Paul Verhoeven, a gifted action director and cutting satirist, has a marvellous handle on subversion and the way he deftly tampers with the nature of reality, twisting the audience's own perceptions along with Schwarzenegger's Doug Quaid, reveals a movie far smarter than your usual meat & potatoes Arnie flick. On first watch you are left chasing after the truth, dizzy from the whiplash-like story revelations, but on repeat viewings you can simply marvel at the construction of it all. It's a wickedly smart piece of storytelling.
It's also acutely aware of how insane the story can be; only in a world of total fantasy could a man who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger be married to a woman who looks like Sharon Stone (and we're talking prime Stone here, we're talking Igneous here) be considered a regular blue-collar joe who is so bored of his life that he dreams of being someone else. It's patently absurd but Verhoeven goes with it and expects you to do the same. That complete disconnect of reality gives the film an extra layer of meta-text.
Verhoeven is no stranger to embracing an exaggerated reality with a straight face; RoboCop's satire ranges from broadly ridiculous to scalpel-sharp subtle, allowing the film's world to feel real and still carry some emotional weight without feeling like a cartoon. Total Recall lacks RoboCop's pathos but it's far more interested in toying with the audience's minds than their hearts but, in both cases, telling the story with absolute sincerity is why it succeeds.
The other key to Total Recall's success is something so often fumbled by sci-fi cinema: The world-building. Between Arnie and the wholesale carnage he inflicts on Michael Ironside and his cronies there is a vibrant and unique science fiction world at play. Every inch of the film's design work, courtesy of the likes of William Sandell, Erica Edell Phillips and Rob Bottin (all of whom see RoboCop on their list of previous credits), are flawless. The design of the mutants, the minimalist sets and the visually distinct future tech (from the X-ray vision security check points to the eerie rubber mannequin robo taxi drivers) are utterly unique to the genre. The very aesthetic of Total Recall is unlike anything else.
For a definitive staple of the genre, from the director of another bona fide genre classic, it's quite remarkable how little of its influence has spread into the wider cultural consciousness. You don't need to look very far to see movies that riff on the design work of Star Wars or Alien or fellow Philip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner, but try to find a movie that is cherry picking influence from Total Recall. This lack of pop cult' penetration is what keeps Total Recall so fresh and original after 22 years, while other films become somewhat diluted by their many derivations.
Total Recall stands beside Verhoeven's RoboCop as the shining beacon of a forgotten era, where major blockbusters with real budgets could be dangerous and smart. We will likely never see its kind again, where big budgets are spent on subversive ultra-violent movies for adults. It offers thrills, intellect and an endless supply of great quotes. It's a classic and it has not aged a day.
Re-mastered and re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray, there is now no need to pay for an expensive session at Rekall for a memory implant; simply buy Total Recall today and be reminded why you love this movie on a regular basis.