Total Recall Review

Film Still
  • Total Recall film still


A re-release of Paul Verhoeven's multi-tiered space aria serves as a bloody reminder of the director's much-missed cachet as one of cinema's great mischief makers.

Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall has the dubious honour of being the first 18-rated film I ever saw. Picture the scene: an uncorrupted bairn aged 11, squeezed on to an over-heated variety coach wending its way to the Austrian Alps (What?! It was cheaper!) and severely bored by the drab rotation of family favourites (License to Drive, F/X 2, Legal Eagles, Cocoon 3: Brimley's Lament, etc) that the consenting adults on board deemed suitable for general consumption.

Thirteen hours into the trip and barrelling down a chilly autobahn as many of the riders snoozed, some brave soul decided to upend the on-board decency barometer by sneaking an overdue rental copy of Total Recall into the communal VHS player. Of course, when word got around that small screen sex and violence were imminent, everyone promptly arose from their semi-slumber.

Prior to seeing this film, my only recourse to 'hard' content was via the mouths of my more, ahem, liberally parented schoolyard chums who attempted (poorly) to offer descriptions of early Van Damme movies (Kickboxer, Bloodsport, etc) or some of the more outre Manga offerings of the era (Fist of the North Star). I have a vivid recollection of a friend talking me through a scene in 1989's Best of the Best in which Eric Roberts Tai Kwon Dos some sweaty white belt minion in the face. It was blissful.

With 15-rated films, I had noticed that the adult material was generally peripheral to the main thrust of the story, though you were usually guaranteed a satisfying speckle of violence and swearing during the runtime. I always envisaged that a film rated 18 would not merely contain these forbidden vices, but would be about them. As Arnold Schwarzenegger's eyes depressurise and explode within the opening two minutes, Total Recall briefly, operatically confirmed this harebrained theory.

Psychologically, I was scarred by this film, even though – possibly subconsciously – I was also thoroughly entertained by it. I had never seen a film this elaborate, where the narrative – which is proposed as a falsified daydream – operates on numerous levels and climaxes on a note of wry ambiguity.

Looking back, I incorrectly saw an 18 rating as not just a signifier of the film's tits 'n' gore quotient, but a statement which perhaps hinted at the complexity of the work in hand. Only a mature and discerning mind would 'get' this film. The Porky's franchise proved this conjecture to be entirely false.

And it wasn't just the mischievously distasteful gore effects that lodged in my mind, though I must admit to feeling like I'd witnessed some kind of undiscovered, once-in-a-millenia cosmic alignment when Michael Ironside has his arms sliced off by a futuristic service lift. I now had occasion to become 'that guy' holding court in the schoolyard.

No, it was the pure, untainted sense of evil wielded by the film's villain, Vilos Cohaagen (played by American cinema's grand master of the oleaginous corporate swinging dick, Ronny Cox). Even Benny (Mel Johnson Jr), the lovable, jive-talkin' cab driver with dangerously overactive loins eventually reveals his true, mutated colours and is duly transformed into a crimson slurry care of a pneumatic drill to the kidneys. In 18 films, the bad people were bad, and the good people were, at heart, also bad.

At the time, Verhoeven's cartoon playfulness was entirely lost on me as civilians are used as human shields, each casually fired bullet resulting in a miniature and messy fountain of blood. This was violence accentuated to the level of sick dreams, a motif that is entirely in keeping with the film's central idea of an unsatisfied working class stiff (Arnie) paying money to experience what it's like to kill people.

Not to denigrate the subtle artistry of his provocative project, but on a personal level I feel I owe Total Recall a great deal. I rate Paul Verhoeven as one of the most intelligent, seditious and misunderstood of mainstream film artists, especially as all his gleefully licentious pictures – Starship Troopers, RoboCop, Showgirls, etc – are able to captivate, tickle and scandalise their way across the generational chasm. Suffice to say, it was the best long-distance variety coach journey ever.

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