Total Recall (1990)

“You are not you, you’re me.”

Dir. Paul Verhoeven

Runtime: 113 minutes

Rating: 18

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside

This 1990 Paul Verhoeven film is inspired by the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”. I am a big fan of this action/sci-fi/thriller, and it is up there with my favourite Arnie films. When I first watched it was probably too young because it was considered a video nasty due to violence, sex, and graphic and mature content – but I was still able to follow the plot despite how young I was. Growing up and seeing other Paul Verhoeven films it fits well into the mold which the European director typically gives audiences.


In the future, Quaid (Arnie) is a construction worker who is happily married to Lori (Sharon Stone) – but he is not entirely happy. He feels that something is missing, or something about his life just isn’t right – he’s been experiencing reoccurring nightmares about a different life on Mars with a strange woman. Against the advice of his friends he decides to visit a company called Rekall Inc. who specialize in implanting memories into people, kind of like a virtual holiday. You can have the memory without going. He decides to buy a package which would see an adventure memory implanted, in which he is a secret agent on Mars with a brunette woman who has an athletic body and has a sleazy and demure personality. Before the procedure is complete, he flies into a rage where he rants that his cover has been blown. While the Rekall directors say it’s the secret agent package he’s ordered, the clinical staff say it can’t be because they haven’t started the procedure yet. The procedure that was going to happen has somehow awoken memories that were previously erased from him. His dumped in a Johnny-Cab with no memory of events. On his way back home, he is confronted by his work colleague who try to kill him, but he overpowers them. Furthermore, when he tells Lori she realises that his erased memories are returning, and she tries to kill him too. She is not really his wife, she is Richter’s wife (Michael Ironside), and Richter works for Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) – who ultimately wants Quaid dead. Quaid’s only choice is to escape. Thanks to a tip off, Quaid soon learns that he has been living a lie, and his being tracked. He does his best to lose the tail and then makes a run for Mars. On Mars he meets up with Melina (Rachel Ticotin) – the brunette woman who has an athletic body and has a sleazy and demure personality. He overcomes attempts to fool and capture him and is eventually taken to Kuato (Marshal Bell), a psychic who can read minds so wouldn’t be fooled if Quaid is a double double agent. Quaid has knowledge of Mars buried in his subconscious which could ruin the dictatorship which rules Mars, which is headed up by Cohaagen – who has been stalking him from the beginning, who had his memory wiped. Together with Melina, Quaid sets out on his mission – but is it all real, or is it all a construct of the implant from Rekall he had at the start of the film?

… or… here’s a summary in 180 characters or less…

Either Quaid is living out an implanted memory, or the implant attempt woke up his real memory. Only heading to Mars will help work out which.

This is a rip-roaring film with a fast pace which is full of blood, guts, twists, and turns. I find this to be a lot more ‘in-your-face’ than both Verhoeven’s and Arnie’s previous films – this is a proper assault on the scenes. Verhoeven has a way of making films look dirty and raw which is captured well here. Even his less sci-fi based films drip and ooze with nastiness and it certainly is the case here. The writing is great, and although there were reported to have been 40+ rewrites over the time the idea had been kicking around Hollywood, Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Brien (who both worked on “Alien” (1979)) do a really good job of writing a good story, and writing for the actors too.

Fun Fact: Arnie want liked the concept of “Total Recall” and helped it get made. The idea had been in Hollywood for a while but it seemed too far fetched and potentially expensive. He convinced Carolco Pictures Inc. to buy the rights to it from Dino De Laurentiis, who had previously failed to get the film into production with Bruce Beresford as director and Richard Dreyfuss or Patrick Swayze in the lead role. Arnie personally recruited Verhoeven who he was eager to work with. He was originally considered to star in “RoboCop” (1987), but issues with his size and the costume prevented it. Instead he got the opportunity to work with him here.

Arnie demonstrates a lot more range in this film than he has done previously, it almost feels like her previous films were practice for this. His action skills are tested, he’s given plenty of dialogue, he’s got some funny lines – but on top of that he’s tested because it’s the most confused and panicked he’s appeared on-screen so far. He isn’t just a action hero here, he’s also vulnerable and out of his depths for a large part of the film.

Fun Fact: Arnie was due to reprise his role from this film in the 2002 Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” (also based on a Philip K. Dick story). It was going to be “Total Recall 2: The Minority Report” but after 5 years of development Hell that never happened. Instead a separate “Minority Report” was released, and a “Total Recall” reboot with Colin Farrell was released in 2012.

Far from being an out-and-out Arnie film, the rest of the acting cast are great. Michael Ironside does a great job as Richter and comes across as a proper menace. That’s despite spending most of the film running around with a gun or stuck in a car. Rachel Ticotin holds her own and comes across as an authentic season action film star as Melina. Sharon Stone is outstanding as the double agent Lori who is married to Quaid. Her ability to flip from lovely and nice to psychotic in the same breath is one of the reason’s why Verhoeven wanted her for “Basic Instinct” (1992). Ronny Cox in the Cohaagen role is good corporate scumbag – a proper high-class pantomime villain for the piece. The extra’s all do well – from Marshall Bell (Kuato) to the Dean Norris (Tony), to Lycia Naff (Mary).

This film was one of the last in Hollywood to use filming techniques that overtly used miniature replicas to create sets, but also one of the first to start using CGI in a big way. As well as the clever camera or computer techniques, there was still room from plenty of good old fashioned practical effects. The “Johnny-Cab”, Tony with his mutated slime-face, Kuato the mutant psychic hidden under George’s shirt, Mary with her triple-nipples. Just as outstanding in the film is the everyday and the mundane. Verhoeven manages to make the future look dirty and bleak – fashion and the clothes people are wearing aren’t necessarily futuristic; the streets still have a mix between ruined slums and build-up lavish areas; medical procedures, construction tools, vehicles, guns – none of them are what we are led to believe would be part of the future. Instead of laser guns and jet packs, this is a future that is easily attainable to mankind. Technically the film was not just great but a standout in the early 1990’s, it made me sit up and pay attention – even if I was too young to be watching it.

This film isn’t for everybody. If you haven’t seen a Paul Verhoeven film before you might be a little shocked. If you haven’t got a stomach for violence and fast paced adventures then this won’t appeal. If you can’t suspend your disbelief for about 2 hours and not over-analyse everything, you probably won’t enjoy this science fiction.

I love this film and highly recommend it. I think it’s a great film, and possibly one of Arnie’s best. It often goes under the radar because of “The Terminator” and “Predator”, but I rate this up there with them. Not bad for a film that was jinxed and almost never happened.

I’m here for the party Richter!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 8/10

2 thoughts on “Total Recall (1990)”

  1. […] The films heart is in the right place – but for me it’s not a solid entry into either the Reitman or Schwarzenegger catalogue. Some people like it, but I’d happily skip this and rather watch a proper Reitman great like “Ghostbusters” (1984), or for Arnie, I’d sooner watch his other 1990 release of “Total Recall”. […]


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