It is the future, but some things stay the same, like bad dreams such as the ones Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) suffers every night. It's weird, why should he be dreaming of Mars so often, and why does every one of those dreams end with him dying horrifically - what could his connection to the now-colonised planet possibly be? His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) tries to comfort him and take his mind off it all, but even when he turns on the television he sees the local troubles they're having on the Red Planet, so could there be a way of channeling this into something more useful - like a virtual holiday, perhaps?
At the time Total Recall rejoiced in the reputation of being the most expensive film ever made, though even then, with so much money spent on it, it was far from the runaway success that its studio might have hoped for. But for whatever reason, with Paul Verhoeven guiding the action to be as lurid as possible, it did stick in the memory in a manner ironic considering how the plot was all about amnesia, whether it be Arnie's corny one-liners or the likes of a triple-breasted whore (with no thanks to Douglas Adams) once Quaid gets off Earth. This bizarre tone, almost as if Verhoeven was goading the audience, "Come on, you don't really take this seriously, do you?!", marked out a film which many took against.
Elton John renamed it "Total Rubbish", anyway, and there were punters lining up to agree with him, as if Ahnold had gone too far this time, sure we could accept him gunning down countless anonymous bad guys in Commando without so much thought, but when it came to a film that presented that same scenario and coaxed you into seeing it both as mindless entertainment and a spoof of that simultaneously, a lot of viewers felt their intelligence was being insulted. But Verhoeven was a very intelligent man, which went some way to excusing the excesses as what Total Recall was actually about was a theme that would become more and more important as the decades went by.
That was the theme of wish-fulfilment, where the main character would be some ordinary schlub, albeit one who usually looked like a movie star, when suddenly they were plunged into a world of action, suspense and sexual gratification if you were lucky, as if to say to us plain old boring folks watching, hey, this could happen to you: you could have an adventure like James Bond or Spider-Man, it's not beyond your means. This democratisation of the movies where the heroes and heroines increasingly were previously unspectacular until something incredible occurred had its roots in comic books, and before that even Cinderella fairy tales, but it took characters like Sarah Connor in The Terminator to truly prove a goldmine for blockbusters - basically Quaid and company told you that you didn't have to know what you were doing to save the day.
Here, when Quaid goes into Rekall Inc hoping he'll get invented memories of a stay on Mars without having to shell out for an actual visit, and it's all going to plan until there's a malfunction and abruptly his best friend from work and his wife want to kill him, but he has no idea why. It turns out, and crucially we can believe as much of this as we like, that Quaid is not a construction worker but a top secret agent who has to negotiate many hurdles to reach his goal, except he's not entirely cognisant of what that goal could be. Cue a lot of grimacing from Schwarzenegger as he has to pull a tracking device from his nose, avoid being sucked out into a vacuum, and tap into his inner executioner as he finds a Mars full of injustice with mutants at the bottom of the social ladder and boo-hiss Ronny Cox the governor at the top, making a fortune from mining but diverting attention away from a fairer way to live. That Quaid changes all that is no surprise, but that's part of the joke: Verhoeven really should have done lots more with the reality bending Philip K. Dick source, but he did enough. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
[Studio Canal's DVD and Blu-ray have an audio commentary with Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven, a trailer, special effects featurette and a new interview with the director as extras - and the BD has even more.]
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.