Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest movie star that ever lived.
Yeah – you can talk about how Blah McBlah is a much better actor and the way they captured this or that particular moment brought you to the edge of tears. How Blah Blahington-Blah has the unique ability to completely inhabit the role to the extent that you even forget that you’re watching an actor at all – but instead just a pure slice of freshly picked real life. Or when Blah Blahy BlahBlah the Blah transported your soul to a brand new angelic dimension just by the way that they did that thing with their hands. But shut up. I don’t care. And because I know 100% that Arnie is the greatest and everyone else is just… scrambling for second place.
Yes yes yes of course we live in a society that likes to venerate the act of acting to the level of heart surgeon or high priest or university professor (actually LOL who am I kidding? The way we treat and think about actors is way way above those three fools) but I’ve never managed to get to the point where I was convinced. And it definitely loses a lot of power when you call it by it’s original name of – “pretending.” (Also: when you watch Team America World Police – but that’s a whole different story).
But anyway: Arnold Schwarzenegger = the greatest movie star that ever lived. Yes I know that he couldn’t act his way out of a bag of toffee and his most realistic role is when he pretended to be a killer robot from the future (sorry Lance Henriksen). Yes he has the most distinctive accent the world has ever seen and (to my knowledge) he has never managed to even hide it not even just a little tiny bit in any of the films he has ever been in (it’s best appearance = this TOTALLY awesome deleted scene from Terminator 3 that might just be my most favourite thing ever).
But all of these considerations are unimportant and besides the point (sorry / not sorry).
I mean – maybe once upon a time it was true that the most salient point of being a movie star was being good at pretending but if it’s the case – then why is it that every actor movie since forever basically plays exactly the same role? (I thought that maybe this was a recently phenomenon and that maybe back in the past actors were more free to do more acting – but then yeah: you’ve got your Cary Grants and your Charlie Chaplins etc) Doesn’t that give us reason to suggest that there’s something else going on here? Maybe we’re not looking for our movie stars to disappear into their roles – but rather the reserve? We don’t want Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lawrence or whoever to recede to the point where we no longer know who we’re looking at. If anything it’s the reverse: somekind of Zizek-type formulation about how it’s the very act of pretending to be someone else that makes them most into themselves. In attempting the act of camouflage they most reveal who they are. Or something.
Altho – that’s not even what I wanted to say. No. Forget what I just said. The really important thing about being a movie star is this: being looked at. I mean: that right there is what movies are all about and the very basic number one important attribute that every movie star needs – the ability to be looked at. To be projected up on to a giant scene many time larger than life and then to focus the attention of millions of people. This is why the majority of movie stars are really, really, ridiculously good looking. Because hey: people love to stare at good looking people right? That’s like their whole gift / but also their curse thing right there.
But Arnie? I mean – Arnie is kinda beyond that. Like I should admit up front that I have no real idea about what’s sexy and what’s not – but from what very little I can gather – Arnie isn’t really a sex symbol right? Like: he’s not so much a dream man – but more a kinda…. how should I put this…? A hallucination of one. An out-of-control fantasy. Almost approaching nightmare territory. Like: I can imagine waking up and finding myself lying next to a naked Jack Gyllenhaal or Brad Pitt to be kinda sexy… but waking up and finding myself next to a naked Schwarzenegger feels less like something sexy and more like something Cronenberg…
But still. But still. Take him out of my bed and put him up on the silver screen – and I’m completely and utterly transfixed. I mean: it’s not only his crazy science-fiction body (who was it that said it looked like “a condom stuffed with walnuts”?) but it’s also his infectious merry i-couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Like: there’s this anecdote Jim Carey tells in the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond about how he developed his famous stage persona and how after lying in his bed at night he realised that the one thing people wanted more than anything else was “not to care.” And more than any other person on Earth I can think – Schwarzenegger is the complete pinnacle / human manifestation of a seemingly carefree life. Like: if I could John Malkovich my way into his head (at his 80s/90s peak obviously) then everything would just be complete and utter bliss – right? I could smash through walls, fight alien creatures with my bare hands and harass poor Bill Paxton. It’s like living the dream / playing on a totally invulnerable setting etc. And reacting to everything that comes my way with the corniest, dopiest and most instantly recognizable laugh I’ve ever heard – HUR HUR HUR.
