Though both 1990’s Total Recall and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out in fairly rapid succession and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, they offered distinctly different sci-fi/action experiences. T2 was absolute top of the line Schwarzenegger, but Total Recall was a big step down from that lofty level. My main impression of Recall is that it's a decent but unspectacular little adventure flick. I find it tough to muster much excitement about it; it's just something that's pretty good but not fantastic.
That's essentially the best I can say about virtually any film directed by Paul Verhoeven - "pretty good" is about the best he seems able to do. Oh, I guess his finest film (1987’s Robocop) spends some time in "very good" territory, but even it drags more frequently than I'd like. As for his worst films (1995’s Showgirls and 1992’s Basic Instinct)? Forget about it! Verhoeven has some skills, but somehow his movies always come across like less than the sum of their parts; Recall features a lot of interesting and exciting material, but the end result leaves me vaguely cold.
I think a lot of this has to do with Verhoeven’s apparent inability to actually work with his actors. As revealed in his audio commentary for 1997’s Starship Troopers, Verhoeven seems to view actors as little more than props that he can manipulate. He completely lacks the touch shown by T2’s James Cameron for bringing out the best in his cast; on the contrary, Verhoeven appears to excel at stunting whatever abilities his actors may possess.
Recall tells the story of ordinary construction worker Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger). He dreams of Mars and wants to visit the planet but his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) resists the idea. Instead, Quaid decides to get a memory implant from “Rekall” that will trick his brain into thinking that he went to Mars. He even springs extra for the “secret agent” package; that set-up will leave him with a memory of a terrific adventure instead of an ordinary vacation.
However, the procedure goes wrong, and triggers erased memories in Quaid’s mind. During the rest of the film, he tries to unravel the mystery of his involvement with rebels on Mars such as dream girl Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and he helps go after tyrant Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Or does he? The movie features an intriguing plot in that we never know if these events are real or if they’re part of the Rekall package.
I won't say that Schwarzenegger is all wrong for his role as confused hero Doug Quaid, but the part requires subtlety and emotional nuance that go way beyond his abilities. As long as he's running around and shooting things, Arnie's okay, but as soon as he has to show some sort of feeling or deliver lines with conviction - y'know, act - then the whole house of cards collapses. Arnie later proved himself at least somewhat more capable at portraying a real person - his Harry Tasker in True Lies seemed much more real - but his performance here is an almost complete dud; his forceful presence just isn't enough to bring alive all the doubt and confusion we should see in Quaid. (Is it a coincidence that as Tasker, Arnie was again directed by Cameron? Methinks not!)
Much of the rest of the cast seems similarly flat, with the notable exception of Sharon Stone. Her role as Lori was her first really notable film appearance before she became a star in Basic Instinct. For some reason, although everyone else appears to lose their talent when they work with Verhoeven, she shines, as these two films show some of her better work. Stone makes a good "bitch goddess," which is mostly what she's required to do in Recall.
As her opposite number, Rachel Ticotin is much less interesting. She's kind of just there; her scenes left virtually no impact on me, and it was hard to see her as such an appealing fantasy girl. I can't say that she's terrible, but she seems to lack the substance necessary to make her character come to life.
Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside play the two main villains in the piece. Both gentlemen are terrific actors, but to see proof of that you'll have to look elsewhere. Like Ticotin, they show up on screen but they lack much presence in Recall; there's nothing overtly wrong with their acting, but they simply seem to lack spark.
The same can essentially be said for the movie itself. It's hard for me to look back at it and say where it falters, because it lacks any obvious significant flaws. Oh, it falls in the same category of T2 in that it has a hard time remaining consistent from start to finish, but that doesn't seem to be the reason the movie leaves me flat. It just appears to come back to Verhoeven somehow. I don't know what he does, but for some reason his damping effect on the actors really hurts his films; Recall could have been quite thrilling and provocative, but as it stands, it's essentially just another run of the mill to pretty good movie. You watch it, you forget it, and you go on with your life.
Cool footnote: at the end of the film, as Melina and Quaid struggle to breath on the surface of Mars, take a close look at the puppet-head stand-in for Ticotin. I believe that her inflating head bears a tremendously strong resemblance to Rhea Perlman's normal - ? - head!
Strange movie connection: in one of Recall’s most notorious scenes, Quaid uses a corpse as a shield. While Bill Murray’s Quick Change - which came out within weeks of Recall - didn’t show such violence, there’s a reference to the use of a spouse as a shield. Sure, it’s tangential, but anything that reminds me of Quick Change makes me happy - it’s one of my most desired MIA DVDs.
Total Recall appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture showed some concerns, as a whole it offered a fairly satisfying experience.
