Pages Navigation Menu

TOTAL RECALL (1990) (review)

total_recallTOTAL RECALL (1990)
Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Jon Povill
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin and Michael Ironside

Benny (to Mary, the three-breasted hooker): Baby, you make me wish I had three hands.

I grew up on Arnie movies. PREDATOR, CONAN, the “Terminators” … all movies I’ve watched dozens of times in my life. TOTAL RECALL was never one of my favourites though. It hits a lot of the points that you want in an Arnie movie and I’d watch it if I ever caught it on TV but, it was never one of the movies I would get the urge to watch. Don’t get me wrong; it’s better than any of his comedies or any movie he’s made since TRUE LIES. It wasn’t until watching it again recently though that I realized why I didn’t love it like the others. It’s because it’s kind of dumb. I’m not talking dumb in the way where you need to “turn your brain off at the door” (which I hate as an answer for why things don’t make sense in a movie). I just find TOTAL RECALL to be one of the sloppier Arnie movies made during his prime.

TOTAL RECALL is a science-fiction film which centers around Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger), formerly known as Hauser, who was in Martian Intelligence until his memory was erased. While visiting a vacation memory implant agency, his old memories are triggered and the people who erased his mind are now after him to keep his secrets from getting out and freeing Mars from the tyrannical rule of an evil corporation. Fortunately for TOTAL RECALL, it was written by Philip K. Dick. Well, it was originally a short story of his, which was adapted into a feature length film. As a result, the plot twists in this movie will be surprising and keep you guessing even after the movie is done. For example, you are never quite clear if this entire story was just made up in Quaid’s mind from when he implanted the secret agent storyline for his vacation package he paid for. The credits role with that thought in your mind.


From dated looking special effects to poor character choices and to an often illogical vision of the future, it is the details that weigh TOTAL RECALL down for me. Let’s start with the special effects. This movie suffers from being on the cutting edge of technology for its time. Usually what that means is that it looks really impressive when you first watch it but, once that technology is perfected, it quickly looks dated, like 3D when it first came out for a second time recently and was then perfected in AVATAR. And this is in every aspect of this movie, from the make-up used to the technology made up for the purposes of the movie. TOTAL RECALL takes place in a time where you can not only communicate between planets but actually travel to one on vacation yet, it is somehow not a world where you have anything like cell phones (despite them existing at the time the film was made). You can reprogram someone’s mind but it is still a world where we have manual labor in the form of dozens of guys using jackhammers on a construction site. I found a lot of the future seemed like the past and that took me out of the movie often. This is a time where we have holograms that can duplicate whoever is wearing the watch but the tracer that was placed in Arnie’s head can be disabled by a wet towel. And so on and so on.

Despite all of this, TOTAL RECALL can still still be a fun movie to watch, if someone plays it in front of me when I’m already sitting there and have nothing else to do. In the end though, TOTAL RECALL makes a much better title for Arnold’s memoires than it did a movie.

2.5 sheep

TOTAL RECALL screens tonight at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, as part of TIFF’s screening series, Flesh + Blood: The Films of Paul Verhoeven. For more information and for tickets, visit


Share Your Thoughts