And that’s why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest movie star who ever lived.
But whoops – none of that is what I wanted to say. No. What I wanted to say was that Total Recall is probably the greatest action film that has ever existed.
When I was on holiday a few weeks I took a bunch of DVDs for us all to watch. Which you know – is a bit of an artform. Choosing stuff that everyone will like and no one will hate is a tricky proposition at the best times. But everyone kinda decided on Total Recall pretty quickly (I’m hopeful it’ll have the same effect here. Altho – hell: if you hate it with a passion then please write in and list all of the reasons why because I’d love to know….). Like I’m pretty sure that I watched it as a kid at some point because it kinda feels like one of those films that I’d always seen so much so that the thought of seeing it the first time just seems: a little bizarre. Like trying to remember the first time you drunk lemonade or something.
This might not shock anyone reading this: but I am a massive and complete Paul Verhoeven fan. Like his whole 80s excess sensibility has affected and effected me so many nefarious and diabolical ways that I’m not sure that I’ll ever fully understand them. Like: his view of the world is my view of the world. We live in a world of evil corporation and self-serving demons. If Donald Trump wasn’t actually a character in a Verhoeven film then well – he should have been.
Only in the list of Verhoeven films I was going to choose for this here Film Club my top choices were either Robocop or Starship Troopers. Because – well – you’ve seen them right? I mean – even Showgirls would be interesting to get into? (Is it really the misunderstood classic everyone seems to say it is? It’s been so long since I’ve seen it – I don’t even know). And Total Recall? I mean yeah sure – I guess its ok: but there’s not really all that much to talk about it – is there? I mean yeah ok: we can all quote the one-liners from it (altogether now: “See you at the party, Richter!”) but apart from that: there’s not really all that much there – right?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
I mean: it’s pretty obvious stuff but having watched it for like the tenth time or whatever I’m now convinced that Total Recall is probably the best indictment of Hollywood actions movies that I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. In a way that totally passed me by every other time I’ve watched it. And makes me want to do the chef-kissing fingers thing for pretty much every single scene. But erm you know what? I’m obviously written way too much already so I guess I should stop here and let someone else take over. And ha – if anyone wants to pre-empt me and say all the stuff that I want to say before I say it – then I would be totally cool with that.
And oh yeah – based on a Philip K Dick short story! So there’s that too.
Get your ass to Mars. etc.
Oh – no takers?
Ok then. Here’s why Total Recall is the best indictment of The Hollywood Action Movie that I’ve ever had the pleasure to see… (please forgive me if this sounds totally obvious ok?).
This is the thing – the first few times I watched Total Recall I just considered it to be a badass Arnie action-er. Like I read bits of this recent v sad Johnny Depp interview (The Trouble With Johnny Depp) and there’s this bit that leapt out at me:
He chafed against playing the standard, dashing Hollywood hero. An adviser yelled at him when he took the title role in Ed Wood. “The guy told me, ‘Johnny, it is not about you doing black-and-white movies about a cross-dressing, D-movie director – it’s about fucking the girl and carrying the gun,’ ” Depp says. “ ‘You need to fuck the girl, and you need to carry a gun.’ ”
Like: that’s basically the most succinct way I’ve ever heard it put. The adviser is not wrong you know? A girl and a gun is what people want. And fuck you know: in Total Recall that’s what Arnie does. Plus he gets to kill a girl with a gun. And beat the bad guys. And save a bunch of underdogs. And atctivate an alien machine. And bring oxygen to Mars. All in days work. etc.
And yeah all of that memory-implant stuff – I mean: that’s just how the story gets started right? Plus hell you know: it’s got that Philip K Dick coolness to it – right?
