Friday, February 14, 2020

Total Recall (1990) Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Total Recall (1990)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Last year I talked about the drama on the set of Bladerunner, where crew struggled against the director, the director was locked in battle against his leading man and the leading man and lady loathed each other. Total Recall as far as I can find out was actually a fairly smooth operation when filming started. Getting to filming, on the other hand, was a long and rocky road. In 1974 Ronald Shusett, who among other things would become the writer of Alien, bought the film rights to We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Mr. Shusett re-titled it Total Recall and brought it to Dino De Laurentiis, an Italian producer who had been producing movies since 1946. In fact, between 1946 and 2007 he produced over 150 movies, among them The Serpent's Egg, Conan the Barbarian (1982), Flash Gordon (1980), King Kong (1976) and David Lynch's Dune.

Total Recall, however, took years to get to the filming stage and went through several directors, writers, and casts. First, they brought David Cronenberg (God I loved Scanners so much.), along with writer Dan O'Bannon to hammer out a full script. Mr. Cronenberg states that they went through 12 or 13 drafts before he gave up feeling that he was trying to make Philip K Dick's version, while the other writers wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark in Space. Some elements would remain however. It is from Cronenberg that we get the mutants of Mars, along with the character Kuato, the mutant revolutionary who dreams of a free Mars (Long live the revolution! May the sands run red with Earther blood A free mars is a red mars! Not rusty red or blood red, the other red, you know the one I mean! {Bro, you’re an Earther.}And? Just because I live here on the earth does not mean I cannot stand in solidarity with my oppressed martian comrades. {There are ways to do that without screaming for your own execution}). Mr. De Laurentiis then brought in director Bruce Beresford and contacted Patrick Swayze for the lead. Things went so far as to have sets being built in Australia to start filming when disaster struck. DEG studios, Mr. De Laurentiis company, collapsed due to debt. Part of it was that while a number of the films produced live on as cult legends (especially Dune) they were at the time very expensive box office failures (especially Dune). So it seemed that Total Recall would sink into the sands of time, but there was one more act left to play.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had read the script and loved it; and asked to play the lead but had been firmly rebuffed. I'm not going to go in-depth into Arnold Schwarzenegger here, I'm going to state at this point he was a Titan of the industry and nearly at the height of his popularity. With the studio in disarray, Arnold took his opportunity to convince Carolco, the company that had produced the Rambo films and Terminator 2, to buy the rights and produce the movie with him as the lead. Not only that Arnold got veto power over the selection of the cast, producers, and director effectively seizing control of the movie. Paul Verhoeven was brought in at this point, I hope y'all will forgive me but I'm not going into detail on him either. Sooner or later we are doing Starship Troopers after all (And you can imagine I will have a great deal of commentary on that book, and film, if he does both.{Oh it is on the list, that day will come and likely the review will end up the size of a small book from the brawling we do readers}). Mr. Verhoeven was coming off of Robocop and also riding rather high. Now at this point, the script was on its 42nd draft (Holy Shit) and still lacked the 3rd act. This did not deter either of them, instead, Mr. Verhoeven brought in his crew from Robocop and set to work making a movie. They made several changes, switching the lead from a government accountant to a construction worker, feeling that audiences could buy an alien terraforming machine on Mars but would balk at Arnold the Accountant (Yes. Very much so. He is far far too swole to be an accountant.). They also increased the action, focusing more on the thriller components and less on the paranoia and questions of identity (But the questions of identity are the fun part!). For the cast, they recruited talents like Michael Ironsides (Yaaaasss), Sharon Stone, and Ronny Cox and after hashing out the 3rd act filmed the movie in Mexico City. The original cut of the movie was rated X due to extreme violence because Mr. Verhoeven cannot conceive of holding back but with some editing by people who did know the meaning of the phrase 'that's enough,' they were able to get an R rating. The movie did rather well honestly making 265 million on a budget of 50 million and getting critical praise from Roger Ebert who gave it 3 and a half out of 4 stars. It was even nominated for a Hugo award and won an academy award for best visual effects. So let's discuss the film directly, shall we?

