Article: We Can Remember “Total Recall” for You Wholesale

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Philip K. Dick, the writer who inspired a cartload of movie adaptations, wrote great stuff. He also wrote dull stuff, innovative stuff, meh stuff, sublime stuff and everything else in between. “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” is one of his blah attempts, though it does open with a nice line: “He awoke – and wanted Mars.”

“Wholesale” tells the story of Douglas Quail, an average guy married to a shrew of a wife (Women in Dick’s stories are always bitches) longing for a bit of adventure, and Mars. He decides to obtain it via a false-memory implant courtesy of Rekal, Incorporated. Rekal promises him a trip to Mars and a spy fantasy. However, when Quail is prepped for the memory implant, it is revealed that he is the real thing: a spy who has had his trip to Mars excised from his memory. Quail goes home, where an Interplan police officer gets ready to kill him because he has remembered what he should not. Quail pleads with the policeman and they strike a bargain: Quail will go back to Rekal and have a false memory implanted, a memory that will eliminate his desire to know about Mars and thus allow him to continue his existence. Back at Rekal, the policeman and the memory technicians decide to implant Quail with a childhood memory of him saving the Earth, but when they are about to begin the procedure, it turns out that once again Quail has a real memory of this event. He did save the Earth from aliens. Ta-dum!

“Wholesale” is a little story intended as a comedy. It is not enough, by itself, to justify a Twilight Zone episode, never mind a two-hour movie. That is why Total Recall, the 1990 movie adaptation of the film, takes the original idea of the story as a launching pad and then runs with it, full steam ahead.

In the movie adaptation, Quail (now Quaid) is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a construction worker who dreams of taking a trip to Mars. He decides to purchase a memory implant of the trip, complete with spies and adventure. But, before the technicians can implant the memories, he starts to yell and claims he is a real spy. The technicians wipe his memory of the visit to their facility and dump him in a cab. Soon enough, armed thugs and his own wife are trying to kill him. Quaid escapes to Mars in an attempt to find the truth about himself and save his skin. On Mars, he meets a former flame of his (whom he doesn’t remember) and learns about a resistance leader who is fighting the evil corporate overlords of Mars, who charge people for the air they breath (This is not so far-fetched, considering that a certain Mexican president-turned-emperor taxed people for a similar thing). Eventually, Quaid defeats the bad guys and turns on an alien machine that starts the terraforming of the planet. Free air for everyone!

Total Recall is very different from its origin story simply because it has to be. There just isn’t enough material or narrative in the story to inspire a movie. However, it is also different because the director is Paul Verhoeven, a man who injects violence, satire and pulp-action into the whole proceeding. In the story story, Quail doesn’t even fight with the cop that visits him and his wife doesn’t turn out to be a sexy operative. No, his wife simply dumps him and Quail is more of a wimp than a James Bond.

The movie, however, realizes it is operating in a fantasy space: Quaid wants to be a spy; he wants a Martian adventure, complete with a beautiful girlfriend, aliens and guns. And so, the movie moves in that direction. It gives us three-breasted women, exploding bodies, sleazy bars, and a killer with panache played by Michael Ironside. The final result is an energetic flick that has enough interesting questions about the nature of reality (Is it a coincidence that Quaid is supposed to be implanted with the Blue Skies Mars program and he ends up on a Mars with blue skies?) and lots of adrenaline. There is sufficient Philip K. Dick in the final Total Recall to identify it as a story that had its genesis in the writer’s fiction, while being independent enough to acquire a flavour of its own.

Not only do the script and direction mesh perfectly, the special effects are also a treat to watch. Jaded spectators might not be able to see what a wonder some of the sequences were in 1990, but let’s just say it had a lot of eye candy.

The performances are also pretty good. A young Sharon Stone gets a small part as Michael Ironside’s wife and Schwarzenegger’s false wife, chewing through her role with gusto. Ironside does what he does best: He looks dangerous, talks dangerous, and shoots at stuff like he means it. Rachel Ticotin, who plays the love interest, is tough enough and badass enough to be partnered with Schwarzenegger. As for Schwarzenegger – a man, who despite his limited acting ability, managed to act in some of the great fantasy and sci-fi movies of the 80s and 90s – he seems to be having a ball.

In short, Verhoeven’s Total Recall, which had a cool soundtrack to boot, is a very successful take on a very slim story.

The 2012 Total Recall does not fare so well, as it seems obsessed with differentiating itself from its source material and the first flick, all while trying to copy Verhoeven’s version. It makes for a bizarre viewing experience.

First, how does the movie try to establish its own identity? Well, the biggest change is that it eliminates Mars. Yes! Remember how the first line in the short story is: “He awoke – and wanted Mars”? Well, Mars is gone! Now, we are in 1984; there are only two superpowers left: Great Britain and Australia. For some reason that is never explained, Australians commute every day via a super-fast train that crosses through the centre of the Earth to Great Britain, to work in factories and build robots. Why would a whole continent, never mind the only other inhabitable region of the planet, take such a commute in a world that is overpopulated and probably filled with people who can work in factories? I don’t know. I guess the train looks cool.

The other way the movie tries to establish itself as a creature of its own is by imitating Blade Runner instead of Verhoeven’s Mars. Yes, again, for a reason that is never explained, Australia has turned into a rainy land with a huge Asian influence. When Scott gave us its rainy, dark, multicultural Los Angeles, it was impressive and new. Now, it’s regurgitated shit that everyone does. But Total Recall needs to be gritty, so it goes for the Blade Runner look and then there’s talk about terrorism, which I guess means this is deep. There are also robots from the set of I, Robot walking around, which doesn’t bode well because that was an awful movie. Plus, if the robots are as good as they seem to be in the film, chasing people and all, why do they even need factory workers?

How does Total Recall resemble its predecessor? In several set pieces, including the memory chair, a scene in which people try to convince the hero it is all a dream and he has gone crazy, a person in an elaborate disguise going through security, the appearance of a three-breasted prostitute (I guess that made a big cultural impact), and more.

It’s funny to see Total Recall struggle to find its own agency while trying to reproduce certain moments from the original. This is a movie that does not seem to understand what the first adaptation knew: It’s all for fun. Verhoeven had no problem throwing mutants and three-breasted women into the mix because it all made a wacky sort of whole. Here, the final results seems…disjointed. It’s like someone wanted to make Inception, and came up with this glossy product as a result. Never mind that it’s sad to watch all the actors roped into this as they scramble around. There was a certain joy in Ironside’s evil swagger. Kate Beckinsale just looks like she could use a break from doing back flips.

The first Total Recall never aimed for deep philosophical meditations and still managed to score some good points in the reality vs. fantasy arena. The second one tries to pass itself as a deeper experience and shows how shallow it is.

I’ll tell you what Total Recall 2012 is: It’s like Total Recall without the stuff that made it something of a cult favourite. Len Wiseman, director of the Underworld films, knows how to bring the pretty, but can’t produce the memorable. Kind of ironic for a film about fake memories and shallow replacements of the real thing.

Cronenberg was once slated to adapt “Wholesale” before Verhoeven came in. One wonders what might have happened if, nowadays, someone had let him adapt it. But such thoughts are merely fantasies, much like the dreams of Quail.

In the end, after watching the latest Total Recall, I can say this: “I left the theatre – and wanted Mars.”

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in beautiful, rainy British Columbia with her family and two cats. She writes fantasy, magic realism and science fiction. You can read her stories in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, Evolve 2 and Tesseracts 13. She is the co-editor of Candle in the Attic Window, Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaArticle: We Can Remember “Total Recall” for You Wholesale