One weekend I decided to take in a couple of Schwarzenegger flicks. For my pleasure, I selected 1991ís Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 1990ís Total Recall. Though both came out in fairly rapid succession, T2 is absolute top of the line Schwarzenegger, but Total Recall is a big step down from that lofty level. Maybe I should have watched it before I viewed T2, because it can't compare to that classic, but my main impression of Recall is that it's a decent but unspectacular little sci-fi/action flick. I have a hard time mustering much excitement about it; it's just something that's pretty good but not fantastic.
That's essentially the best I can say about any film directed by Paul Verhoeven - "pretty good" is about the best he seems able to do. Oh, I guess his finest film (1987ís Robocop) spends some time in "very good" territory, but even it drags more frequently than I'd like. As for his worst films (1995ís Showgirls and 1992ís Basic Instinct? Forget about it!) Verhoeven has some skills, but somehow his movies always end up seeming 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 his apparent inability to actually work with his actors. As revealed in his audio commentary for 1997ís Starship Troopers, Verhoeven seems to view actors as little more than props that he can manipulate. He completely lacks the touch shown by T2ís 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.
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 seems 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 Quaid's "wife" 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's Melina is much less interesting. She's kind of just there; her scenes leave virtually no impact. 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!
Total Recall appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Despite the lack of anamorphic enhancement, the image of Recall seemed to be generally pleasing.
Sharpness usually appeared reasonably crisp and detailed. At times, some light softness occurred, but for the most part it looked very detailed and clear. In regard to print flaws, I saw some grain but otherwise the picture looked clean.
Colors seemed nicely reproduced. Even during the red-soaked Mars scenes at the end, the hues appear strong and demonstrate little to no bleeding. It was not an exceptional picture but it was still very good and should be perfectly acceptable.
Although it's only one year older than T2, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Total Recall showed more signs of age in regard to its audio. The DVD package didn't specifically state this, but it sounded suspiciously like one of those "remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1" deals. Almost universally, these mixes come across as glorified Dolby Surround soundtracks, and Recall was no exception to this rule. While the rears were fairly active - mainly in the reproduction of music - I detected no use of split/stereo surrounds; it sounded like a 2.0 mix with somewhat louder rear channels.
Despite that, Total Recall still offered a pretty good sonic experience, mainly due to the high quality of the front channels. A very nice soundstage blended across the three front speakers and the low end got a good workout. Despite the fact that much of the dialogue must have been dubbed, I felt that speech as well as effects and music consistently sounded clear and natural. The weaknesses of the surround channels lowered my rating to a "B+" but the splendid use of the front speakers makes this soundtrack a very listenable mix.
Total Recall provided very few extras. We got a teaser that made it look like a very different film than it ended up being, a terrible trailer that gave away far too much of the action, incredibly brief production notes - about five sentences worth - and perfunctory cast and crew biographies. It was a weak package.
Total Recall is a decent movie, but I donít think it stands as anything exceptional. Ultimately, the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts. It has some good moments but the whole piece seems mildly unsatisfying, though I will admit itís generally fun. This DVD offers good picture and sound but no significant extras. Total Recall provides a moderately entertaining experience but itís not terrific movie-making.
Note that the version of Total Recall discussed in this review has gone out of print, at least on its own; apparently it can still be found in a boxed set with Predator - the original DVD, not the DTS-Dolby Digital reissue - plus Commando and The Running Man. The old Recall is being replaced with a new special edition that comes out in September 2001. Check for a review of that DVD when the time is appropriate.