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Credit: TriStar Pictures

How Total Recall saved Arnold Schwarzenegger's action movie career

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Jun 1, 2020

Total Recall was the first of three action movies in the '90s that helped save Arnold Schwarzenegger's career.

But, unlike the other two — 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 1994's True Lies, both directed by James Cameron — Total Recall has seemingly fallen by the wayside in terms of its place in the pop culture conversation, and on Schwarzenegger's CV. With this blockbuster hit celebrating its 30th anniversary this week, there is no better time to revisit one of the biggest hits of the '90s that seemingly no one really talks about anymore.

On paper, Total Recall seemed like a no-brainer. Director Paul Verhoeven was hot off the success of his ultra-violent 1987 hit, RoboCop; Schwarzenegger also had a 1987 hit to celebrate, the sci-fi/horror classic Predator. The two teaming up is what led to an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" finally getting made after spending nearly two decades in Development Hell. Everyone from director David Cronenberg to actor Richard Dreyfuss (!) was attached at one point to tell the story of everyman Quaid, a domesticated blue-collar worker who dreams of going to Mars but can't muster the financial means or drive to take the trip.

But the trip he can afford is one to Rekall, where they specialize in the ultimate stay-cation experience: Implanting memories and experiences in your mind that physically never happened but your brain believes they did. Minutes into Quaid's "fake" adventure to Mars as a spy, he soon discovers he's actually been there. With no memory of the life the man with guns chasing him says he had, Quaid is forced to venture to the Red Planet on a mission to save himself and the people of Mars.

The twisty turns of Total Recall's plot explain why it struggled to find a way out of development, but they are also the reason why it eventually managed to make it to the big screen at all. And it couldn't have happened at a better time for its star, who was coming off his biggest hit, the comedy Twins. Schwarzenegger had firmly established himself as a four-quadrant draw, capable of garnering sell-out crowds in two of Hollywood's most successful genres — with his name alone as the primary draw. (Total Recall's inspired premise and marketing campaign built around Rob Bottin's impressive practical effects work also helped sell the film.)

Schwarzenegger couldn't have picked a better follow-up to serve as a reminder to his fanbase, either. Total Recall says to fans that, despite having recently become a comedic leading man, their Conan's first love was action movies.

And as action movies go, they don't get much better or engrossing than Total Recall. Verhoeven's deft handling of the complicated, twisty material gives each scene the exact amount of whatever it needs. The action never feels like it is competing with character; if anything, the set pieces are character-driven — a rarity in the modern blockbuster era. Audiences were never ahead of Quaid or the mystery he was trying to solve — at least that's true of the audience 10-year-old me was a member of when he snuck into an opening weekend screening 30 years ago. We picked up the clues right alongside Quaid, one fight at a time. That's the type of puzzle-plotting audiences love in action thrillers like this, a story that keeps you guessing and at the edge of your seat when it's not making you grip the armrest.

Unlike most action movies headlined by Schwarzenegger, Total Recall is the closest to portraying him in the mold of an "everyday action hero" — the type of character Harrison Ford dined out on in his successful run of 1990s action films. It's hard to pull off even without a former bodybuilding champ in the role, but somehow Schwarzenegger manages to convey a desperate vulnerability that makes us root for him in between all the kick-punching.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

At the time, audiences were conditioned to expect the OG Terminator to survive the end of the movie no matter what. So our emotional investment was limited. Total Recall wisely, if somewhat perhaps subconsciously, subverts that expectation by placing both its leading man and the character he plays in a totally unfamiliar situation with incredibly high personal stakes. Quaid's identity, his entire sense of self, is on the line. In order to preserve it, he just has to save the fate of an entire planet. (Also refreshing is that, despite the movie being set on Mars, the proceedings feel especially grounded. No need to involve spaceships or epic space travel.)

Even more amazing about the impact this movie had on Schwarzenegger's career is that he had to practically fight to be in it. When the project's rights were originally owned by legendary producer Agostino "Dino" De Laurentiis in the mid-'80s, De Laurentiis didn't envision a scenario that included the star of his modest hit, Raw Deal. But when De Laurentiis' company collapsed after suffering significant financial losses on David Lynch's Dune, the rights for Total Recall came up for grabs. Schwarzenegger, with the help of Carolco, swooped in to secure them, as well as an impressive level of creative control over the production. For a movie that started without Schwarzenegger, it is impossible to imagine anyone else but him in it.

Like all great sci-fi, Total Recall is a timeless blockbuster that only gets better with age — and repeat viewings — thanks to its ambitious world-building and the thematic tentpoles holding that world up. Whether you've screened it many times or only once, it's likely the experience left you feeling that the best compliment you could give the movie is that you wish you had made it.

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