Total Recall: Remembering It Wholesale

A few weeks ago, I went to see the Colin Ferrell Total Recall remake (directed by Len Wiseman)  and was struck by a comment from another audience member while the movie started: “I remember coming to see this when Arnold was in it.” The audience member was two rows behind me and, sadly, this would not be his last audible statement during the movie. The commentary pretty much went on non-stop for the next hour and a half.

But what a comment to begin a movie about memory and identity! Who would have thought, watching Paul Verhoeven’s cheese-tastic Total Recall twenty-two years ago, that the grunting Austrian body builder on screen would take on the identity of a governor of California? Or that Sharon Stone, sex siren of the 90’s, would one day look too voluptuous and healthy-looking to be a leading lady in the 21st century? And speaking of changes, had most of us even said the word Internet in 1990?

I was surprised to read how many critics were disappointed with the Len Wiseman/Colin Ferrell version that came out this summer because they…er…recalled the first film so fondly. It made me want to watch the original, which I had never seen (this reviewer was not allowed to watch rated ‘R’ films until he turned 17 in 1992). Watching the Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger Total Recall for the first time, I enjoyed the film’s campy sci-fi sense of fun (they certainly made sure they got the full value of that three-breasted woman) but it’s not a good film. In fact, watching it on Blu-ray, with the HD exposing the blue-screen shots and amateurish sets and vehicles, it looks like a high-budget version of an old Doctor Who episode.

Hard to believe anyone would dare to remake the classic movie on the left.

The Wiseman/Ferrell version is a thousand times more technically advanced. With the CGI revolution, the world the filmmakers create grinds, pulses, and immerses the viewer in a claustrophobic urban dystopia. The film purposely…er…recalls (sorry, I’ll try not to do that again) not only the Verhoeven version, but Hollywood sci-fi classics like Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. The film suspends viewers in a continual state of memory of films past, blending hyperrealities until no one is sure which film is the remake and which is the original. Seeing the 2012 version as a well-made homage to directors like Ridley Scott and George Lucas makes it at least as watchable, and possibly as enjoyable as the 1990 version.

Ferrell explores a world seemingly built by Ridley Scott.

But why remake such a fantastically successful film only twenty years later? (IMDB counts the worldwide total for 1990’s Total Recall at $260 million). There’s a kernel of anxiety in this story about loss of identity in a technologically advanced age. It’s summed up in line readings in both Schwarzenegger’s garbled Austrian accent, and the Irish Ferrell’s impeccable regular guy American accent: “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” What a brilliant statement on the predicament of postmodern life.

Both films claim to be based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” about a faceless clerk who tries to take a chemically-induced trip to Mars, and is discovered to be a secret agent who’s memory has been erased. What a prophet Philip K. Dick was to suggest that in the future, in an age of avatars and Facebook, identities would be so fluid, we’d be uncertain of just who we are!

Except that wasn’t quite what Dick was writing about. My curiosity piqued by having now seen both the 1990 and 2012 versions of Total Recall, I looked up “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale.” The story is clearly a piece of 20th century fiction, dealing with 20th century problems. The yearnings of a hapless clerk, the loss of customer satisfaction in a corporatized world, questions of altered consciousness through chemical experimentation, and the fear of manipulation by the postwar psychoanalytic establishment are part of the mix of issues Dick deals with in the story.

In fact, the films bear only a passing resemblance to the short story. Watching the movies, bits and pieces of “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” pop up like details of a half-remembered dream. The obnoxious robotic cab driver from the 1990 film is in the story, although in Dick’s tale, he keeps referring to the clerk as “Sir or Madam.” The three-breasted woman is based on Dick’s conception of the secretary of Rekall, Incorporated, the company that offers these vacations of the mind. She’s topless (apparently acceptable work attire in the future), and has her bare chest spray-painted blue, but there’s no mention of a third mammary. In Dick’s story, the protagonist is named “Quail,” not “Quaid.” In 1990, the name Quail might have brought up associations with a certain Vice President who is already being lost to history. Finally, that most memorable line, “If I’m not me…” was the creation of the screenwriters.

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 1966.

The short story is full of lovingly placed anachronisms that ground it in 20th Century experience. For instance, when Quail realizes he hasn’t gotten his promised mental trip to Mars from Rekall, he heads straight home to write a letter to the Better Business Bureau—on a typewriter. A Hermes Rocket Portable, to be exact, which happened to be Phillip K. Dick’s writing instrument of choice. Quail’s problem isn’t so much the confusion of identities of the postmodern world, but the existential anxiety of lost identity in the modern world. In fact, his name, ‘Quail,’ rather suggests his role as corporate quarry.

Part of the legacy bequeathed to us by the modern era was the idea of “self-help.” If one was uncertain of the importance of one’s life, perhaps by living into a fuller version of the self—more “real” and “self-actualized”—one could disarm the existential dread that supposedly stalked us all. Books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) merged with pop perceptions of psychoanalysis and the breakdown of institutional religion to create modern-day self-help psycho-religious gurus like Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle. Yet, often what is seen as axiomatic in a society—in this case that the self may be “helped” to a greater fullness of being—is in fact the location of profound uncertainty.

As multiple forms of media allow us to practice multiplicities of self in the form of personas and avatars, this leads to the shadow questions, the elephants in the room of our self-help spiritual society: “Which of my selves am I to help?” “If I were to pick one self to start with, which one would it be?” And, even more ominously, “What if there is no essential self for me to help?”

I lecture about this in the final class of my course on religion and popular culture, and the answer I basically come to is: “God.” If we are beings made in the image of God, perhaps there is an “essential self” that is not entirely contained within our own personal identities, but must be found in the more expansive identity of being human beings made in the image and likeness of God. This doesn’t negate the fracturedness of postmodern life, but gives us hope that in some way both within and beyond ourselves there might be wholeness and unity.

Perhaps the critics and fans of the 1990 Total Recall that couldn’t accept Colin Ferrell, a significantly better actor, in the role of Douglas Quaid were mourning their own lost selves. Perhaps they were asking, “If I was me, then who the hell was I when I thought this film was good?”

That was twenty-two years ago, when Arnold becoming “the Governator” would have been a wildly unlikely joke, when Sharon Stone’s permed blond mop was the height of screen eroticism, and the adolescent fantasies spawned by a woman with three breasts were unencumbered by those even stranger mutation agents of the human body and mind: age and experience.


In addition to the parentally-enforced ban on rated 'R' movies, the author was way too busy with band camp to see the first Total Recall.