08/17/2012 07:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recalling Total Recall : Intrigue, Ultra-Violence, Humor and What Else That Is Missing from the Schwarzenegger Remakes

To be clear, Total Recall -- the original, that is -- is one of my favorite movies of all time. By which I do not mean, simply one of my favorite action movies or favorite Arnold movies.

I remember talking with a well-known filmmaker some years ago who asked me what my favorite films of all time were. My answer: "Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Reds, Lawrence of Arabia, Total Recall, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, They Were Expendable, Raiders of the Lost Ark ..." The Oscar winner got a look on his face like he had finally realized that he was dealing with a deranged person, and not because he preferred North By Northwest in the Hitchcock oeuvre, either. (The list, incidentally, which is changeable -- perhaps a euphemism for my being fickle -- though Chinatown is always top of the list, was accurate at the time. When it comes to more intimate drama, I look more to television than to movies, especially now, which is why I write so much about Mad Men.)

Since I consider the 1990 film an outrageous classic of the genre -- a great mind frak film with intriguing notions about layers of reality long before Christopher Nolan's classic Inception -- I had a great deal of trepidation about the 2012 remake, which is now working its way through the global distribution mill after a less than scintillating start at the domestic box office. After seeing the trailers and looking at reviews, I wasn't sure I wanted to see the new version. It looked like a mostly no-fun retread. But curiosity got the better of me.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see the light of intelligence let loose among the ape men, giving rise to the birth of technology in the form of the first weapon.

So I saw the Total Recall remake after I went to see The Dark Knight Rises for a second time, preparing to write about the Dark Knight Trilogy now that the dust has mostly settled from the Colorado massacre which placed the final film's debut in such deep and tragic shadow.

Putting aside my great attachment to the original to accept this version for what it is, I enjoyed the Total Recall remake to a certain extent for the first 40 minutes. Then it just got pretty tedious the rest of the way. Not much humor, wit, heart, mystery, excitement, unlike the original, and a whole lot of endless generic action. As a result, it's just the latest disappointing remake of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, following in the footsteps of the recent remakes of Conan the Barbarian and Predator.

Frankly, this one looks like it was cranked out to cash in on the international action picture circuit. But the early box office returns, disappointing enough in the U.S., given the size of the film's budget, still look murky at best in terms of global box office.

The new Total Recall has a lot of the same plot points as the original, as both are based on an original Philip K. Dick story, but without the tremendous energy and inventiveness and outrageousness that director Paul Verhoeven brought to the picture, the fascinating screenplay of which is by Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon and Gary Goldman. I especially didn't like the imperial storm trooper look of most of the henchmen. As the nefarious Lori, Kate Beckinsale, who I enjoy in her English rose roles, is actually much better at martial arts than the fabulous Sharon Stone, who was merely quite game though very fit. And "I guess you could say we're separated" is a very far cry from "Consider that a divorce."

In terms of design aesthetic, it looks pretty good, but I'm not really sure what the point is. It seems derivative of Blade Runner, albeit cleaner and more modern. "Get your ass to Mars," one of my favorite catch phrases, isn't a factor in this decidedly earth-bound film in which the scifi travel is intra rather than extraterrestrial. The Colony, on the other side of a sort of tube through the center of the Earth from a new imperial Britain, looks Australasian. But the potential intrigue of the movie's post-apocalyptic geopolitics quickly devolves into action sludge.

One of the oddest things about the remake is that the title never really comes into play.

In the first movie, evil corporate fascist uber-villain Cohaagen and his vividly etched henchmen are constantly worried that Quaid is about to have "total recall." In the new movie, that doesn't seem to be a concern. ("In an hour," intones Michael Ironside's chief henchman Richter, who as aficionados know, never makes it to the party, "he could have total recall.") At which point, he will really be dangerous. As distinguished from the guy who has been taking out all the nefarious agency operatives while operating in an amnesiac haze.