For me that’s the first stage of watching Total Recall (I call this – the naive stage). You just enjoy all the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and all the crazy stuff it does all heads. But yeah: it’s just a dumb movie and don’t think about it too much – right? Obviously it’s the movie that Verhoeven just took for the paycheck and because he wanted to make friends with Arnie and hang out on Mars or whatever.
Oh my god I love this photo (how can you not?)
Then there’s the second stage – (which I guess you could call the Christopher Nolan stage if you really wanted to? I don’t know – or something else whatever) when you start to think – wait a second… maybe it’s all ambiguous? (Waves arms in a mysterious way). I mean – maybe it’s just a coincidence that Recall had the Mars Secret Agent programme waiting on its books… That last line (“I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?”) and the guy selling it to jim being all “I don’t wanna spoil it for you, Doug. Just rest assured, by the time the trip is over, you get the girl, you kill the bad guys, and you save the entire planet.” And oh yeah Melina being on the screen is just a glitch or something…
You know…. this bit:
Oh – and of course let’s not forget this guy….
And this bit in particular:
QUAID All right. Let’s say you’re telling the truth, and this is all a dream…
Realizing something, Quaid raises his gun to Edgemar’s head.
QUAID (CONT’D) Then I can pull this trigger, and it won’t matter.
LORI Doug, don’t! Edgemar remains preternaturally calm. His eyes and voice express his unselfish concern for Quaid.
EDGEMAR It won’t make the slightest difference to me, Doug, but the consequences to you would be devastating. In your mind, I’ll be dead. And with no one to guide you out, you’ll be stuck in permanent psychosis.
LORI Doug, let Dr. Edgemar help you.
Finger on the trigger, Quaid is torn with doubt.
EDGEMAR The walls of reality will come crashing down. One minute you’ll be the savior of the rebel cause, then, next thing you know, you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy. You’ll even have ridiculous fantasies about alien civilizations–as you requested. But in the end, back on Earth…You’ll be lobotomized.
I mean – hell – in case you haven’t got it by now all of this is waaaaaaay too on the nose for it just be a coincidence you know? I mean ok yeah sure: you can say that oh Edgemar obviously knew that Quaid and Cohaagen used to be friends and about the alien machines and stuff – but none of that is kinda the point you know?
No. Because the third stage (Total Understanding?) isn’t just realising that there’s actually quite a few very non-subtle signs that the whole thing was a dream (I can hear the groaning from here): as with nearly all things – it’s going further and realising what that means.
Like: once you stop to think about it and you view the film with the “This is all just a fantasy” lens on – it actually makes the film make more sense. Like: isn’t it funny how Arnie keeps getting into all of this thrilling situations where it seems as if certain death is around the corner and yet somehow – somehow – he always manages to turn it around and find way out? For most of us – if there was a giant piece of drilling equipment bearing down on us – we would scream and then die. But Quaid manages to kill the guy with the freaky hand – do a quip – and then: oh – it turns out now there’s a hole that leads them to the thing they’d been looking for… Well. That sure was a fortuitous turn of events… I mean if this isn’t “permanent psychosis” then it’s sure is something awfully similar…
Of course of course – the obvious rejoinder to this is: but this is what all movies are like! What was it that Johnny Depp advisor said again? Oh yeah: “You need to fuck the girl, and you need to carry a gun.”
Like: shit – I don’t know. But maybe there’s a subtle point being made here about how this made-for-measure power fantasy for a bored construction worker (“We call it the Ego Trip”) is completely identical to the plot of every single action movie ever made? Almost as if the movie was working as a critique of itself. Like a cake that says cake is bad for you (maybe it spells it out in the icing or something?). Which yeah – I don’t know about you: but kinda strikes me as some sorta next-level genius / deviousness / whatever.
In fact: there’s a part of me that’s convinced that actually when you stop to think about it – the whole frigging movie is the Ego Trip. That is to say: we never even see the real Douglas Quaid (now lobotomized back on Earth) and if we did see him – he would look nothing like Arnold Schwarzenegger (and he certainly wouldn’t be married to someone who looked like Sharon Stone).
The whole movie is the fantasy.
But then of course – that’s what all movies are.
