he is and uncover what is really going on.

Verhoeven’s thrilling and darkly comic adventure has an intriguing, mind-bending concept. Developments within the first section of the story are surprising, even near-bewildering, and the film has a delightful sense of paranoia and fluidity in its storytelling. For the first half of the film, you are not sure if what is happening is real or is actually happening in Quaid’s head. He may still be at “Rekall.” Around an hour into the film though, it becomes quite clear what is going on and, sadly, the chaotic sense of the unknown dissipates. There’s another further reveal and reversal later on to further mix things up, but it’s flashed over so quickly, that its impact is somewhat weakened and adds another distraction to the climax. David Cronenberg was originally set to direct “Total Recall” and if one wonders how it would differ, simply watch “eXistenz.” While it doesn’t quite fall into the routine of a Schwarzenegger action picture, the tropes of that sub-genre are all here, including witty, post-slaughter one-liners and wall-to-wall carnage. Verhoeven’s film is particularly bloodthirsty and some of the violence is quite gruesome, though in a comic-book way. This matches Verhoeven’s tastes; it’s closer in tone to “Robocop’s” gory brutality than to “The Terminator;” a few bits were clearly trimmed to avoid an X rating. Verhoeven’s pointed social commentary is also on display here, with some amusing skewering of the media and corrupt politicians. Reference to an unspecified, on-going war could easily place the film within the same universe in which “Starship Troopers” occurs.

Ronny Cox (whose character is similar to his “Robocop” role) could have made Cohaagen a stock villain, but the direction and Cox’s performance make him amusingly vile. They give the character a caustic sense of humor and push him to such hyperbolic levels of gross callousness that it makes him quite entertaining. Michael Ironside plays Cohaagen’s hatchet-man, Richter, completely straight with his customary, enjoyable intensity. Sharon Stone, one film away from stardom in Verhoeven’s next, “Basic Instinct,” is lithe and lethal as Quaid’s pretend-wife, who is also Richter’s real one.

Despite having an estimated $65 million budget occasionally looks cheap. Some of the blue-screen work and optical compositing wouldn’t look out of place 15 years earlier, and the constant use of medium-sized interior sets makes the film somewhat stage-bound. Some excellent model effects-work is used for the climactic finale, though, which gives the alien cave interiors a nice sense of scale-- something that’s a bit lacking from the mid section of the film.

The climax is a bit overstuffed. As our heroes escape from the villains and race across Mars to essentially press the big plunger, the bad guys seem to magically pop up in front of them, one after the other, as if they’re all waiting in concentric rings for them. Weren’t they all back at the office one minute ago? The finale is exciting and quite amusing in parts (the fates of the two villains is pretty sickly funny). The science in this film probably doesn’t make sense, but if one wants a scientifically realistic portrayal of Mars colonization, there’s always Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel series set on Mars …

Lions Gate’s Blu-ray disc is sharper and more detailed than a standard DVD, but only marginally. Faces have a bit more visible detail and imagery is more crisp, but it’s not a reference disc, by any means. The added resolution gives an accurate rendering of some of the more dated special effects. Sprinklings of print-dirt, built into the scenes that were optically printed or went through a few separate passes, are clearly visible, and image grain notably increases during blue-screen scenes. This is an aspect of the original effects-work, and one could debate whether deleting the built-in dirt (which would be visible on every negative and release print) is artistically valid, or would it alter the original film and then inaccurately represent its effects and the context within which they were made? In terms of transfer, the image could be more pristine and a little less contrasty.

The DTS HD soundtrack is solid and involving. The mix has a room-filling and enveloping surround presence, with a minimal use of discrete surround effects. It’s a seventeen year-old mix, and seems a fairly accurate rendering of the 70mm theatrical screening that I caught back in 1990. The rousing music score (Jerry Goldsmith’s first for Verhoeven) is well-served in 5.1 and the crisp and punchy sound effects mix makes the action sequences especially effective. While the image upgrade is minimal, the added detail and the involving mix make the Blu-ray a more engrossing and exciting experience. The “Visions of Mars” featurette is a 5 min short on the red planet featuring a representative from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While there certainly would be plenty of room on a 50GB disc for the extras included on the special edition DVD (a commentary, making of documentaries etc.), there are no other extras but “Visions of Mars.”

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