Early in this jolting, jumbo-budgeted ($62 million) futuristic thriller, Arnold Schwarzenegger jams a nasty pair of pliers up his nose and yanks out a brain implant that looks like a metal golf ball. That Ah-nold, he sure as hell knows how to pump an audience up.
Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," Total Recall (shot in Mexico) is set on Earth in the year 2084. Schwarzenegger plays Doug Quaid, a construction worker with a sexy blond wife (Sharon Stone) who can't distract him from daydreaming about a trip to Mars. Colonized by humans, Mars is beset by political unrest: The crazed dictator, Cohaagen (a perpetually sneering Ronny Cox), keeps raising the price of fresh air.
But Quaid is fixated on Mars. He visits Rekall Inc., a travel service that implants memories of vacations in the minds of customers -- no bother with luggage and hotels. Choosing a fantasy identity (secret agent) and his ideal female type (brunette, athletic, sleazy and demure), Quaid is barely strapped in his chair for the operation when he screams that killers are chasing him. Strange. Rekall hasn't implanted his fantasy yet. These memories are his own, and they may be real.
This is Schwarzenegger's most provocative role since The Terminator, in 1984, and he has rarely looked as revved up for action. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for his astute mix of violence and humanism in Robocop, would seem a potent matchup with the star. The dark wit and sexual audacity in Verhoeven's earlier work (The 4th Man, Spetters, Flesh + Blood) promise something kinkier than such formula Schwarzenegger fare as Commando, Raw Deal and Predator.
Schwarzenegger does give it a game go: The big guy even lets Stone wrap her long legs around his naked Mr. Olympia torso. But she might as well be straddling granite. Rachel Ticotin, as Quaid's Mars passion, has no better luck in arousing the Casanova in her costar. Schwarzenegger has charm, humor and boundless energy, but the man cannot play a love scene.
Still, there's no denying the impact of the visuals, vividly photographed by Jost Vacano (Das Boot), and the startling makeup, created by Rob Bottin (The Howling). Visiting Venusville, the redlight district on the red planet, Quaid encounters dwarf miners, a hooker with three breasts and assorted mutants whose skin has been scarred by solar radiation. Verhoeven choreographs the shootings, stabbings and dismemberments with a keen eye for gushing wounds and an alert ear for just how it sounds when a woman kicks a man's crotch. Total Recall is a gut cruncher on the grand scale.
But the movie aspires to be more. The script, by Ronald Shusset, Dan O'Bannon and Gary Goldman, has an intriguing psychological subtext: the genuine horror in the theft of a mind. And Verhoeven labors to make the audience connect with Quaid's fears about losing his identity. But Schwarzenegger's superman presence and jokey asides keep real emotion at bay. By the final third of the movie, gore obliterates all traces of logic and artistic ambition. The movie is a cartoon, though a mammothly enjoyable one. The Terminator provided images to haunt our dreams; Total Recall offers the ephemeral charge of summer fireworks. It's the difference between myth making and merchandising.