[FADE TO WHITE]
Oh the delicious ironing, amid current concern that comics have taken over cinema, the 80s has managed to sneak off with producing dozens comic book like movies, many now hailed as classics, while sidestepping the debate almost entirely.
Aliens, Flash Gordon, Robocop, Working Girl they all take fantasy and then keep layering on the dessert with more and more ideas, with the sort of manic fear that the audience won’t come back for the next 15 minutes. If Judge Dredd showed up in Total Recall he would feel right at home. These films prove that when people showed up moaning about Kevin Feige, they hadn’t realised comics had triggered the takeover 35 minutes beforehand.
Maybe that narrative arms race was because of the recent advent of VHS where films really did need their audience coming back for more. Certainly the start of my film education was the video collection of my childminder’s 18 year old son. It included Ghostbuster’s, The Fly, Back to the Future; Top Gun and dozens of other classics. By classics I mean the sort of films that you would expect an 18 to buy in video and a 10 year old to devour over and over every summer holiday day for 3 years. Not to mention the films that I had heard about from others, including Aliens, Predator, The Running Man and Total Recall. High concept films that you heard just enough about to whet your appetite – The Terminator but on Mars!
These films had adventure, a bit of gore, not much sex (and if they did I didn’t really understand it), not much about relationships, and I think were almost all entirely male led, and were super super fun. They were also what I understood to be the default standard for films, setting me up for a resulting hockey stick curve of disappointment as I started seeing new films. The first film I took myself to see at the cinema was Gremlins 2 having enjoyed Gremlins dozens of times, I was very excited for more of the same, but of course also expecting it to be superior to the original as no doubt the creators would have the benefit of hindsight to build something even better. OK so The New Batch wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad, I told myself, no doubt Ghostbusters 2 would be good, Goldeneye, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3 [weeping emoji].
Oh well back to those 80s films I’d heard so much about and Total Recall (ok 1990 but whatever) delivers way more than you expect based on it’s synopsis. Indeed it’s a full meal. When I saw it around 1994 Arnie was a box office behemoth in full True Lies mode, deserving of all the praise Joel gives him as unstoppable force of nature which could drive films forward. Indeed when you think how well the films plot drives itself forward with an actual dream machine, an interplanetary revolution, pseudo-fascistic corporations, adding Arnie as well is like plot development rocket fuel. Who cares what happens in this film? It just all has to roll forward at high speed with meteorite certainty.
So naturally your boring lazy hack, idea-ruining director, let’s call him Joe Wright, faced with this concept and star power would just dress the set and let events unfold, collecting his awards on the way to the next gig. However Verhoeven just refuses to make Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars, despite that being the original brief. He is like one of those singers who start to sneak in double entendres into songs just because they can’t help themselves. I can barely remember the plot, all I can remember is that this films is so grimy. Everything is gross, everyone is gross. Sharon Stone is the only conventionally pretty character (although looking back this is one of the few movies where Arnie looks pretty good) and she is evil, indeed as you generally find in Verhoeven’s worlds almost no one is actual good, they are all highly suspect and untrustworthy characters. Indeed on Mars you can’t even trust the air. It’s an amazing antidote to the bloodless tedium served up under the banner of action sci fi in the mid 90s (although of course Stargate inspired three spin off TV series. THREE!)
One of the criticisms of the Star Wars prequels was that they were too clean. The original Star Wars was a dusty junkyard and full of ugly aliens who didn’t like you either. Verhoeven takes that to a great extreme with an excellent range of freaks and misfits, an innovation which Star Wars has largely left behind, despite the fact Chewbacca is the best character. If anything the diversity is almost too interesting, and drags the focus away from Arnie. This is not a criticism, this what I expect from a Verhoeven film and should really expect from sci-fi. It shouldn’t be too much to expect films set in other galaxies to vary slightly from endless ranks of humanoids and usually just boring humans. In China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, the main character’s love interest is a scarab, admittedly a vaguely humanoid one, but still he’s fucking a beetle. Although it has a few problems, I give that whole Bas-Lag series all the praise it’s due for making freaks part of the social fabric. The answer to the question what makes a film science fiction has to be more than “its got space ships and laser guns”. Don’t get me wrong I love spaceships and laser guns, but that is 1960s technology. It’s not sci-fi any more and I want to actually see (yeah Bladerunner 2049) a fucked up society on an Offworld Colony where everyone is a mutant! Indeed not even sci-fi, I want Verhoeven to adapt Gladiator, but where the Gladiators are 10 foot tall gorgons stalking the streets of Rome as society crumbles around them.
