Saturday, July 8, 2017

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)
IFC viewing

The work of Philip K. Dick has been a Hollywood go-to source for decades, even today. The current Amazon series The Man in the High Castle is based on Dick's 1962 Hugo-winning novel. This fall, a sequel to the hit movie Blade Runner - based, of course, on the short story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" - will be released. 

I've never read any of his work, so I can't speak to how much (or how little) Hollywood has changed his material. I imagine there's a substantial difference. Prose sci-fi, especially from the mid-20th century, is fairly dense. Sci-fi movies tend to go more for broad strokes, though that's slowly changing.

Dick was born in Chicago. He went to high school in California with future SF peer Ursula LeGuin. His literary career began in the 50s. Though he wrote SF, he aspired to do more mainstream stuff. He married five times and tried to kill himself once. He was a heavy user of amphetamines.

He had some pretty wacky ideas throughout his life: he thought he had lived a past life in ancient Rome; he believed he was possessed by the spirit of a Biblical prophet; he subscribed to "panentheism," which basically means God is everywhere and in everything. You can read more about his beliefs here.

"We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the 1966 short story that was the basis for the film Total Recall (both versions), is emblematic of the kind of stories Dick favored, in which what we think of as "reality" is ephemeral and highly subjective. In Paul Verhoeven's adaptation, we never know for certain if everything that happens to Arnie is real or simply implanted memories. I like that aspect; it seems important for this kind of story.

Verhoeven movies are always a trip because of their over-the-top nature. He'll have his characters do the craziest things, often out of nowhere: a gentle, friendly lady scientist violently slaps her milquetoast young assistant to keep him from freaking out; a little old lady tries to steal Arnie's briefcase and curses him when she fails. Scenes like these, campy and funny as they are, don't seem completely out of place.

Can I get some love for Ronny Cox? Scenery chewer par excellence, he made for some memorable and scummy bad guys, both here and also in Verhoeven's RoboCop. In both films, he's paired with a henchman: the stern Michael Ironside in Recall and the slick Kurtwood Smith in Robo. Cox has more of a relationship with Smith, though. Ironside just takes orders from him. Cox is better when he has someone equally smarmy to play off of, like Smith and Miguel Ferrer. It's always good to see Cox being bad!

Is reality subjective, like Recall and Dick's writings, would have you believe? Maybe, but if so, I think we still gotta go on living as if it wasn't - because how else can we relate to each other? There are way too many stupid things we hairless apes fight over to begin with, like skin color, or whose invisible sky fairy is the best. If one group suddenly decides grass is blue and another says it's green, we'd be in even worse shape. Some things we simply have to accept as givens until proven otherwise.

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