Doug Quaid is a construction worker (Who operates a jackhammer without ear protection. Where the hell is OSHA!?) with a heart-stopping lovely and loving wife named Lori. They've been married for 8 years (Or have they?) and have just moved to a new city. Recently Doug has been suffering from recurring dreams of being on Mars with another woman and has reacted to this by wanting to go to Mars. Lori doesn't care for this and keeps distracting him with different ideas and well, sex (In fairness, if I could distract 1980s/early 1990s Arnold with sex, I would totally volunteer as tribute.{I feel the same way about Sharon Stone in this movie so I’m not gonna judge here}). To be fair to Lori, Mars is in the middle of a brutal rebellion which leads to the government turning a blind eye to abuses of the population because Mars produces a mineral vital for the war effort (Which is separate from the Mars rebellion. And it’s nice to see that the working class, fighting off their bourgeois oppressors/foreign occupiers get called terrorists. The more things change the more they stay the same. Protip: If they are attacking military infrastructure or military personnel, it is not terrorism.{To be fair we do have one scene in the movie where a bomb goes off in a public space, or I’m assuming so since it’s right in front of a hotel with a bunch of working class stiffs standing about. That said, in rebellions like this it’s often hard to exercise control over everyone so I’m not blaming rebel central command just yet}). Just what war is open to question, Doug seems to live in a nation that is either called or part of an alliance called North Block locked in some kind of struggle with a South Block. It doesn't seem to be a total war though as there aren't any radioactive clouds on the horizon or its possible that the South Block cannot hit the North Block in its homelands (The Northern Block however does use orbital weapons against the South. So it could very well be total war, or escalate quickly to one. Once you have orbital weapons, you don’t need nukes. {Yes but I’m referring to what the South Block uses against the North Block, Doug’s life seems very divorced from any warfare}). Honestly, this kinda feels close to home since well... The US has officially been fighting a number of enemies overseas for so long now that soon people born at the beginning of the struggle will be old enough to drink, but you wouldn't know it walking around your average US city would you? (Nope. You wouldn’t. Which is one of the reasons it’s still happening, I think.) Sorry, back to the movie. Seeing a commercial for ReCall, a company that implants memories of ideal vacations for a price, Doug decides to try a compromise. He'll get some fake memories and hopefully, that will quiet the compulsion enough that he can focus on actually living his life. This opens a can of worms real fast though as Doug wakes up in a cab, confused and disoriented only to find his life is a lie (And he has a sassy non-sapient robot for a cab driver). Lori isn't his wife and they've only been together 6 weeks (Clever girl.). He's really a secret agent from Mars and following a trail of breadcrumbs that his alter ego Hauser has left him, he needs to piece together what's in his head and decide what side of the raging Martian revolution he's on (Free Mars!).

The secret in his head is a biggie, a vast alien machine was discovered in one of the mines and if it's turned on, it'll create a breathable atmosphere. Now Cohaagen, the boss of Mars, to put it bluntly, is utterly against that. Because he owns all the air (Fucking rent-seeking fucking shit capitalist fascist pig motherfucker {First of all he’s not rent seeking, he is rent collecting, second of all pigs are perfectly nice animals you leave them out of this.}). I find this honestly odd as Cohaagen is supposed to be running the Martian Federal Colony which suggests that he's a government employee. However, he's also spoken of as charging the people of Mars directly for the very air they breathe which honestly suggests terrible things about the government that Doug Quaid lives under if it will allow such brutal oppression of a group of vital specialists for the war effort (It is a fascist state. Period. You can see it. The state repression, the dehumanization of the Marsies, the apparent direct merge between the forces of Capital and the state. Likely also extending to the war with the Southern Block.{I don’t know about that, it lacks the cult of personality and propaganda state that are features of every fascist state, it also seems to lack the celebration of the military that is common as well}). Because the Martians are the ones doing the actual mining and mining is difficult and highly skilled labor especially if you're doing it on another planet! Not to mention one hostile to life! Simply treating the Martians as important labor due certain basic considerations like free air and water and proper protection from radiation would likely prevent this revolution from even occurring!  Frankly, if I was in charge I would be very tempted to hand the rebels Cohaagen's head on a platter and simply ask if we can sit down and hammer out a deal rather than fight a rebellion on another planet and a war on Earth but maybe I'm just insane (I don’t think any sane martian will ever accept Earth sovereignty at this point…{On the flip side before the end of the movie they have no way of sustaining their own lives without Earth. So I don’t feel independence is viable until they are self sustaining. That said give me the damn ore I need and I’m willing to hammer something out here.} Or you can… maybe see about ending a war in which you orbitally bombard brown people in the global south? {I would need more information on why we’re fighting and who we’re fighting, all we have from the movie is two sentences}). Anyways Doug has to figure out if he's on the same side as Hauser if he can work out what side Hauser was on in the first place and what he's going to do. Which is to turn on the alien machine and create a breathable atmosphere, we all know that's what he's going to do, I’m not even going to pretend and insult your intelligence dear readers.