I’m gonna rewatch the film soon, and then ignore any observations from that and go on an excessive rant about films which [spooky voice] make you question the reality your presented with [wiggles fingers in the air like a bad magician].
I really like Joel’s point that the two-track interpretation (is it real or is it a dream?) can become a self-reflexive critique of American action films. That kind of having your cake and eating it is a presence in Starship Troopers as well, which glories in fascist imagery and emotions but blows them up so large it starts to feel like a piss-take. Showgirls as well is supposed to be a skin flick so ridiculous it makes you think about the vapidity and tawdriness of American entertainment. The only issue I guess is that the critique is never that cutting, because Verhoeven is very open about loving all the gore and guns and tits in his films. The irony is just a by-product of his style and sensibilities. He can’t make serious statements about sexual objectification or capitalist commodification because he’s complicit in it. I suspect his attitude is one of bemusement – isn’t it weird what all these people seem to like at the cinema, let’s poke that weirdness a little bit – rather than Haneke-esque disapproval.
My DVD of the film has an interesting interview with Verhoeven where he talked about how he got the gig after Robocop but was still trying to prove himself. He’s very open about how Schwarzenegger was quite a bad actor, but had an incredible work-ethic, and would just do take after take until he nailed the performance. Most importantly, it seems like the reality-dream conceit in the last third of the film was his own idea, but it was done to inject some tension or mystery into the film, which would otherwise just be a series of ridiculous action set-pieces. It’s to his credit that he didn’t settle for that. He made the film more interesting than it needed to be.
Last week I reread the short story that Total Recall is based on – We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by the luminous Philip Kindred Dick.
I’ve been a fan of PKD ever since I was a kid. The Fopp near my university used to sell his novels for like £5 a pop or something and so I used to treat myself to one every term or so. Of course the open secret with PKD novels is that they all start with the biggest rush in the world with one crazy idea that turns into another crazy idea that then flips over to an even crazier idea: like a rollercoaster built on top of a rollercoaster on top of another rollercoaster. But then – alas! – by the end pretty much all of them would peter away into somekind of disappointment. Like a magician that starts with a million dollar laser light show where they flip the London Eye upside down and then end with a card trick… (sigh).
But his short stories? Oh man oh man. That was where he did all of his best work. Like intricate thought experiments. Worlds in miniature. Where the only limit is his drab prose style (lol).
(Brief side note: The opening of Total Recall in particular gave me the biggest PKD feeling. Just the whole normal eating breakfast with the wife in your crazy future-tinged apartment feels like a very PKD kinda thing).
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale tho… was never one of his better ones. Like: it starts off just like Total Recall (which is good) but then ends up in this kinda fairy tale place talking about a childhood experience with aliens and invisible rods and stuff. Like reading it as a teenager – I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t cool or exciting it was just… a little odd and kinda throwaway? And the story with the evil red butterflies from outside time was just way way cooler 🙂
I’m gonna copy and paste the plot summary from the wikipedia page just because it’ll make things way easier…. basically the first half is the same but then this happens:
With his memories returned, the armed men appeal to Quail to surrender, but Quail, with his abilities awakened as well, fights them, but flees, threatening to kill them should they follow. Wondering what to do, Quail’s former commanders suddenly speak to him through the telepathic transmitter. Quail suggests going through another mind-wipe, but his commanders state that he will just get bored with his life and go to Rekal again or try to go to Mars. Quail comes up with another idea, to remove his current memory of being an assassin and implant a new and amazing memory of something exciting. His commanders agree, feeling that it is their obligation to help their former assassin.