There's also much more chemistry between the characters in the original, both positive and negative. Colin Farrell is a terrific actor who is quite believable in action scenes. But he is a much more dour and less zestful presence than Schwarzenegger, who has real warmth with co-star Rachel Ticotin as comrade-in-arms and more Melina, sexual chemistry with Sharon Stone as wife/not wife Lori, highly credible animosity with Ironside's Richter, and a great dualism with Ronny Cox's vivid Cohaagen. As true blue if amnesiac Quaid, Schwarzenegger distrusts and dislikes Cohaagen; as the original agent Hauser, he's Cohaagen's clever fascist bully boy buddy.

The remake's cast is fine, but, unlike their counterparts in the original, gets little opportunity to shine. With the exception of Beckinsale, who is not only quite fetching and fit but credibly intimidating as a dangerously intelligent agent and fearsome martial arts expert. It's a good thing, too, because her character essentially combines those of Lori and Richter. Of course, Beckinsale's a female action star in her own right, which may be why her moves are faster and deadlier looking than Farrell's, who is certainly credible enough. Except in his big establishing scene.

Farrell's big introductory fight scene, in which, as drone worker Quaid he displays moves he didn't know he had as he dispatches more than twice the four henchmen taken out by Schwarzenegger in the original, must have been shot before he'd settled into the action side of the role. At this point, early in the story, his character has no idea that he is a super-agent. His moves are slower than Schwarzenegger's in the equivalent scene, even though he has twice as much work to do (another way of saying he's way too slow to pull it off), and he oddly seems less surprised than Schwarzenegger by his lethal handiwork.

As uber-villain Cohaagen, multiple Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston, whose performance in Breaking Bad keeps besting my man Jon Hamm's great work as Don Draper in Mad Men, seems like slam dunk casting. But he's given little to do in the film, which sets up a political context and does little with it, and as a result he fades next to Ronny Cox's original portrayal.

The trailer for Total Recall, the original 1990 version.

Jessica Biel is appealing, and appealingly game at action without looking at all intimidating, but as Quaid's ally-and-more Melina she generates much less chemistry with Farrell than Ticotin did with Schwarzenegger.

The terrific British actor Bill Nighy is wasted as the resistance leader, making much less of an impression than Marshall Bell, who had a much better defined role, did in the original.

John Cho, however, does have a very nice moment early on as the Rekall salesman who sells Quaid his memory implant. Memorably portrayed by Ray Baker in the original as an ultimate used car salesman -- his desperately dogged up-sell of "the Ego Trip" option on the memory package always gets a knowing audience laugh when Schwarzenegger shakes his head and says "I am not interested in that" -- the character gets a sleazily off-kilter rendition in Cho's hands. But this, like other intriguing elements in the remake's first 40 minutes, like Farrell reading Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me, the least Bondian of James Bond novels, is introduced and promptly dropped in favor of relentlessly generic action sequences the rest of the way.

One of the few fascinating things about the remake is how weightless its violence feels. While the action is relentless, the violence is relatively bloodless, especially compared to that of the original, which is a relative gorefest.

The original Total Recall revels in its ultra-violence, even though it was toned down somewhat for the censors. It forces its fans to confront the fact that they enjoy violence, even, or perhaps, especially, when seeing its effects.

The remake casts violence as "action," bloodless and more politically correct, to be sure, but not at all realistic or shocking. The original, in the hands of Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger, is hyper-realistic in its violence. When Schwarzenegger-as-Quaid kills someone with an axe, or a forearm blow to the head, not to mention a spike through the head, it's visceral, both on screen and on the soundtrack.

It's disturbing even as it's entertaining. After all, when one laughs -- as I do, every time -- when the hapless bystander on the escalator is bracingly shot to death by the bad guys as they close in on Schwarzenegger, who then uses the dead body repeatedly as a shield before flinging it on Richter and his henchman in order to make good his escape, it's not as a member of a high order civilization.

The question of violence in films is very current, of course, in the wake of the horrifying massacre in the Colorado movie theater.

I always think back to the classic sequence in 2001 in which the ape man invents technology by discovering that a large bone can be used as a club. After indulging in the joys of hunting, he and his cohort attack another band of ape men at a watering hole, killing their leader, driving their rivals off, and seizing the water for themselves in pre-history's first military operation. Savagely celebrating by pounding his rival leader's lifeless body, the inventor of the first weapon flings it joyously into the air. As it turns, end over end, in director Stanley Kubrick's breathtaking vision it becomes another piece of technology, another tool, a satellite in orbit far above the Earth.