Now I'm going to be honest, Total Recall is something of a blast from the past for me. I really enjoy it and that's likely to color my grade (I like the fact that it acknowledges the existence of gay people. I know that’s a really low bar but it was 1990 so that’s actually before it’s time for a major action film. Most current ones don’t even acknowledge that we exist.). But let me try to be objective here. First of all the acting, Schwarzenegger actually plays a bit against type here. Doug isn't a super warrior like Dutch from Predator, Conan from Conan the Barbarian. or the Terminator from T2. He is in many ways a confused innocent trying to navigate a system that is increasingly alien and hostile to his simple desires to know who he is and exercise free will. While he fights like a superhero, he doesn't act like one and that's the difference here. Now this being Schwarzenegger, his range isn't incredibly vast but I feel like he really pushed his boundaries in several ways and I can't help but think this film led to other roles where he tried to expand his talents and range and I like that. It helps that Arnold did a bang-up job of selling Quaid's confusion and frustration with the world around him even if by the 3rd act he's right back to a one-line quipping superman. Michael Ironsides was magnificent as Richter, one of the villains; his hatred of Quaid is perfectly understandable. He's involved with Lori and hates that Quaid spent 6 weeks banging his girl. I think most of us would be less than thrilled with that arrangement and Richter's eagerness to kill or hurt Quaid comes across as very human. This breaks down a bit in the 3rd act, as Quaid kills Lori and Richter doesn't even comment on that except to punch Quaid in the face but that might be a limit of the genre or an attempt to reinforce the dream aspect. Cohaagen is played by Ronny Cox who honestly seems to be enjoying himself by playing the biggest and most rancid Dick in the whole Solar System. Honestly, I'm kinda amazed that he's only dealing with a Martian uprising and not members of his own armed forces plotting against him. God knows we invented the term fragging for less than his shit.

The acting is really good in this movie, the writing is less good. Part of the problem is the movie makes several attempts to pitch the idea that this might all be taking place in Quaid's head but undermines itself quickly and mercilessly. For example, the scene where the ReKall employees decide to throw Quaid in a cab after realizing he was screaming about being a secret agent despite never having been implanted with memories? That kills the mystery by explaining how it could be real (They should have just deleted the scene. This seems like something that got confused on the editing room floor.). Remove that scene and suddenly you're left less certain. The movie tries to recover by becoming more fantastical but in my opinion, never does a good job of implanting enough doubt to make it work. Which leaves that whole element of the plot feeling like wasted space. It does, however, do a good job of creating an oppressive police state on Mars with the populace divided into a glittering upper class that keeps itself separate so not to confront the consequences of their lifestyle (Just like they try to do today.), a brutal police/military regime that acts without restraint or mercy and a downtrodden underclass that is increasingly radicalized into seeking more extreme means to get their least desires treated seriously (...I mean…). It does this very efficiently and by using the sets and extras as anything else. Which is good film work. The action is really good but I am going to warn you, this is Paul Verhoeven's violence (And his social commentary. A lot of his films are explicitly anti-capitalist, which I love him for.) so it gets messy and it gets everywhere. Although I wonder if it might be less shocking to a modern audience then it was at the time. I also have to roll my eyes at the bad guys' utter inability to hit anyone with any significance to the plot even if they're five feet away. On top of that, there are some science problems but I'm gonna let your editor discuss that (See the wall of text below). All in all, as a stand-alone film I'm giving it a B- as it is still very enjoyable and I never regret watching it.