Quail turns himself in and is placed with a psychiatrist to figure out what his own personal desires are: When he was young, Quail always envisioned that as a child he came across minuscule aliens that were going to launch a full invasion of Earth with their superior technology. However, Quail was so kind and accepting to the aliens that they decided to hold off on their invasion as long as he was alive. While finding the fantasy narcissistic, his commanders agree to plant the memories at Rekal. To everyone’s shock, those memories turn out to be real as well. The aliens had suppressed Quail’s memories of them, and given him a weapon that he had used while an assassin. McClane realizes that Quail will probably get a real citation from the UN, instead of the fake that Rekal was to have provided.
But yeah I read it again last week and well: on first glance had the same kinda let-down experience / this is nowhere as good as the film. Like: it kinda felt a bit like a PKD novel you know? Coolness at the start and then this kinda eye-rolling twist at the end…
But I kinda rolled it around in my mind a little and realised that actually – maybe it’s not as bad as it first appeared and how actually WCRIFYW and Total Recall are a lot more similar than they first appear. Like in the short story – PKD doubles-down on Quail’s narcissism with him saving the world from alien invasion while the film does exactly the same thing but plays it out in a ever-so slightly different way (saving Mars using the alien technology etc). But in both cases the trajectory is the same – from ordinary guy to super-spy to saviour of the world. And even if Total Recall manages to dress it up in different (cooler) clothes – it’s still an adolescent power fantasy. Which yeah I dunno – kinda seems pretty cool to me? Again – maybe giving Verhoeven way too much credit here: but it’s a cool thing when even the interplay between the source material and the film can enrich both – no?
Altho saying that – I watched Basic Instinct for the first time this week (Daisy Steiner voice: “It was research!”) and wow – I can’t work out if it’s a smart film pretending to be stupid or a stupid film pretending to be smart. Either way: watching it wasn’t really exactly fun.
Which LOL – brings me to Ilia’s point about Verhoeven versus Haneke. Like in the nicest possible way I would strongly disagree with this statement right here: “He can’t make serious statements about sexual objectification or capitalist commodification because he’s complicit in it” which only seems like a serious point if you don’t think about it too much: but you know – on closer reflection just seems to be of the same nature of the type of thinking that goes “you can’t criticize Capitalism when you live in Capitalism” or whatever – when you know: the opposite is true: the things you are most invested in are the things you need to be most critical of – no?
And yeah: Basic Instinct notwithstanding – give me a Verhoeven film over a Haneke one any day of the week. Because erm (and no small thing this): Verhoeven films are actually fun to watch. While Haneke it seems only makes films for people who already agree with what he says. (And they’re boring too).
Also I agree with everything Jonathan wrote. Especially the part about how everything in Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars is all so completely gross. Like the very interesting thing watching it compared to Basic Instinct is how everything in Basic Instinct looks kinda silky and refreshing and airy and nice like a… well… like a softcore 90s porn film almost while Total Recall yeah: it’s like the contrast has been pushed up as far as it can go so that every mise-en-scene looks like it was puked through a gainy VHS tape.
I love it.
Oh. And just found this which is rather interesting….
It is widely known that Dan O’Bannon (co-screenwriter with Ronald Shusett) was never happy with the ending of ‘Total Recall’ as filmed – the Martian machine creating a breathable atmosphere in thirty seconds flat.
He felt it had no thematic connection with Phil Dick’s concept of memory implants – as outlined in the source story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’.
What is less known is exactly what O’Bannon’s original concept actually was.