I was able as a kid to join a small group which talked for hours with 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke -- rated with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as one of the "Grand Masters" of science fiction -- after one of his lectures, not long after 2001 appeared. In the heyday of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, this celebration of violence, and especially the beginnings of organized, industrialized violence, was very much a topic of discussion with Clarke. Who, though no hawk (he was an early advocate of communication satellites to knit the world together), was unapologetic about the scene. It neither celebrated nor denigrated violence, he argued. It simply placed it at the center of human history, where it has always been.

The Dark Knight Rises massacre again raises the question of violence in the culture. Did the Dark Knight films cause the massacre? Are violent movies why the deranged right-wing man attacked Sikhs in the Midwest? Or why an apparently deranged left-wing man attacked a right-wing political group in Washington?

Probably not. Do they help desensitize the culture? Naturally. But then so does any serious exposure to the news.

One thing I know for sure is that I don't want to have to choose a cinematic diet consisting solely of Woody Allen movies and Disney comedies.

For his part, Verhoeven joyously showcases ultra-violence in Total Recall, sticking it in the audience's face. Indeed, the entire milieu of the film is as downbeat as it is shot through with glee.

The trailer for Total Recall, the 2012 remake.

The film takes great advantage of the oppressive "New Brutalism" architectural style which the filmmakers were thrilled to find and utilize in Mexico City, and compounds the matter by placing much of the action in sleazy dens of iniquity. Whereas in the remake, we see merely another updating of the Blade Runner look, one which oddly cleans most of it up.

In Verhoeven's hands, Total Recall is suffused with a barely suppressed air of hostility amongst practically all the characters, including the most seemingly benign. It reflects a society ground under the heel of a barely genteel form of fascism, which is constantly hinted at in the news reports glimpsed throughout the film.

Beneath the smooth and polite fascist surface is a scarcely repressed sadism. It's an angry society, with unpleasantness and hostility ready to erupt at the drop of a hat.

We even see the baddies, especially Michael Ironside's vivid Richter, become near-orgasmic while shooting their guns in manic fashion. It's all part of an outrageous social commentary. Is the film saying this is what we are? Or a version of what we are? Or what we might become? Or all the above? Hey, it's just a movie. Right?

Having been turned down at first, Schwarzenegger worked hard to get this film, seeing that placing himself in the fore of its churning elements would take his action and scifi work to another level. This was two decades before Inception worked much of the same territory.

For all the talk of whether Schwarzenegger was the biggest action movie superstar, it's often gone unremarked that Schwarzenegger is the biggest science fiction movie star. In fact, aside from Conan and the comedies, his biggest movies are all either straight scifi, such as the Terminator films and Total Recall and, as it turned out, Predator (the only film in history to star not one but two future governors), or have major scifi elements, such as True Lies. (Which is spyfi.)

For all the jokes about his acting ability, many of them generated by himself, Schwarzenegger was long a major presence at the Saturn Awards, which honor the top science fiction and fantasy films.

Which only makes sense, since Schwarzenegger has had a longstanding interest in technology, something which became very clear during his two terms as governor of California. That's especially true with regard to the potentially liberating force of Promethean technology, as seen in Total Recall.

Tech can be liberating, it can be stifling, it can be both, even at the same time, as we see in Total Recall.

Before Total Recall, like most movie-goers, I certainly knew who Schwarzenegger was but wasn't sure I took him all that seriously as a movie star. Well, actually, I was sure. I saw his movies and enjoyed them, but didn't hesitate to use them for humor.

In fact, I took great glee in teaching Conan's creed to the very young son of friends who grew tired of having me prompt the equally gleeful tyke to say, when asked "what is best in life," in his tiny voice: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women."

During this period, a politician I worked with, a Democratic state senator named John Garamendi who had just wisely pulled out of a race for governor, happily reported that he had secured Schwarzenegger to headline his big fundraising dinner in LA. But I talked him out of it, arguing that Schwarzenegger was too conservative, which would turn off Democrats in Hollywood and elsewhere down the line. And that, anyway, while his movies were kinda fun, he would never ever, and I mean ever, be a big movie star.


