Total Recall (1990). Film review of the sci-fi thriller

Film still from the sci-fi Total Recall (1990).

Science fiction

Image of 5 stars for an excellent film genius a classic movie

Film review by Jason Day of Total Recall (1990), the sci-fi blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone and directed by Paul Verhoeven.

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Construction worker Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a dirt poor construction worker, but has a contented personal life. His wife, Lori (Sharon Stone) is loyal, loving and beautiful and he likes his job, helped by working alongside his best pal Harry (Robert Costanzo).

But he is plagued by nightmares that wake him, vivid dreams about another life on the planet Mars.

Consumed with curiosity but unsure how to explore his dreams, he opts for a controversial pleasure-memory implantation procedure which goes catastrophically wrong when it appears his memories have previously been tampered with.

On the run after murdering Harry, he travels to Mars where mining for a powerful Martian mineral has split society into distinct strata: the rich and corrupt, poor workers and mutant humans, deformed before birth by the rich restricting the oxygen supply.

Quaid’s presence threatens the status quo and adds fuel to a proletarian rebellion.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Total Recall 1990 film poster

Baby, you make me wish I had three hands.

Taxi driver Benny (Mel Johnson Jr.) considers the quandary of how to handle a three-breasted prostitute.

Only film critics judge how old they are by a film’s release date…and whether the production company has gone bust or not.

Such is the case with Total Recall, which I recently noticed is up for a 30th birthday cinematic re-release.

It was produced by Carolco, then a considerable power player in Hollywood, responsible for many blockbusters but whose reliance on paying mega-salaries to stars and making arthouse movies that lost money eventually contributed to its downfall.

I was 12 when Recall it first came. My parents never went to the movies, but they did have a VHS and rent 15 and 18 rated flicks from time to time.

Needless to say, my young, impressionable but furtive self had a quick viewing when they rented it and weren’t watching. Yes, we went to video rental shops like Blockbuster. Christ, I really am old…

This Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring (although he is billed as ‘Schwarzenegger’ on the posters. By 1990, his mouthful of a surname was all that was needed to sell a movie) sci-fi action blockbuster left several marks on me as well, I am sure, on many other devotees:

Witty scripty!

Arnie’s films were well-known by 1990 for death knell witticisms, or the thuddingly accurate bon mots the Austrian Oak uttered as he skewered/slaughtered his poor enemy. Total Recall duly follows suit with killer one-liners:

  • “Look who’s talking” – Quaid, to a mutant who is facially disfigured
  • “What have you been feeding this thing?” says Melina as she grabs Quaid’s crotch. “Blondes” is the reply, referring to his wife. “I think it’s still hungry” she adds
  • “Consider that a divorce!” – Quaid to his wife, after shooting her in the head
  • “Screw you!” – to Benny, as he uses a pneumatic drill to eviscerate his former pal
  • “Relax. You’ll live longer” – Quaid gets all existential
  • “See you at the party, Richter!” – Quaid confirms an invite to the soon-to-be-deceased Michael Ironside, after dismembering him.

Based on the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick, the narrative is incredibly complex for a Hollywood blockbuster, with theoretical musings on the nature of self and identity, societal conflicts, worker revolutions – so much is crammed in to an experience that lasts less than two hours, that it shouldn’t work on paper, let alone onscreen. That it does, is testament to the skills of the three credited writers of the final draft script.


Sharon Stone gained a career boost that turned her into a sexy superstar as Arnie’s duplicitous, kick-ass, blonde bombsite ‘wife’ who has secrets as long as her legs. For a movie that is heavy on male action and violence, it’s interesting to note that her fight scenes, either with Arnie or – most memorably – with female co-star Ticotin (“What a bitch!”) are the more memorable of several punchy set-pieces.

Amsterdammer Verhoeven liked working with Ronny Cox as the slimy, dystopian yuppy in Robocop (1988) so much he casts him in more or less the same role here. But he is more fun as the Dutch-sounding Vilos Cohaagen.

Arnie’s awesomeness

There’s a fabulously funny Spitting Image parody of Arnie, usually in conversation with the late Michael Winner – British director of films of dubious quality – sucking on a huge cigar and excitedly describing the Oak’s “wonderful, muscular body” as Arnie whimpers on about being naked again and people seeing his “little villy”.

Cast as a construction worker, we get to see his huge biceps wibbling away as he wields a mighty, pneumatic power tool, pumelling concrete foundations as the Martian reactor later does to Mars’ landscape, triggered by the Oak’s very own huge hands.

Even the sexy secretary (Alexia Robinson) at the Rekall clinic eyes his body appreciatively before casually recolouring her fingernails using a clever, cuticle contraption.

“I’ve been trying to tell you, someone has erased his memory.” Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) prepares for implantation in Total Recall (1990).


Quaid tells the Rekall staff with no hesitation that he is “hetero” and we see him enjoying kinky sex with Lori. But he dons granny drag to slip through Martian customs, leading to the infamous “exploding head, “Get ready for a surprise!” moment. Back in 1990, it certainly would have been for his audience.

Internal affairs and the bodies politic

Total Recall features some gory, gooey, intestinal moments.

Aside from all of the bonkers bloodletting (Arnie uses a poor underground commuter as a bullet vest after killing Harry and his acolytes), he also removes, in eye-wincing detail, a brain GPS through his nose; a mutant, parasitic twin implores him ‘open your mind’ (also influencing one of the finest rave tracks by USURA); Arnie, Ticotin and Cox’s eyes bulge out of their skulls when exposed to Mars’ atmosphere and Michael Ironside is left totally ‘armless during a moment of dismemberment.

Add in mind-blowing production design from William Sandell that totally reworks Mars as a Marxian planet rife with industrial grumblings, sex an sleaze and untapped potential, Jerry Goldsmith’s grinding, metallic/foundry score and Verhoven’s playful but tight and sarcastic control over the proceedings and you have an intelligent, pumping thrill ride through the galaxy.

Cast & credits

Director: Paul Verhoeven. 1 hr 53 min (113 min). Carolco Pictures/Columbia. (18).

Producers: Buzz Feitshans, Ronald Shusett.
Writers: Gary Goldman, Dan O’Bannan, Ronald Shusett.
Camera: Jost Vacano.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Sets: William Sandell.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Marshall Bell, Mel Johnson Jr., Michael Champion, Roy Brocksmith.


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