In a typically candid interview with Cinefantastique magazine (April 1991) O’Bannon revealed his concept …
“That wasn’t supposed to be a three-fingered Martian handprint [on the machine]. That was supposed to have been a print of [Quaid’s] hand which matched only his hand. Quaid, Earth’s top secret agent, went to Mars and entered this compound. The machine killed him and created a synthetic duplicate. He is that synthetic duplicate. He cannot be killed because he can anticipate danger before it happens. He is also omnipotent and because he cannot be killed, Earth wants to kill him but cannot. That’s why they go to all the trouble to erase his brain to make him think he’s nobody. It’s the only way they can control him. Audiences don’t question it when movie heroes go through adventures and don’t get killed. I thought it was clever to actually have a reason for it. At the end of the picture, Quaid puts his hand on the device and it all comes back to him, who he really is. His total recall of his identity is that he is a creation of a Martian machine. He is, in effect, a resurrection of the Martian race in a synthetic body. He turns and says to all the other characters, ‘It’s gonna be fun to play God’”
For some reason, O’Bannon’s co-writer Ron Shusett didn’t go for this idea and decided instead to employ the rather hokey ‘Mars gets an atmosphere’ finale.
It was at this point O’Bannon parted company with ‘Total Recall’.
Writing structure seems to me to be very difficult and a classic get out is of course the “it was all a dream/illusion/computer simulation/mental breakdown/hallucination/magic wardrobe” and the variant “is it all a dream?” [waggles fingers in the air] which has a nice affect of leaving the character (and audience) in limbo.
It’s solves all of the problems Joel talks about because yes in a dream random and fortuitous and unlikely things will just happen. A key implausibility around action movies is that all events flow through one chosen person but dreams are supposed to be centred around a main character, so it’s at least tidier.
Speaking of the Chosen One, the thing that the bead of sweat sequence reminded me of was the Buffy episode Normal Again where the main character wakes up and is told that Sunnydale, the vampires, the whole slayer deal is just a feverish delusion, which she can only break free from if she kills all her “imaginary” friends. She is forced to choose boring reality versus Buffy reality. The episode then closes on the “boring reality” rather than Sunnydale, giving us the clever “wait is this made up thing all made up” pay off. Much like – and possibly heavily cribbed from – Total Recall.
The “is it all a dream?” question also acts as a very convenient continuity get out of jail card because in dream world internal inconsistency is a feature not a bug. If I wanna have a reoccurring dream about unicorns then I bloody well will, you’re not the boss of me Philip K Dick!
But what is the difference between the universes of Total Recall and Starship Troopers? The only difference I can tell is that due to the absence of this plot device Paul Verhoeven has to sit down and figure out the socio-economics of his futuristic world with a bit more care. Indeed this care gets lots of cool little details about the fascist society of Starship Troopers, where as the world of Total Recall is oddly realised. Like hologram tech is a *thing* yet hired goons troops are fooled by it twice. Although have to give credit to the wet towel joke which is quite funny and prescient “OMGZ the government can use the internets to track my every move… as long as I don’t stand in the 4G dead zone in my house.”
The ending of The Truman Show is an interesting slant on this – yes it’s terrifying to think our whole lives are a lie, a construct being watched for the entertainment of millions of people, but then the upside is that Truman gets to simply knock on the edge of the universe and be led through to a different life where he is an important celebrity. The film even cuts to adoring fans hanging on his every adventure.
Speaking of narcissism I used to live in China as a diplomat and you assume (and are repeatedly told) that you are being constantly watched and it does get to you. But then when I stopped to think if I was being followed, I felt sorry for whichever poor bastard had to put up with my achingly dull existence. To be the most minor celebrity with an audience of one, and to think I may be pathetic but I am not the one spending my life watching a pathetic person try to buy mature cheddar in a Beijing supermarket.That’s the joke from Total Recall (similar to the joke in the Shining now I think of it), the darkest ending Verhoeven can think of is -what if Quaid/Arnie was just the same as the gormless mouth breathers who pay to watch a film like this? Ouch.
Now can we also take a moment to remember how great the sound track is? “The Dream” (that’s right the opening credits music is called The Dream fs) has gone straight on to the commute playlist.
Wow. This is really cool. And not just because you managed to mention The Truman Show aka Probably My Most Favourite Movie of All Time aka The Best PKD Movie Not Based On a PKD Book Which is Actually a Pretty PKD Thing In Itself If You Stop to Think About It.
(see also: Spotless Mind, Eternal Sunshine of).
We could / should go The Truman Show as a Film for the Film Club but I reckon it could get pretty embarrassing as I reckon all I’d be able to write is “I love it I love it I love it” ten thousand times before I ran out of steam….
