Total Recall Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie

by Erik Amaya

Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Total Recall

As we’ve discussed before, the purposeful and expert application of cheese in film is a form of camp. It is, without a doubt, the hardest tone for a filmmaker to pull off because it must be both sincere and tongue-in-cheek all at once. Factor in nervous marketing executives who need the product to be one clear tone and you get an entire filmmaking apparatus disinclined to ever let filmmakers make movies with the nuance required for camp.
Which brings us to Paul Verhoeven. He made a big splash in the Dutch film scene with raw movies like Turkish Delight and The Fourth Man. After his 1985 English-language debut Flesh and Blood, he agreed to direct RoboCop for Orion Pictures. That film is a clinic in camp. So dry is its humor, people can appreciate it as a simple sci-fi action flick without ever engaging in the horrors the director saw within its subtext or its satirical edge. But because RoboCop is a very well-made movie, it is not nearly as cheesy as this weekend’s cheesy selection, Total Recall. But as we’ll see, its less-than-stellar production values are as intentional as its campy tone.
The films centers on Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his third appearance in a Weekend Cheesy Movie), a hard-working blue color dude who tears down old buildings for a living and goes home to his wife Lori (Sharon Stone, also a returning Cheesy Movie player). But Quaid has recurring dreams about a life on Mars with a mysterious brunette. Lori feigns jealousy about this dream woman, but Quaid has no idea why this mystery figure appears night after night. His dreams also inspire him to consider a vacation on Mars, but Lori constantly dismisses the idea as the planet is in the midst of unrest between its government and a rebellion of radiation scarred mutants.
Soon, Quaid hears about a virtual vacation company called Rekall. They can plant false memories into their clients, giving them the impression they’ve gone to off-world destinations too expensive to visit in person. The company can also make this vacation memories more exciting by include movie-style intrigues and action scenes. Quaid chooses to remember a superspy adventure on Mars with a simulacrum of his dream woman added to the program. But, seemingly, the Rekall machine’s attempts to implant the memory program triggers Quaid’s real memories as Hauser, a former agent of Martian governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) who discovered an alien artifact on the red planet. Hauser wiped his own memory and created the Quaid persona in attempt to flee from Cohaagen. Nevertheless, all of Quaid’s friends and even Lori turn out to be Cohaagen operatives embedded to monitor his activities. The Rekall machine mix-up means they must all try to kill him or prevent him from getting his ass back to Mars.
In an interesting twist, the Rekall machine restored parts of his memories, but not his original personality. So Quaid still acts as though he is a mild-mannered blue color guy instead of the suave man of action he seems to be on recordings made prior to Hauser’s attempt to flee. Nevertheless, he makes his way to Mars and soon meets Melina (Rachel Ticotin), the woman he sees in his dreams. She’s a Martian resistance fighters who eventually helps him get in touch with the resistance’s lead mutant, Kuato (Marshall Bell); who happens to reside on the abdomen of his brother George (also Bell). Quato uses his apparent telepathic abilities to merge Quaid and Hauser into one persona and discover the nature of the Martian artifact. It turns out to be a terraforming device meant to give the planet an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Cohaagen has been keeping it a secret as he makes a lot of money charging Martian citizens for the very air they breathe.
Quaid finally seems to know where he’s going and what he’s doing, but it is still possible he’s really sitting in the Rekall machine enjoying the “ego trip” memories he bought in lieu of an actual vacation.
And if all this sounds like the pulpy prose of a certain science fiction author hepped up on the amphetamine diet while trying to make some quick scratch to pay his ex-wife’s alimony for the month, that is 100% the charm. Total Recall is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale” about a bored office worker who goes to “Rekal” to implant a fake memory about living a spy’s life on Mars. It turns out to be true. After he and his former agency agree he should be implanted with a new set of memories, he concocts a wacky idea about single-highhandedly stoping an alien invasion though kindness when he was a boy. This also turns out to be true. It’s a Dick story, so the very natural of reality is at the very heart of the piece. It’s also funny. And back in the mid-1970s, struggling screenwriter Ronald Shusett optioned the four-page story from Dick because he thought it would make a nifty sci-fi adventure film.