Sharpness usually appeared nicely crisp and detailed. Very little softness occurred throughout the movie; it came across as well defined and accurate. A few examples of moiré effects occurred, and some light edge enhancement also appeared at times; for example, one early profile shot of Schwarzenegger demonstrated a definite halo around his nose.
Print flaws created a more significant issue, especially during the film’s first half. I saw light grain and a variety of other defects; various examples of small nicks, speckles, grit, little hairs, and a few blotches occurred. These never seemed intense, but they cropped up more frequently than I expected. However, the movie looked much cleaner during its second half; the last 55 minutes or so presented a significantly fresher image.
Colors were somewhat subdued for the most part, as the movie went with a modest palette. However, the hues looked reasonably clear and accurate throughout the film. In one or two shots, the reds of Mars appeared slightly too heavy, but they usually appeared to be clean and tight. Otherwise, colors were quite solid, with no problems on display. Black levels seemed to be fairly deep and rich, and shadow detail appeared to be appropriately distinct and opaque with no significant concerns related to excessively dark scenes.
Overall, I regarded Total Recall as a split transfer. The first half of the movie showed some edge enhancement and a moderately excessive number of print flaws; I’d give this part of the film a “B-” due to these concerns. However, the flick’s second half improved significantly; the defects cleaned up to a significant degree, and the whole package came across as clearer and more vibrant; I’d rate that segment as a “B+”. As such, my overall grade was a “B”.
Although Total Recall predated the common use of digital audio in cinemas, its Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack provided a fairly compelling experience. The soundfield offered the movie’s strongest aspects. The forward spectrum showed very good spread, as music displayed strong stereo separation and effects were neatly localized and accurate. All sounds seemed to pop up in their logical areas, and the elements blended together terrifically well; overall, it seemed like a well-integrated and concise piece.
As for the surrounds, they added a nice level of involvement to the equation. Throughout the movie, the rears contributed a good general feeling of ambience and atmosphere, and the mix really came to life during action scenes. Actually, probably the best sequence occurred soon after Quaid arrived on Mars; when the decompression happened, the soundtrack blasted convincing audio that created a very believable experience. I thought this was a pretty terrific soundfield that has held up well over the years.
The quality of the audio showed some minor concerns that kept the soundtrack from greatness, but as a whole it seemed pretty solid. Most dialogue sounded acceptably natural and distinct, and I heard no problems related to intelligibility. However, some edginess occurred, and lines occasionally appeared a little brittle and tinny. Effects came across as fairly clear and accurate, though, and they displayed some terrific depth. For example, the scene in which Quaid’s shuttle to Mars roared overhead really rocked my subwoofer, and many other scenes demonstrated solid bass response. Jerry Goldsmith’s score appeared to be reasonably bright and vivid as well, though it seemed slightly flat on a few occasions. Overall, this was a fine soundtrack that stood out as a very good mix for its age.
While the new DVD doesn’t seem to improve much - if at all - on the picture and sound quality of the original release, this special edition release of Total Recall provided a slew of new extras. First up we get a brand-new audio commentary from director Paul Verhoeven and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The disc touts this as a “rare” track from Arnie, which is true, I guess; he was part of the multi-participant package for the T2 “Ultimate Edition”, but as far as I know, his only true commentary was the one for Conan the Barbarian. Still, it feels like advertising hyperbole to call the track “rare”, since there are scads of people who’ve only contributed to one or two commentaries.
In any case, Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. The two showed a pretty good chemistry, and this proved to be a chatty little track. Much of the piece dealt with the dual nature of Recall; is it real or is it a dream? Verhoeven seemed to lean firmly toward one side of that discussion, but I felt that he and Schwarzenegger added a nice level of introspection to the film.
Otherwise, the commentary included a reasonable roster of details about the production. The men provided some decent remarks about their experience, and they proved to be fairly engaging and entertaining participants much of the time. On occasion the discussion of the film’s dual nature got a little tiresome, since they occasionally stuck with vague descriptions of the on-screen action; Schwarzenegger definitely tended toward this side of the equation, and he often offered little of substance. As a whole I thought this was a decent but unspectacular commentary.
Better was Imagining Total Recall, a solid new documentary about the film. The 30-minute and 10-second piece provided a very interesting and compelling experience. The show combined a mix of movie clips, shots from the set, production photos, artwork, and interviews with principals. In the latter category, we found new remarks from Verhoeven, Schwarzenegger, editor Frank Urioste, composer Jerry Goldsmith, screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman, production designer William Sandell, visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig, and CGI director Tim McGovern. In addition, we saw 1989 clips from actresses Rachel Ticotin and Sharon Stone plus visual effects creator Rob Bottin.
