Just because it made loads of money, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, and features a three-titted mutant doesn’t mean Total Recall isn’t ruggedly individualistic art. Just look at its outsider pedigree: Total Recall was loosely based on a 1966 short story from the flushed mind of Philip K. Dick, produced by the buccaneer Hungarian/Lebanese producers behind Carolco Pictures, and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch émigré who’d just profitably spoofed America’s security-industrial complex with 1987’s RoboCop.
Total Recall, set in a future where a colonized Mars is in open rebellion, begins on a poured-concrete Earth of 2084 (actually Mexico City). Schwarzenegger is Douglas Quaid, a solid-citizen construction worker in a still-steamy eight-year-old marriage to Lori (Sharon Stone). Nevertheless, Quaid dreams of the Red Planet and high adventure: “I feel like I was meant for something more than this,” he pines, and his daydreams lure him to Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting memories of thrilling vacations in people’s minds. Paying for the Martian “Secret Agent” package, the implant surgery knocks something loose in Quaid’s noggin—soon, he discovers he actually was a double agent named Hauser on Mars and is on the run from his old bosses, in the company of insurgent mutants and svelte freedom fighter Melina (Rachel Ticotin).
Or is all of this, in fact, in Quaid’s head? While delivering strawberry-jam squibs, Michael Ironside, and a score of unforgettable set pieces, Total Recall mocks precisely the audience wish-fulfillment that a blockbuster entertainment like itself satisfies. “What’s bullshit, Mr. Quaid?” asks a representative from Rekall who shows up in the middle of Quaid/Hauser’s fugitive run to call into question his perception of reality. “That you’re having a paranoid episode triggered by acute neuro-chemical trauma? Or that you’re really an invincible secret agent from Mars who’s the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he’s a lowly construction worker?”
This June, word arrived that funding for Verhoeven’s long-planned biopic, Jesus of Nazareth, was finally coming into place. The director outlined his approach to the material in a 2008 book of the same name, a secular rewrite of the Gospels that worked around the miracles.
Here is precisely the dichotomy at the heart of Verhoeven: He is a debunker who exuberantly confirms the intoxicating power of myth while he debunks. “[Verhoeven’s] Starship Troopers doesn’t mock the American military or the clichés of war,” the New Wave director Jacques Rivette said of Verhoeven in a 1998 interview, “that’s just something Verhoeven says in interviews to appear politically correct. In fact, he loves clichés, and there’s a comic strip side to Verhoeven.” Too true—and Verhoeven’s blissfully ambivalent Bang! Pow! artwork has never reached a higher level than it does here.