When he moved to Los Angeles, he shared the idea with his soon-to-be writing partner Dan O’Bannon. Though he was soon to leave for Paris to help develop Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-made version of Dune, he agreed to co-write the Recall screenplay with Shusett. In exchange, Shusett would help O’Bannon with an idea he had called “Starbeast” and the pair would aggressively try to sell both screenplays in earnest. “Starbeast” would become Alien after O’Bannon returned from Paris and the Recall script would continue to languish; even after Shusett sold it to our old pal Dino DeLaurentiis.
As it happens, both Dune and Dino play strangely central roles in the development of genre pictures in the 1970s and 1980s.
For a time, Richard Dreyfuss was attached to star and David Cronenberg set to direct. Shusett and Cronenberg did not get along and the failure of Dune left DeLaurentiis without an interest in more science fiction. Schwarzenegger agreed to take the project off his hands, found a new home for it at Carolco, and recruited Verhoeven. The chain of custody is important for a very key reason: some fifteen years removed from Shusett’s first reading of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the director flawlessly recreates the feeling of a Dick story despite Shusett’s attempt to turn it into a simple adventure yarn. In fact, I dare say Total Recall is the most successful Philip K. Dick adaptation from the standpoint of the author’s general tone. Which is to say, Dick was also on the campy wavelength. At least in a lot of his speculative fiction.
While novels like The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and Confessions of a Crap Artist reveal a high-minded literary intent and facility, Dick always languished under the perception that his more boldly SF stories were somehow lesser. Since he believed them to be mere pulp, they are infused with a brash, campy sensibility directors like Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg immediately abandon while developing scripts based on his work. Which makes sense when we remember studios’ fear of camp. Verhoeven, having no ingrained fear of camp, found it in abundance within the scripted — credited to Shusett, O’Bannon and Gary Goldman with contributions from Jon Povil and an uncredited Cronenberg — and infused the picture with a certain dime story cheapness which gives it so much of its strength. The barley concealed fakery throughout also underscores the moment when Quaid learns all of it may be a dream.
As I mentioned earlier, Total Recall looks cheaper than RoboCop despite a substantially larger budget. All the complex practical effects and purpose-built sets lack the grit of the Dallas locations used to make RoboCop‘s Detroit a reality. As a result, Total Recall looks as like a cheesier film than Verhoeven’s previous work. But this would seem to be an intentional choice of the director’s part. Sets are overlit, creature effects shot to emphasize their obvious fakery, and performances heightened to lean into an essential Dick-ian quality. The whole film is a yellowing paperback of questionable quality.
Looking at those performances for a moment, Schwarzenegger is woefully miscast as the nebbishy Quaid. Dreyfuss, for example, is the very model of the stock Dick protagonist and the prefect choice for Quaid in other circumstances. He would also be a killer Horselover Fat had someone had the balls to adapt VALIS in the 1980s. Nonetheless, Verhoeven makes the most Schwarzenegger’s desire to star in this picture by calling out how ridiculous he looks and leading the actor to some of the softest line readings of his career. This is also counterpointed by the actor’s brief turn as Hauser, who more closely matches the swagger the former body builder was cultivating at the time.
Stone, for her part, is a marvelously cheesy actor who only really excels when a director plays to her limitations as a performer. Verhoeven definitely understands her capabilities and leads her into a finely camp performance as both a highly trained combat expert and someone pretending to be a loving wife. Cox, a Verhoeven all-star at this point, knows exactly what he’s doing while Michael Ironside makes his debut in a Verhoeven film as Cohaagen’s second-in-command. Ironside might be the best actor to make a career in B-Movies and delivers the exact right performance here. Ticotin might have the most thankless role as the underdeveloped female lead, but if you accept that the movie is happening in Quaid’s head, the shallowness actually tracks. Which is the key to every overplayed or underplayed moment and every seeming error in the film: it all tracks because Verhoeven is playing in the same pulpy playground as Dick.
Which means that for all the camp on display, Total Recall is one firecracker of a cheesy movie. Like the author of its source material, it is full of interesting layers even as it tries to pass itself off as a mindless, shallow, and cheap adventure flick. It also illustrates that cheese can be complex and sophisticated even as it makes you laugh at the wrong moment. That makes its one of the best cheesy movies you’ll ever see.
Total Recall is currently available to stream on Hulu and to rent at the usual streaming platforms. A Blu-ray release is also available wherever physical media is still sold.

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