Total Recall (1990): Mind-Bending Edition Review

Absurdest violence headlines what is arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s greatest action role in Total Recall, a breathlessly paced thriller that’s either piling up bodies or pushing visual effects. Late in the film, a rundown section of Mars is deprived of oxygen; that’s sort of what it feels like as an audience member.

Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a mans man, a guy with bulging muscles, working with a jack hammer, and taking Sharon Stone to town in bed. He’s having a blast at life, but has an obsession with Mars… or does he? Total Recall is a grandly structured, open mystery where the viewer distrusts everyone as often as Quaid does without ever getting the answer.

For all of the shoot-outs (and they are plentiful) and endless make-up applications, there’s always that wonder. Whenever Total Recall seems to be making itself obvious, there’s a twist hidden between the body counts that steers the viewer into another direction. It’s a thinker starring a hulking Austrian, and really, how many of those are there?

Paul Veerhoven’s directorial touches are everything, obsessed with violence and making the most of nudity. It’s not enough that women have two breasts. They’re mutants that have three. Blood squibs are set off en masse, and little people hoist up machine guns in the Mars rebellion. Recall is multifaceted in that behind Quaid lies a human story of futuristic human survival, as ludicrous as it can be poignant in regards to corporate greed or power. Copenhagen (Ronny Cox) runs the planet, going so far as to sell people the air they need to breathe.

Recall is a chase film, one of those where the hero finds himself constantly on the run from ruthless killers. Here, even the general populace isn’t enough to cause them to hold back their gunfire. Unlike so many others, this 1990 effort is stronger, built on a sci-fi base that is genuinely intriguing. You could consider this an amnesia story – as if we need more of those – but here the lead (supposedly) subjects himself to the mind altering technology. He wants it, even needs it, probably for superficial reasons. Yet, there’s a hero we care for whom we assume makes all the right judgments despite putting himself in harms way.

Here’s the kicker of it all. Leaving Recall behind, the discussion doesn’t veer towards how awesome the dozen or so gun fights were or how majestic the visual effects turned out. You remember those elements, store them in the back of your mind, but the real crux of the piece is tearing into it, scene by scene. Repeated viewings can strengthen or weaken personal views as to the events, but the end result is a film that allows your own personal side to be bolstered by a menagerie of ideas, sights, and dialogue strings. That’s brilliant.

Movie ★★★★★ 

Lionsgate trots out Total Recall as often as they do Terminator 2, but the Recall remake has put them in a position to treat this Veerhoven icon right. With a new scan, better encode, and refreshed color timing, this is the Blu-ray we should have seen with the dawn of the format.

Immediately noticeable are… well, not the black levels. They tend to sink due to fading, the opening scenes of Schwarzenegger and Stone in their bedroom pale (literally) in comparison to the scenes that follow. For whatever reason, the blacks ignite and carry the rest of the film, dotted only by an occasion or two of lapses. Judging by a restoration comparison provided on the disc, it merely looks like age.

Where the disc comes alive is definition. Resolution feels greatly enhanced and focused, close-ups meticulously consistent. The number of shots where Recall feels photographed yesterday are enormous. It’s to the benefit of everything, from the wicked cool make-up effects to those astonishing miniature shots that show off the Martian landscape. It’s all fine detail, all the time.

An AVC encode handles a grain structure that fluctuates between barren and heavy, never to the point of being a nuisance or digitally manipulated lost cause. The only moment where the compression becomes apparent is the complex end battle, where steam engulfs the set and sends things into a tizzy. It’s a little too noisy for an otherwise precision presentation.

Things become tricky with a color timing that skews towards the modern, impeding on certain elements. Take flesh tones which have been warmed up, certainly adding life, but adding wild inconsistencies in regards to visual effects. For an early comparison, view the opening bedroom scene, then the kitchen chat with the multi-pass effects in the background. Arnold goes from bronzed to pale white. Contrast feels brightened and also chilled. It’s not super intrusive, although considering the new tints an “improvement” will probably be up for contention.

Speaking on the source print, the clean-up work has removed most signs of damage. A stray fleck of dirt now and then is more than acceptable, and the unavoidable damage during many of the effect shots are in line with any catalog feature this aged. Again, the kitchen scene is one of the worst offenders, while many of the Martian landscapes are free of imperfections. It’s wonderful.

Video ★★★★☆ 

Audio has also been reworked into a fuller, richer environment than what US viewers had previously. Astonishing is the score, which from the opening credits, lands those high peaks without so much as a flutter or strain. There are no signs of diminished returns in regards to age. Even when mixed in with the other elements or heavy gunfire seated above the music, it’s still perky, focused, and clean.

What’s missing, and most will say mercifully so, are the surrounds. Major action scenes rarely reach to spread around the audio, or do so almost as if they don’t want to be noticed. The subway shoot-out places a few seconds of shattering glass in the rears but it’s so subtle that it barely registers. Much of the activity spreads across the front soundstage, enough to space out the effects and add directionality.

LFE rumbles with superiority, generous in its application to make ships rock the room, and explosions feel full. Even if it’s an after effect and not part of the original mix, the application is sound and natural. It doesn’t elevate or feel out place. Pieced together with the score, it takes on another layer of effectiveness.

Audio ★★★★☆ 

This isn’t the super deluxe final edition of Total Recall (extras are still left out), although the selection is appreciated. Not appreciated is the sea of unskippable trailers at the beginning that must be chapter skipped. There’s no top menu choice.

Director Paul Veerhoven and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up for the most accent-heavy commentary track ever, followed with a 34-minute interview with Veerhoven as he explains how the film came to be, along with the challenges. A vintage making-of featurette has long since been eclipsed, but it stays here for posterity. Models and Skeletons is a little dry in execution, while the explanations for how the effects were composed is fascinating.

Imagining Total Recall is a 31-minute documentary that’s floated around home video releases while remaining no less relevant. What’s left? A restoration comparison that seems to be looking at the film stock (not a previous release), a trailer, and a photo gallery.

Extras ★★★☆☆