However, this is an adaptation so it gets a second grade. This film has very little to with We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Some elements remain there; the ReCall Corporation, Mars, Quaid being a secret agent for a repressive government but it's drastically changed to fit in more action. Additionally, in the original story, our main character never went back to Mars. The Aliens have been mostly written out to have been here and left half a million years ago. Now the changes aren't all bad, Sharon Stone's character Lori is vastly more believable as a wife or secret agent trying to keep her asset distracted by using tools other than simply nagging. Additionally getting to see Mars is always a plus in my book! That said as an adaptation, it's at best a C-.  Because the grade is based on how faithful it is to the original. Well, next week we'll see how the remake does.

(Hello everyone. So in addition to being a frothing-at-the-mouth communist, I am also a real-life working scientist who can do math. God, do you remember the days when I was a social democrat? {I remember when you were a libertarian (Blech! Don’t remind me! I try to forget!)} So the science I am going to discuss is in two scenes. The first is the very brief suite decompression scene at the very very beginning of the film. Vacuum - or near-vacuum - exposure does not work that way. If you are exposed to zero pressure, your skin is actually very good at keeping your insides where they should be, though there will be some bloating because of gases compressed in your tissues suddenly expanding. What will happen is that liquids like your spit will cold boil off your tongue and such. You will also start getting some blood coming out of capillaries in your nose, eyes, mouth, and any other highly vascularized surface tissues. That isn’t the part that’s dangerous. It’s the loss of pressure in your vascular and pulmonary system. Dissolved gases might start to come out of solution in your blood, giving you the bends. Additionally, there is now zero partial pressure of oxygen in your lungs, so instead of oxygen diffusing into your blood from your lungs, it goes the other way. Normally you can hold your breath for a while and there is enough oxygen stored in your blood to keep you alive. See free-divers as an extreme example, they do a lot of their work with little to no air in their lungs to prevent their lungs exploding on ascent. It’s actually your CO2 levels that cause you pain and anxiety. In vacuum, with every heartbeat, the oxygen leaves your bloodstream to go wandering in the void. In the end, you’ll have about 15 seconds of useful consciousness, and you’ll be dead in 90 seconds, with permanent damage possible after 30 seconds or so.
The other scene I would like to discuss is the Mars Dome decompression scene. I’m going to start by saying that I’m eye-balling everything so there is a lot of room for inaccuracy, I’ll run two estimates to illustrate the point. Estimate one, the room is 10x20x10 meters (W/L/H), so a total volume of 2000 cubic meters. A pane of glass gets blown out, looks to be at 3x3 meters or so. That means the room has a cross-sectional area of 100 square meters, with a whole of about 9 square meters. A person-sized object (65 kilos, cross-sectional area of .7 square meters) is going to experience a peak of around 500 newtons of force and be accelerated toward the hole at nearly 8 meters per second squared. In Earth gravity, you’d get knocked around pretty good by that (Rapidly accelerated to 28.8 kph). Now, here is the fun part. That’s just the room. Its air leaves first. If the room were sealed - and it eventually was - that would be the end of it. Literally. All the air would be gone in about 2.5 seconds and everyone dies.

The second estimate doubles the width of the room, which increases the volume to 4000 cubic meters. I also drop the hole size down to 6 square meters. Same person-sized object, and it’s only 200 Newtons, and 3.5 meters per second, which isn’t enough to overcome Martian surface gravity even if it were straight up. People get knocked around a bit, but not out the hole. Takes about 7 seconds for all the air to be gone and for people to seriously start dying.

But the whole thing was connected to the rest of the dome. You’d get the same burst of pressure loss and decompression, but instead of ending it would go on and on and on. People farther out wouldn’t experience the decompression as an explosive one, but as a leak, they wouldn’t even be aware of. Air pressure would start to drop. Assuming it went undetected and the dome is about half a km in radius - and using only the first estimate for the hole’s size - people would start to seriously notice after 5 hours, and they’d be in the Death Zone like the summit of Mt. Everest after about a day.

The long and the short of it is that the film does okay with this portrayal, depending on your starting assumptions. Larger estimate for the hole, and it works. Smaller and it doesn’t work.

Thank you for that science editor.  Ladies and Gentlemen, if you enjoyed this review and have ideas on what other books, graphic novels or films based on those you would like to see reviewed, consider joining us at where you get a vote for just a 1$ a month on what reviews come up or what themes we tackle.  Next week we will be looking at Total Recall the 2012 remake and after that a quick look at Total Recall 2070.  Until then, thanks for your support and keep reading!

Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

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