Tidings from the Crew – total recall (1990) movie review – It’s Sci-Fi Month!

Ahoy there mateys!  I am not a big movie watcher and thus have never reviewed a movie here at the Captain’s Quarters.  I blame this review on Matey Cupcakes and Machetes who did a list of top 5 favourite sci-fi movies.  On it was the movie total recall (1990) which I had a) never seen and b) wasn’t sure I had even heard of it or just plain forgot about it’s existence.  I happened to ask the First Mate what he knew about it (as he has seen practically every movie of the 80s and 90s) and he launched into a spiel about the movie and the Phillip K. Dick short story it be based on.  He was excited enough about it to find a copy on Prime and request that we watch it that weekend.  I have to admit that I was curious and so I acquiesced to his request.  Then because it be sci-fi month, I ordered asked him to write a review because a movie being based on a short story counts on a book blog right?  So you get one from me and a bonus additional review from me crew.  Please note that I write like I talk and the first mate writes like he thinks.  Hope you enjoy!

Side note: No movie plot here from me and there will be spoilers.  I will assume that everyone else previously saw this movie.  Also Sci-Fi Month is hosted by Matey Lisa of Dear Geek Place and Matey Imyril of One More.  Check out their blog links for more info and join the fun!

From the Captain:

While I did actually enjoy the total recall experience, let’s get the biggest flaw out of the way.  Arnold being the main actor.  Outside of a childhood fondness for the original terminator movie and the very-bad-but-inescapably-compelling-to-kid-sister-and-me kindergarten cop movie (that I haven’t seen since), I really think Arnold sucks.  He worked as a robot in the terminator movie.  Perhaps I can blame liking the cop movie on the cute ferret.  Funny that both kindergarten cop and total recall came out in 1990.

After complaining endlessly to the First Mate about me Arnold hatred and how I would have preferred anyone else, he and I did have a fun discussion about who we would cast instead.  The lead contenders to replace Arnold would have been Michael Douglas Tom Selleck, Keifer Sutherland, Robert Downey Jr., or heck even crazy Kevin Costner.  It also would have been fun to see Wesley Snipes play the Ritcher character even if I have no complaints about Michael Ironsides acting in the movie at all.

Actually I thought almost all of the other actors in the film were great.  I absolutely loved Sharon Stone as a kick ass undercover agent.  Apparently this be me first Sharon Stone movie !?!  I had never seen her act before.  The best scene in the movie was with Roy Brocksmith and Sharon Stone trying to get Arnold, I mean Douglas Quaid, to take the pill.  The cab driver, Benny, was brilliant and I thought that Mel Johnson Jr. showed the dualism of the character to great effect.  He was me favourite of the film by a slim margin.

The story itself has great structure in general and I thought that the beginning in particular was super fun.  I loved the focus on memory and what it means and how it works.  I really did like the costume and set designs.  I thought the special effects were wicked awesome considering the time period.  I really do sometimes miss non-CGI special effects.  Though even the bad special effects like the glacier’s oxygen volcano and the Mars painted backdrops kinda made me happy.  I also enjoyed the mutant costumes even if the mutants themselves really didn’t play enough of a role in the plot.  And I adored the Johnny Cabs and thought those were the best “modern” technology in the movie.  The scene destructing a Johnny Cab was fantastic.

The biggest flaw, besides Arnold, be the buildup to the ending.  Once the secret tunnel and resistance subplots come in, the plot starts to die.  The alien technology really made no sense but I was still having fun with the story up until Benny’s death and the Cohaagen showdown started.  The movie became ludicrous and made me roll me eyes.  I know it be a 90s movie but seriously why are endings so hard to do in both movies and books?  The First Mate and I came up with lots of easy ways to fix the plot holes and the ending in a 15 minute brainstorming session.  Four major things to fix in the ending alone: having the mutants helping defeat the big bad, the bad science of faces melting off only to magically be better once super heated radioactive oxygen was released, the lame-o fist fights at the end, and of course the alien substructure being turned on with a single human handprint via dramatic slow-motion filming.  I could keep going but ye get the gist.

I can see why the movie was popular though I don’t believe I would watch it again cause I really do hate Arnold’s acting that much.  Also I did not know that the total recall movie spawned a DC comic, a video game, and a novelization by Piers Anthony of all people.  Arrrr!

From the First Mate:

Perhaps the oddest thought that occurs from revisiting Total Recall nearly thirty years after its initial release is, “that could’ve used way more Sharon Stone.” Indeed, much of the movie feels as though there is a better, more interesting film mostly obscured by curious choices and splatterpunk action sensibilities.  Which is not to impugn splatterpunk (Verhoeven’s earlier Robocop being a prime example of splatterpunk action taken to a sublime degree), only to say that most of those sensibilities seemed to work at odds to the themes and plot in general of the film.

