Total Recall is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” written at the peak of his genius in 1966, Total Recall was the first Dick adaptation after Blade Runner (although screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett had already bought the rights from Dick in the early 70s). Early on, David Cronenberg worked on the project for the better part of a year before it fell apart. Cronenberg says Shusett told him “You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, ‘No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger got on board later, and having seen RoboCop he contacted Paul Verhoeven about taking over. He was a hot director at that point, which helped with the budget. The project ended up with Carolco Pictures, an independent production company that had made its name on Rambo. They specialised in high-octane action films but with talented leads, and were happy to leave them alone after that. Schwarzenegger already had a relationship with them, and they had a respect for filmmakers that was rare for these kinds of genre films. (Unfortunately, Carolco later fell apart because of two huge flops—Verhoeven’s Showgirls, and Rennes Harlin’s Cutthroat Island).
The film is set in 2084 and centres on a construction worker, Douglas Quaid. He’s thinking of moving to Mars, but he keeps having these dreams about Mars and a dark-haired woman that are not exactly pleasant. He goes to REKALL Inc., where they promise to implant memories of Mars. Then something goes wrong, and Quaid thinks he’s a secret agent. Then this intergalactic adventure ensues that may start a rebellion on the Red Planet.
It’s one of Verhoeven’s better Hollywood films, but also one of the biggest movies he ever did, no doubt helped by Schwarzenegger’s involvement. At that point Schwarzenegger had eclipsed Stallone as the big action star. At that point he was also trying to do something slightly different than the big-muscle roles, so he was happy to be working with a director who was both successful and critically respected. By that point Dick had become enough of a name to also attract some attention—among other things, the cult of Blade Runner had finally taken off, with bootleg screenings of the workprint boosting a reappraisal.
Schwarzenegger has a lot more to do here than he normally does. He has to be somewhat of an Everyman—as much as anyone with that kind of physique can be (in the original story, Quaid was a menial office worker. Sharon Stone plays his wife, and is great in one of her first big roles. Michael Ironside is having a ball as the villain. He became Verhoeven’s lucky charm, and later appeared in Starship Troopers as well. There are loads of great character roles, including the three-breasted prostitute and little person prostitute, to the very Philip K. Dickian robot taxi driver who can only respond to precise instructions. It’s also a beautifully designed movie, made in that lovely period right before CGI came in. There’s fantastic model work, matte paintings, and special effects from expert Rob Bottin. The score from Jerry Goldsmith is also top-notch. And on top of that, it’s a thought-provoking, trippy, twisting PKDian blockbuster. I think it’s the only Dick story made into a sci-fi action-adventure that actually works, although it’s not a faithful adaptation it captures enough of Dick’s mind that it reflects both that and meets the action-centric audience. It has all the weird stuff you would imagine from Verhoeven as well.
The disc has a new 4K restoration that looks fantastic. It carries over the legendary commentary with Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger, which is memorably hilarious as he describes the action while you’re watching. There’s a featurette about the score, ad another about the development of the film. On the bonus disc you get Total Excess: How Carolco Changed Hollywood, an hour-long documentary, which includes interviews with Verhoeven and Oliver Stone. Three older featurettes and the trailer finish off the disc.