Directed by Paul Verhoeven
August 10-16 at Film Forum
Uniquely clumsy among 80s action colleagues whose fist-to-face combat skills were a major selling point—Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone—Arnold Schwarzenegger's lack of control over his body is often painfully evident. All those muscles don't do what he wants them to do: think of the many ineffectual punches thrown in Commando—hence the common decision to bulk Schwarzenegger up to total invincibility with ridiculously outsized rocket launchers and automatic weapons. His most successful performances were enabled by directors sympathetic to his obvious weaknesses. Left unprotected, the results can be painful: in Arnold's other 1990 blockbuster, Kindergarten Cop, honest panic is visible when arch-hack Ivan Reitman forces him to provide long-take exposition and empathy.
Arnold's best performances make him all body and no intellect, inelegantly lurching from one shot to the next: the Terminator movies make a joke out of his lack of intuitive English-language inexpressiveness, while Predator humbled him to a scrappy feral warrior. In Total Recall, it's not Arnold's body but his mind that's needed: troubled dreams of Mars drive him to Rekall, a company which implants simulated memories of vacations. Douglas Quaid's (Schwarzenegger) knowledge of corporate malfeasance makes him a hero; the explosions are the gasoline-soaked cherry on the action sundae. Total Recall risks embarrassment by foregrounding Arnold as actor: enraged, he's totally plausible, his substantive bulk emphasizing his isolation from the crass surroundings. "Subversive" is too subtle an adjective for Paul Verhoeven's depiction of a corporate-controlled future populated by incredibly unpleasant people, whose every other word is a variant on "shit" or "fuck."
Recall screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett expanded on the logic of their earlier Alien, in which a corporation casually endangers its workers for the profit of the bottom-line. Main baddie Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) controls sales of "tribinium," and acts very much like a up-with-strip-mining/down-with-people CEO, sneering "I can do whatever I want" and instructing minion Richter (Michael Ironside) to quit questioning his judgment: "I don't give you enough information to think!" This isn't subtle, but it's a relevant reminder amid daily revelations of corporate unaccountability run amok.
The irony of using corporate cash to make an anti-corporate film for the ultimate goal of corporate profit isn't lost on Verhoeven, who turns the omnipresent product placement to his thematic favor: in a world run by such horrible, remorseless, people, the mise-en-scene prominence accorded Pepsi seems more ominous than cutely crass. Arnold's heroic delusions are vindicated, though others try to make him think he's insane: is it likely, he's asked, that he's "the victim of an international conspiracy to make him think he's a lowly construction worker"? That's a decent working definition of Marxism, and the answer is "yes, actually." Total Recall is, effectively, an incitement to mild class warfare which insists minimum-wage workers deserve more respect, rather than expecting constantly patronizing rhetoric to make their labor more unpleasant than necessary.
Credit where due: the new Rialto Pictures DCP presentation is pretty great, preserving grain without turning the images into embalmed plastic (even if I wish the 70mm prints struck on the film's initial release could be dug up instead). A subversive action film must proceed with a straight face, and Verhoeven's orderly presentation of violent chaos remains impressive. The violent grotesquerie has aged well, with only a few hairdo hangovers dating the film to the tail end of the 80s. Enormously expensive (and appropriately remunerative), Total Recall has aged remarkably well, a spikily disagreeable blockbuster despite years of cultural ubiquity.