Philip K. Dick has had a rough time of it at the movies. He’s popular as source material, but the adaptations are, at best, loose. So it’s strange that it took an Austrian bodybuilder, a Dutch smartass, and a decade of development hell to put out what is, if not in text, then certainly in spirit, the best adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story.
Oddly, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the glue that pulled all this together, and it nearly didn’t happen. Originally, the story was optioned by Dino De Laurentiis, who imagined a thriller starring Richard Dreyfus. After Dune tanked, and eight years of knocking around Hollywood and a year under the supervision of David Cronenberg, the whole thing was dropped… and promptly picked up by Schwarzenegger, who had been campaigning to star in the movie for years. He personally recruited Paul Verhoeven to direct, asked Rob Bottin to do the practical effects, and brought in screenwriters to give it an actual ending. On paper, it sounds like a bloated celebrity vanity project.
The hell of it is, it works, partially because it sticks far closer to the theme of the original story than you might expect. Cut out the action elements and you largely have the same story, right down to the trembling uncertainty over what’s genuinely “real.” Verhoeven pitches the story perfectly so you’re never quite sure what’s supposed to be the “real” 2048 and what’s just a bored man-child’s fever dream. Is Schwarzenegger disarming Michael Ironside with an elevator because he’s an omnicompetent superspy… or because he’s dreaming a cheesy action movie? Is the notorious three-boobed hooker an actual mutation, or just some horny guy’s id asserting itself?
Sitting in the middle of it all is Schwarzenegger, who it turns out is perfect. He has to play, essentially, a straight-faced parody of his previous roles and he pulls it off with ease, showing the kind of comedic sensibility and timing that he never quite gets credit for, no matter how many comedies he makes. It helps that you can buy him as a bored construction worker, or as a musclebound superhero, keeping up the movie’s central question of what’s “real,” exactly.
In fact, if you pay attention, the movie never, ever, tips its hand one way or the other. The whole plot of a triple agent hidden inside a double agent is ridiculous… something the movie’s villain actually points out, immediately following it up by insisting the whole plan nearly went off the rails a dozen times. This is right before the movie sets up the idea that this might be a dream within a dream within a dream by putting Arnold back in the brain-twisting chair. It all leads up to an ending that’s essentially a slap in the face. Is it “real?” Is it a dream? Is it a dream within a dream? We’re not telling you!
Yes, Total Recall beat Inception to the punch by decades. Surprising, huh?
Where it diverged from the original story, and honestly a part of what makes the movie great, is the fact that it’s far more playful with the fundamental question of just how “real” reality is. The entire first act is essentially gory slapstick as Arnold smashes his way through public transit before climaxing with the biggest star in the world at the time putting on what amounts to a tinfoil hat and then picking his nose onscreen:
That scene alone probably cost a million dollars. I bet Verhoeven still gets a chuckle out of that.
Total Recall is a movie that quite literally would never have worked without just the right people showing up, and, in one of those rare film miracles, it actually happened. And 25 years later, it’s still one of the best action movies of its time, an argument that Hollywood can, in fact, do something right.