Published on November 6th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Because You’ve Seen Total Recall So Many Times
Another reader suggestion from a while back. This time, Kim splits a pair and offers two possible alternative title choices.
Loooove me some Arnold! I’m always fascinated by the idea that almost anyone can do an Arnold impersonation, but he’s an actor who can’t impersonate someone who has lived in California for fifty years. It’s fun to run around doing an Arnold voice and tell people “I’m going to crush you like crackers over souuuuuup!” or “tear out your god-damn spine!” I’ll be back, get to the chopper, and so on. Arnold is a big reason movies have been fun for the last 35 years.
Total Recall (1990) comes after Conan the Barbarian (1982), Commando (1985), Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987) and Red Heat (1988). Once again, Arnold reaches a little further than his talent will allow in the role of Douglas Quaid, a manual labourer in the future, married to an impossibly attractive woman (Sharon Stone). He breaks rocks all week like Fred Flintstone and suddenly figures out one day that he’s “a spy or something!” like…Fred Flintstone. The chase is on: memory implants, secret agents, corporate corruption, alien technology, mutants, rebellion, disguises and horrifically violent comedy gun battles ensue. It’s got everything you want. And everyone loves it! But it’s not my favourite.
In honour of the continual nut-kicking that has been 2020, I’m going to put it out there for all to criticize that Total Recall isn’t the timeless classic some fans would have you believe. I quickly thought of an alternative selection that matches the tone and look of this movie (more than first glance would have you admit), and then I paused: what if I was missing the motivation of audience love? What about those who crave the story, science-fiction flavour and dramatic implications of a conspiracy to maintain the status quo? I thought of an answer to that, and upon careful consideration decided to pull a blackjack move. I split the pair.
Total Recall is a science fiction movie. Or maybe an action movie in the future. Or a dark comedy with 90s laughs (when an old woman tries to take Arnolds unguarded suitcase and he pulls it out of her hand, claiming it’s his, she screams fuck you, you asshole! The audience roars in approval and head-shaking laughter. What a funny old lady!). What makes the movie rise above its unexceptional peers is how it questions reality and engages a fearful curiosity of whether or not we really know our true selves. Is the symphony of our memories less valuable or authentic if they are implanted and, can we tell the difference? The source material of these questions and the script come from a short story by Philip K. Dick, the same man who wrote the short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that would become the movie Blade Runner (1982). And at any time you don’t want to exercise your brain on quandaries of these meta puzzles, you can simply eat your popcorn, watch the bullets fly and the FX dazzle. It may not look like it now, but Total Recall was the epitome of cutting edge movie magic. It cost a literal fortune to make.
But you’ve seen Total Recall so many times that you’ve come here for an alternate suggestion, preferably something you haven’t also seen a million times. So, first blackjack hand: The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002).
Wait! Come back! I can explain!
I’ve already proposed that Total Recall fits a wide range of categories and styles. And I know you haven’t seen The Adventures of Pluto Nash, because 8 out of 10 of Eddie Murphy’s own kids haven’t seen The Adventures of Pluto Nash. But these two movies do share similarities in their sets, style and action/comedy elements. It was a reasonable gamble for Murphy to make such a picture. Earlier, I listed how it took Arnie every bit of eight years to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and highest earners. During those same years, Eddie made the following: 48 Hours (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984),Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Coming to America (1988) and Harlem Nights (1989). It was not a stretch of the imagination that he could make any blockbuster work, even an action-comedy on the moon.
Total Recall is set in the year 2084; Pluto Nash is set in 2087. The gist of both movies is to see our hero get the girl, kill the bad guy, and save the day. Arnold plays two characters, Eddie plays two characters, and both pairs confuse the audience at some point. Hauser tells Quaid, “Get your ass to Mars!”, Nash’s mother tells him “You gotta get your ass off the moon!” From earth to a space colony, there are gun battles galore, quips from our heroes amidst the action, and similar sets to the point that they’re almost interchangeable. The interplanetary landscape, the vehicles, the buildings and bars with all their grey, industrial filth and the guns seems to share DNA. The Johnny Cab robot is represented in PN by Nash’s bodyguard, Bruno (Randy Quaid). Richter (Michael Ironside) is now Morgan (Joe Pantoliano), and there are strip-clubs and brothels for everyone on both Mars and the moon.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash is a hot mess, you are correct, but I suspect it was never designed to do much more than entertain in the most superficial fashion. This comparison works if you can admit that Total Recall isn’t as good as you think it is, and Pluto Nash isn’t as bad as you think it is. Even bad Eddie Murphy movies have a way of charming their way out of your disgust, and are eventually forgiven for simply being what they are – failed attempts at good Eddie Murphy movies. This is the blackjack hand where The Adventures of Pluto Nash attempts to mimic the ridiculous wisecracking, wild action, and surprising laughs of Total Recall. You can decide for yourself if this clumsy attempt is better than nothing. And I still have a hand left to play.
“To be perfectly honest, we celebrate Pluto Nash at my house.
We don’t have Christmas Day, we have Pluto Nash Day!”
– Eddie Murphy (1995).
In the opposite direction lies a seldom seen and overlooked sci-fi from the late 90s, Dark City (1998). This movie has zero laughs, but takes Total Recall’s soon to be suffocated, shot at and blown up idea of amnesia and memory tampering to much more compelling conclusion. Instead of simply asking, who am I; are my memories my own? it asks, what is it to be human, and how capturing memory is like hugging smoke. My favourite part of Total Recall is the first act, which plays like a spy thriller complete with mistaken identity and memory implants. But by the final act, we have forgotten this mattered at all. Quaid has harnessed alien technology! He has made Mars a habitable planet for all the displaced, forgotten humans and mutants squeezed off the earth like an ugly zit. What about all the unexplored implications of altering human memory? Who gives a shit. He tore Richter’s arms off in an elevator shaft!
While Total Recall plays like a spy thriller gone batshit action crazy, Dark City is definitely a detective movie at its core. We wander the wet, barely lit streets of perpetual night, searching for answers in the darkness of the alleys, and the human mind. A man is accused of a crime. He is estranged from his wife and cannot remember her or the affair she had that drove them apart. The detective chases, the alien facade slips, and the wonderfully creepy Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) aids our hero’s ambitious search for his true self and the knowledge to set things right for the entire dark city. Shell Beach will be John Murdoch’s blue sky on Mars, if he can break his mind free before the sinister, alien agents can prevent his total recall. Bleak, tense, and thoughtful, Dark City amplifies the most thrilling and provocative aspects of Total Recall.
Total Recall remains a fan favourite for many to this day, but it is a perplexing exercise in brains and brawn. Violent and exaggerated to a fault, it was still the most financially rewarding to investors of these three movies by so much money, your eyes would bulge out of your face like your Mars space helmet was smashed. On a budget of $65M, the worldwide income was a massive $261M return!
The Adventures of Pluto Nash, on the other hand, won a prize for biggest flop in Hollywood history. On a budget of $100M, it only made $7M worldwide. It bombed, and was panned in equal measure. And finally, Dark City put out $27M to make $27M. All of these movies were more style than substance, but why one works, one fails miserably, and one gets overlooked is as elusive as effectively manipulating human memories with intent.