Garamendi, now a congressman, later became Schwarzenegger's lieutenant governor, to the ultimate displeasure of both men. But before their falling out, he never tired of reminding me of how wrong I'd been about Schwarzenegger's prospects.

I recall, as it were, talking with Schwarzenegger the year before he ran for governor, discussing his hopes for renewable energy in California. I sensed the enthusiasm we see as he settles back in the chair at Rekall for his trip to Mars.

Schwarzenegger, of course, went on to become a global champion of renewable energy, something which carries the liberating force of Promethean technology. ("Quaid, start the reactor. Free Mars!")

Now Schwarzenegger is back, as I believe he says once or twice in The Expendables 2, opening this weekend, making movies. (He's also just starting the USC Schwarzenegger Institute on state and global policy and has a global organization working with the United Nations. But this piece isn't about politics per se.)

Expendables 2, the brain-child of Schwarzenegger rival-turned-pal Sylvester Stallone, is the latest retro action saga from the Rocky auteur. As such, among other things, it's a cinematic appetizer for Schwarzenegger's forthcoming slate of films.

On the final weekend of the London Olympics, London Mayor Boris Johnson and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger talk James Bond, history, Boris bikes and water-skiing on a tour of London's new cable car after attending the Olympic Basketball Championship Game.

But before Schwarzenegger's new movies have had the chance to emerge, he and we have had to confront the phenomenon of the remake of some of his old -- or, more accurately -- older movies.

Before the new Total Recall came the reboots of Conan the Barbarian and Predator. Neither of which actually worked.

What do all these films have in common? None of them stars Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger himself gets a lot of mileage out of his reputation as being, er, a seriously non-great actor. And I'm hardly going to make a case for him as a Laurence Olivier, though his version of Hamlet's famously questioning soliloquy -- in Schwarzenegger's ironically post-modern deconstruction of the action genre described as an action picture, the less than successful Last Action Hero -- was rather explosive.

Still, he did play a role listed in the credits as "Governor of California" for over seven years and people around the world certainly bought that. He even won two landslide elections to the office, with 17-point margins of victory each time. I've participated in and written about California politics all my life, and I'm pretty sure no one else has done that.

Schwarzenegger brings an unusual blend of menace and kindness, hurt and humor, insult and charm to his roles. Even a Philip K. Dick story can't guarantee that in a movie.

Before closing, I absolutely have to mention one more element that made the original Total Recall so memorable. And that is the great musical score by the late Jerry Goldsmith.

Though I think Schwarzenegger's favorite from his films remains Basil Poledouris's supple epic for Conan the Barbarian, the Goldsmith score for Total Recall, in my opinion, is one of the great achievements in film scoring. In contrast, the remake's score, like so much else about it, is generic.

Goldsmith's score -- much more atonal and modern than John Williams's also magnificent work -- brings a sense of majesty, as well as relentless excitement and tantalizing mystery, to the proceedings. It could easily have supported what was a much fuller back story in an earlier version of the story, which is laid out in the Total Recall novelization.

In that version, we learn much more about the alien technology which ultimately liberates Mars from the yoke of Cohaagen and his war-making allies back on Earth. (As we know, the Martian "turbinium" which Cohaagen has his vassal population mine and ship to Earth is key for the "space-based weapons" his allies need to war with their "numerically superior" opponents in the southern hemisphere.) In this earlier version of the tale, aliens have "seeded" advanced technology amongst races capable of further advance throughout the galaxy. If they are able to discover it and master it and use it for good, they can become part of an interstellar trading culture. If they use it for ill, as Cohaagen undoubtedly would, the tech is programmed to turn the sun into a nova. Hauser learns this and becomes, in effect, an agent for the aliens (who never appear), devising the plot we see in the film as much to keep the tech out of Cohaagen's hands as to fool the rebels. Before becoming what he had pretended to be, i.e., the program known as Quaid.

That story, while even more intriguing, might have been a bridge too far for a film destined to be a very fast-paced action adventure. But a whiff of it lingers in the original picture, as the audience wonders why "the reactor" that Quaid must start in order to "free Mars" was left there in the first place.

Just another element of intrigue about one of the most intriguing pop classics around.

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