The program nicely encapsulated the long history of the production, and it provided solid details about the experience. For the most part, it took a chronological approach, but it didn’t stick with it slavishly. The interviews were highly engaging, mainly due to the light and bright attitudes taken by the participants. They seemed to feel strongly about the flick, and they offered some fun notes, especially when they imitated other folks; Shusett’s impression of Dino De Laurentiis was worth the price of admission, and Schwarzenegger’s take on Verhoeven was also fun. The archival materials also seemed positive, as the materials from the set contributed some nice depth to the piece. I wish “Imaging” lasted longer than just a half an hour, but I still thought it was a consistently fine piece of work.
Next up is Rekall Virtual Vacations. This consists of three “Dunes of Mars”, “Mountain Expedition on Planet Lumina 3”, and “Earth Beach”. Each of those provides a 30-second clip of the location; this snippet will loop indefinitely to create your “virtual vacation”. It’s a cute concept but not something that seemed very interesting.
Visions of Mars consists solely of an interview with Dan McCleese, chief scientist for the Mars program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. He discusses the history of knowledge about Mars, the current state of exploration, and future possibilities. His remarks are combined with computer graphics of the planet. At only five minutes, 25 seconds, this program is too brief and superficial to provide any real depth, but it’s an interesting discussion nonetheless.
In the Storyboard Comparisons area, three scenes appear. Each lasts between 85 seconds and three minutes for a total of seven minutes of material. On the positive side, the boards themselves are shown in a very large area that occupies most of the screen; that makes them easy to view. However, the film segments show up only in a tiny block in the lower right corner of the screen; this spot fills maybe 1/9th of the viewing area, and it means that the snippets are so small that they’re almost useless. Granted, board/film comparisons are tough to do in a satisfactory manner, for one side or the other gets the shaft, but I thought this display was unsatisfactory.
Unusually, the Conceptual Art Gallery provides its images as a running piece, but not in the more dynamic “filmed” format found on other DVDs. Instead, we see static pictures, each of which will stay on screen for 10 seconds. As such, you could watch the 20 stills as a 200-second program, or you could flip between them via the chapter access. The material itself is mildly interesting but nothing special.
We move on to the film’s terrible and excessively revealing theatrical trailer plus a “teaser” that made Recall look like a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This area also includes six TV spots. While you can skip between the two trailers and also jump to the start of the television ads, unfortunately not all of them have been chapter encoded; to watch any of the six clips, you have to wade through all of them.
The Photo Gallery uses the same format as the “Conceptual Art Gallery” for its 12 images. These snaps are surprisingly cool, as we see some fun shots from the set. Too bad there are so few of them!
The DVD finishes with some text materials. The Production Notes are quite detailed and lengthy, and they blow away the dreadfully brief comments found on the original DVD. Cast and Crew Information adds decent but fairly perfunctory biographies for actors Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside plus director Verhoeven, novelist Phillip K. Dick, screenwriter/producer Ron Shusett, writers Jon Povill, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman, executive producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and producer Buzz Feitshans.
The new DVD of Total Recall is touted as a “Special Limited Edition”. From what I understand, the “limited” part relates to the packaging, as Recall comes in an unusual case. It’s a round tin made to look like Mars itself. I’ve read some disenchantment with the set because it won’t fit neatly alongside standard DVDs, but I don’t mind it. In fact, I rather like the packaging. I appreciated the effort to do something different, and it’s a neat little case. Many other tins won’t fit cleanly next to standard DVDs, so I’m not sure I understand the apparent disenchantment with this one.
Inside the case, the DVD comes with two little round booklets. One includes “stellar promotional offers” while the other adds an introductory note from Verhoeven plus some production information. The latter doesn’t replace the more detailed text on the DVD, but it’s a decent piece.
As for the “limited” status of the DVD, I haven’t been able to discern exactly what that means. I’ve heard some indications that the tin will only appear in the first 100,000 copies, and it’ll switch to a standard case after that. I don’t think that it’ll be difficult to find some version of this special edition, however. (By the way, don’t look to Artisan’s website for help; they still list August 2000’s T2 Ultimate Edition in the “Coming Soon” section!)
Total Recall will never reside in my “fave flicks” pile. I think it’s a decent movie, but I don’t think it stands as anything exceptional. Ultimately, the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts to a degree. It has some good moments but the whole piece seems mildly unsatisfying, though I will admit it’s generally fun, and it’s held up well through repeated viewings.
As for the new DVD, it offered reasonably positive picture plus very strong sound. The package significantly improved upon the old release due to a mix of fine extras; the audio commentary and the documentary were the stars of the show, but the remaining pieces also seemed fun and entertaining. I remain somewhat unenthusiastic about Total Recall as a movie; I like it to a moderate degree, but I don’t feel it’s anything special. However, the positive treatment it received on this DVD helped push me over the edge, and I think the new package deserves your attention.