The thing I’ve only just realised reading what Jonathan wrote tho is that for all their “escape the system” programming Total Recall, The Matrix and The Truman Show are all pretty similar in how they construct realities (dream / virtual reality / secret TV show) where the protagonist is the most important character in it. And yeah – even tho all three of them might affect a pretty skeptical stance to the idea – it’s still having it’s cake and eating the cake at exactly the same time. I mean – yeah we’re all gormless mouth breathers sitting there in the dark like schmucks but in that magical place between when the “This is to certify that THIS FILM has been classified for cinema exhibition” screen comes up and the credits finally start to roll – we’re invited to forget ourselves and for a brief period be Arnie, Neo or Truman etc: to live their lives and for a brief shining instance – exist at the centre of the universe. And even tho we’re just one more member of the pack of adoring fans hanging on their every adventure thanks to whatever spiritual osmosis or alchemy it is – we’re also the one being adored.
But – ha! – of course: it’s just another trap. I mean: I hope it won’t be too shocking to say that we’re all living in a culture of conceited narcissists who have all be trained to think and act as if they’re the main character in a movie that’s all about them. And as much as it pains me to admit it – but the Total Matrix Shows are probably the worst offenders of that propensity you know?
That’s kinda what I like about ensemble movies like Traffic, Contagion and Syriana et al you know? It kinda breaks down the idea of their being one protagonist and everything swirling around that one person. And instead it creates a world where everyone is swirling around everyone. And – LOL – this totally is not where I expected to end up when I started writing this – but maybe the God Damn Marvel Movies are one of the possible means of escape from the solipsistic mindset? You know – a world where every character is the main character in their own franchise. Which I don’t know – could be a step in the right direction? Maybe? Hopefully?
Wikipedia says that the sequel to Total Recall eventually became Minority Report (which as everyone knows is based on another Philip K Dick story), and the development of trying to link and then decouple these PKD short stories is interesting. However following on from my previous point of Verhoeven not fleshing out the details, while of course we all celebrate the liberation of the people of Mars from Oxygen shortages, presumably the sequel to Total Recall should be the counter-revolutionary Earth army reclaiming their colony. Yes you lose the Philip K Dick “is it all a false memory” stuff (or do you?) but then you have fertile ground for other stories.
Searching for a way to resist the overwhelming Earth forces, Arnie and the rebels explore the Alien tech even further, and given that it is an Arnie movie, that means that the Aliens left some really really big guns. Maybe they also adapted Mars (or Jupiter!) to be some sort of Deathstar mega-cannon, or left a Terracotta warrior underground army. Basically in mind TR2 Mars becomes a Laputa style galactic warship. Turning the tables on Earth Arnie ascends to the throne of the new Earth-Mars Imperium as their new leader, as a he broods in front of his minions, a man walks up to him with a briefcase. TWIST the case contains a video from Hauser who tells him this was his plan all along. And credits.
I’ve just read the plot of the remake and they don’t even go to Mars (apparently they go to Australia?!) so maybe I’m the only person who thought the Mars bit was cool. Weirdly it reminds me that when I watched Bladerunner, I assumed the plot would take us to the Offworld colonies and it never delivered. I like the fact that Total Recall doesn’t fuck around showing you how Quaid get to Mars, he just gets there and the action carries on.
One of the reasons I am going on about this is because I feel like Mars is under-explored. There was some really good world building but there just wasn’t enough of the actual world. I am assuming because generally speaking Verhoeven’s target is really America (such biting satire). The bonus of course that by refusing to dwell too much on space travel and Off-world stuff the third act of the film keeps focus on Quaid and shifts along at ridiculous speed and drivers a nice crunchy conclusion. To be fair to Verhoeven he did come back to looking at strange incompressible creatures inhabiting a barren lawless wasteland far from civilisation, but it has to be said the Alien worldbuilding in Showgirls is also skimmed over much to briefly my liking.
This post was created by our Film Club email list.
If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Film Club” to here.