If you squint, Total Recall feels like a raunchier spiritual sequel to Blade Runner. It's also the second movie that nailed the essence of a Philip K. Dick sci-fi story, and it did it by following one essential rule of adapting PKD story into a film: Ditch a lot of the original story but keep the mood.
As unfaithful Philip K. Dick adaptations go, Total Recall is superior to Blade Runner in one specific way: It actually captures the mood of a Philip K. Dick story much better than Blade Runner. In doing so, Total Recall introduced a style of paranoid sci-fi cinema that lay dormant in the mainstream for almost a decade until The Matrix premiered in 1999.
Here's why Total Recall is a great PKD adaptation, even if it changes one of the biggest plot points from the original short story.
Direct by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, and Rachel Ticotin, Total Recall is adapted from the short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." In case you forgot the basic premise of either the 1990 movie or the original story, here it is in brief:
- In the future, some people opt to take memory vacations instead of real ones thanks to a service called "Rekal."
- In both the short story, and the film, the protagonist has a strong desire to have a memory of visiting Mars implanted into his mind, which will create the belief that he has actually been there.
- In the movie, this foreshadows the idea that Quaid (Quail in the short story) has actually been to Mars before, and had his memory erased.
- In all versions — including the super-forgettable Colin Farrell 2012 remake — the rest of the narrative takes viewers into a hall of mirrors in which erased memories and supplemented memories merge, making any of the late-night debates you've had about Christopher Nolan's Inception seem tame by comparison.
The short story is a good deal rowdier than the 1990 movie when it comes to memory hijinks. Every time the Rekal memory-implanters try to create a false memory at the request of Quail, they keep finding a real version of that memory is already there but has been erased. When Quail requests to be given the fictional memory of having saved the entire Earth from alien invasion when was just a little kid, the Rekal people think they're in the clear. There's no way that actually happened, right? Wrong.
The story pretty much ends there, never leaving the planet. For Philp K. Dick, keeping all the discussions of memory and truth within the boundaries of Earth is enough. But for a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's not. Total Recall needs to get its ass to Mars, which is where the movie becomes its own thing while realizing the paranoid potential of the short story in a way that makes it even better.
Ridley Scott and Hampton Fancher arguably did this same thing for Blade Runner. They took the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and changed huge plot elements. This included throwing out a weird religious subplot, as well as removing the idea that the main character — Deckard — was obsessed with owning a real live sheep. In effect, Blade Runner took a funky book and made it cool. The noir vibe in Blade Runner is what made the movie slick and sexy, which is part of why the cyberpunk aesthetic became so huge. (Blade Runner is also less nihilistic than the book. Spoiler alert: Rachael in the book is not nice.)
It's tempting to say Total Recall took the lessons of Blade Runner and duplicated them, but that's not quite why the movie works. Blade Runner presents a dirty, ugly future in a beautiful way, but Total Recall presents a dirty, ugly future in an ugly way. The world looks banal and grimy and Arnold's raunchy dialogue matches the aesthetic. Total Recall is more grindhouse than neo-noir, even diving into B-movie horror shlock to get its point across. This makes it a lot like Verhoeven's other movies like Showgirls and Robocop. The viewer is genuinely not sure what they're going to see next. Shocking violence? Alien nudity? Just how gratuitous is this going to get?
And yet, the violence and sex aren't just there for fun. It's hard to remember this, but Sharon Stone starred in this movie two years before Basic Instinct, essentially, making Total Recall the potboiler for a scary/sexy Sharon Stone flick. Verhoeven deploys all of this with a deep level of paranoia and mistrust; everyone wants something, and no one is getting what they want.
Unlike Harrison Ford's drunk, jaded detective, Arnold's Quaid is surprisingly upbeat and totally amoral. For better or for worse, he represents several Philip K. Dick protagonists surprisingly well. Whether its The Unteleported Man or Dr. Furtrity, Dick's main characters tend to be indignant and chatty anti-heroes determined to get out of whatever sci-fi pickle they happen to be in.
The way Total Recall improved this was to free-up its protagonist. Instead of keeping the story in Quaid's head, the movie makes Mars real. And because Arnold's erased memories became a new kind of "character," it allows the character's motivation to come both from within and without. That's why the scene where a pre-brainwashed Arnold speaks to post-brainwashed Arnold through a recording is so fantastic. It's not a dark scene, even though the subject matter is really dark.
Arnold from the past: "Whatever your name is, get ready for the big surprise, you are not you. You're me."
Arnold from the present: "No shit."
Like Philip K. Dick's prose, there's a pulpy, almost camp quality to this scene, and many other aspects of Total Recall. (Arnold destroying the robot Johnny Cab comes to mind.)
But it's in the dance between earnest sci-fi thriller and B-movie action flick that Total Recall makes its mark. It's nothing like original Philip K. Dick short story, in terms of the plot anyway. But, it sounds like PKD, warts and all.