There is a lot to like in the 1990 Total Recall.  The special effects are still incredibly impressive, especially when the time period is considered.  Reported at the time to have one of the highest special effects budgets of all time, most of the money appears to be very well spent.  The Martian vistas are absolutely lovely. The futuristic tech that pops up here and there feels both interesting and lived in (gotta love the Johnny Cab).  And the design of the Rekall memory uploaders is both impressive and dystopic.

Likewise, the acting is in general as good as one would expect from a late 80s sci-fi action film.  While the Captain wasn’t impressed by Arnold, I thought he did a fine job of differentiating Quaid from Hauser.  Michael Ironside seemed to enjoy playing the smarmiest of smarmy heavies and looking suitably cowed when dealing directly with Ronnie Cox taking his Dick Jones character to eleven.  And Sharon Stone proving that she really missed out on taking her career in an action star direction (if the roles had existed back then, she could’ve been the Scarlett Johansson of the 90s).  The Captain was particularly amused by Mel Johnson Jr as Benny the cab driver. My personal favorite being the late Roy Brocksmith stealing the movie for five minutes and convincing everyone that Total Recall is really a metatextual examination of the nature of reality.

Total Recall only really works when it’s sci-fi elements exist as setting.  As said, it’s really a splatterpunk action film, complete with bone crushing fist fights and squibs that positively detonate during every shootout.  And yet, fundamentally it’s a film about the nature of memory, reality, and what it means to be an individual. The film raises the question of “if all we have of the past are the memories in our head, how does the ability to alter those memories change what we understand about reality,” but ultimately doesn’t do anything with it.  The settings both on Earth and Mars are presented as fairly dystopic and paranoic (as one expects in a work derived from a Philip K Dick story), but one is left feeling that changing the setting to something akin to the aesthetics of the Fifth Element world wouldn’t have fundamentally altered anything. Sometimes it feels as though Quaid is really just John Matrix from the Commando movie in different environs.

I don’t think that anyone involved in making Total Recall were really interested in making a Dickian mindbender of a film, and that’s okay.  The elements that they pulled from “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” provided a sufficient framework into which they were able to tell a story where Arnold’s Quaid could get down to the business of killing people and saving the world.  That there are many interesting loose ends strewn throughout the film doesn’t negate the fact that it largely succeeds at what it was trying to do. I can fault the filmmakers for have less lofty ambitions than I would’ve liked, but I also have to admit that I greatly enjoyed the product that they ended up producing.  Still, it could’ve used more Sharon Stone.


35 thoughts on “Tidings from the Crew – total recall (1990) movie review – It’s Sci-Fi Month!

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Total Recall either… because much like you, I’m not a big fan of Arnold (sorry Arnie!). Coincidentally, I watched the original Predator movie this weekend, which I had never seen before.

    Also- if you like Sharon Stone- please go watch Michael Crichton’s Sphere! If I’m remembering correctly, she’s the lead in it, and the movie was a lot of fun… though I haven’t seen it in quite some time.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. She’s the lead! Definitely check it out. I’ve seen it like a hundred times.

        As for Predator… it wasn’t bad. I prefer less lasers I think, with “scary” science fiction movies. They just looked kind of corny in the 80s/90s lol. And there was a scene where Arnold is covered in mud so suddenly Predator’s thermal imaging couldn’t see him… I was mentally screaming “that’s not how mud works!” Anyway- it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either, and I have admittedly bad taste in movies.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember when I first learned of its existence and found it sad that Arnold was the lead actor, considering that I too don’t think the dude can act to save a cat. However, I have him at the top of my list of actors who are so bad that it’s funny. Thanks for the great reviews though, I’ll know what to expect. I am curious about the 2012 movie too though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an intriguing trip down Memory Lane! And it’s kind of funny that it happens through a movie focused on memories… 😉 . True, Schwarzenegger might not be great actor material – he does work better as a robotic Terminator, indeed – but since I could not stomach more than half an hour of the reboot featuring Colin Farrell (and not being able to stomach the actor as well…), I still vote for good, old Schwarzy 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have watched and enjoyed both versions of Total Recall – but there is something special about the earlier one. And I’m not going to claim that Arnie is a great actor – but he has SOMETHING. However, I do agree that the film could have done with more Sharon Stone. I was really quite sorry when she died…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We have discussed it but Colin Farrell is another majorly disliked actor on me end. The first mate has watched part of it and didn’t bother to finish. So it be a pass. But we did like watching and reviewing the original together so we may do another post like this in the future.
      x The Captain


  5. Have you read We Can Remember It For You Wholesale? I looked it up shortly after watching the 2012 Total Recall (which I enjoy, but doesn’t feel quite the same as the 1990 Total Recall). It’s a really interesting short story, and they used just enough of it in the movie that I thought I knew where the short story was going… until I didn’t. It was a neat comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love these reviews!! I love Total Recall, and I saw it back when it came out, in the theater. Today it’s cheesy and the effects are pretty bad, but back then it was a blockbuster 😁 And yeah, Arnold. What can you say? After his stint as Governor of California, it’s hard not to love him, at least for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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