Is it real, or is it...Rekall?
Note: In the following review, Dean wrote up the first film commentary, and John wrote up the introduction, second film commentary, video, audio, extras, and parting thoughts.
Now, before all you folks in the U.S. go rushing out to your local video shops to buy "Total Recall" on HD-DVD, let me tell you, you probably won't find it there. As much as I hate to disappoint HD-DVD fans in America, as of this writing the movie is only available in the States on Blu-ray, which Dean reviewed earlier. The disc reviewed here is a French import HD-DVD from Studio Canal. Yes, there are a number of HD-DVD movies available in Europe that in the U.S. you can only find on Blu-ray; and among the various places you can find these elusive HD-DVDs are Amazon.com, France, and xploitedcinema.com. For a list of many current HD-DVD releases worldwide, you might start with Microsoft's Web site under "Music and Video/HD-DVD" and go from there. There may also be a store or two in America that imports these things, but I'm not aware of them.
The nice thing is that (again, as of this writing) there is no region coding enforced on the discs. European HD-DVDs will work in American players and vice versa. How long this situation will last is anybody's guess, but for the time being it makes buying HD-DVDs a whole lot simpler.
As far as obtaining HD-DVD import discs from Europe, if my experience is any indication, it's pretty easy. I paid about $35 for "Total Recall," including shipping, and it arrived about a week after I ordered it. Yes, that's maybe a bit more than you would pay in the U.S. for an HD disc, but when you're faced with the choice of paying a little more or not having it at all, the few extra dollars seem worthwhile. So, let's first let Dean tell you about the movie, and then I'll be back to touch upon the movie, too, plus the video, audio, and such.
The Movie According to Dean:
Director Paul Verhoeven is the director you love or hate. Above anyone else in Hollywood, he is a man known for filmed violence and controversy. His films never get past the MPAA without an initial X or NC-17 rating. These violent films are usually science fiction and generally intelligent. Films like "Robocop," "Total Recall," "Basic Instinct," "Showgirls," "Starship Troopers," and "Hollow Man" do not make up the resume you would expect from a man with a doctorate in math and physics.
After creating a number of award-winning films in his native Netherlands, such as "Soldaat van Oranje" and "Turks fruit," Verhoeven hit it big with "Robocop." "Robocop" became a cultural phenomenon, despite its violent nature and inherent gore. That film poised Verhoeven for a bigger follow-up project.
One day, Arnold Schwarzenegger came calling. He had wanted to work with Verhoeven for quite some time, and he had been interested in the screenplay "Total Recall" for an even longer time. After the script fell through the hands of David Cronenberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Patrick Swayze, and a bankrupt Dino DeLaurentiis, Schwarzenegger talked Carolco Pictures into purchasing the story and with his and Verhoeven's recent successes, "Total Recall" would finally make it to the big screen. Swayze and DeLaurentiis had gone as far as having sets built, but when DeLaurentiis' company went bankrupt, the film was halted.
With director and star attached, "Total Recall" began production in 1989. The film was one of the last big-budget spectacles to utilize miniature effects and other classical means of special effects. Afterwards, computers began to monopolize the industry. Verhoeven resorted to using the old technique of projecting filmed sequences onto miniatures for many of the effects throughout the film. "Total Recall" would go onto win an Academy Award for its special effects.
Upon release, "Total Recall" quickly gained notoriety for its record-setting body count. Verhoeven easily outdid the gore and violence of "Robocop" and set a new standard for deaths. Many cuts had to be made before the MPAA would allow the film to be released with an R rating. Verhoeven, of course, defends the violent nature of the film and the scenes that were trimmed. A remarkable amount was preserved, and scenes involving Arnold using an innocent bystander as a human shield and a scene where a villain's arms are removed at the elbow were retained for the final release.
"Total Recall" is a benchmark for modern science-fiction films. The film possesses an incredibly intelligent plot that leaves the viewing guessing whether or not the main character was dreaming or whether the film took place in reality. The effects are stunning and to a degree, hold up well today. Without a doubt, this is Arnold's best picture and arguably Verhoeven's best American outing. The film successfully meshes action and (yes) violence with a great story and outstanding acting.
The basic premise of "Total Recall" is that Quaid (Arnold) keeps having dreams about Mars. His wife (Sharon Stone) keeps telling him that he does not want to visit Mars and tries to get him away from those dreams. One day, Quaid decides to go to Rekall, a company that sells artificial memories of vacations or exciting adventures. Quaid is then either put into a Rekall session that makes him a super-skilled agent who must save all of Mars, or has Quaid suddenly remember that he is actually a super-skilled agent who must save all of Mars.
This dual possibility of final outcomes is what makes "Total Recall" special. One view is that Quaid dreams all of the events that happen during the film, as part of the Rekall program. In the end of the dream, he is lobotomized, because he cannot be woken from the Rekall session. The other possibility is that his visit to Rekall restores parts of his memory and the reason he dreams of Mars is that he is actually an agent who was fighting for either the bad or good guys.
The main story for "Total Recall" was taken from Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." Dick was also responsible for the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" This novel was later brought to the big screen in the form of "Blade Runner." In addition, Dick wrote a short story that was to be the sequel for "Total Recall," but it became the basis for Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report."
"Total Recall" is the epitome of a science fiction classic. It combines top-notch special effects with a powerful story and great acting. Verhoeven was on top of his game when he filmed "Total Recall" and garnered the best performance ever given by muscle-bound hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are so many reasons why you should watch this film. There are not many reasons why you should not.
I've seen "Total Recall" a number of times. Fortunately, I am a Paul Verhoeven fan. I love a little violence in my movies. "Total Recall" delivers with a high death count and pretty good action. The Governor of California does a great job in the title role, and today this is still a fun film to watch. 9/10
The Movie According to John:
I'd like to echo most of Dean's thoughts. I like "Total Recall," too, perhaps not quite as much as Dean does, because I admittedly find it a pretty silly affair, but enough to watch and enjoy it repeatedly. While the film has an abnormally high degree of violence and profanity (not only is the body count high, so is the use of the f-word), none of it seems gratuitous. Whether you see the movie as a dream or as a kind of hyperextended reality, you almost never notice its excesses for the very reason that they are so excessive. The movie is actually cartoonish in the way the filmmakers so liberally throw around foul language and blood, reminiscent of the later "Kill Bill" and "Sin City" flicks.
Say what you will about Verhoeven's penchant for extravagant theatrics, when he's not yanking the arms off people or putting bullets in their forehead, he tells a good story. Moreover, he does so with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of action; if you only spoke Martian, you could still follow most of the storyline. It's when the director ventured away from Robocops and Starship Troopers and into movies about more-serious personal relationships like "Showgirls" that he got into trouble. He best serves his brand of overstatement and melodrama in the kind of thrillers that require the least amount of thinking on the part of the audience.
I liked the fact that the filmmakers (director Verhoeven and a flock of screenwriters, including Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman, all inspired by Philip K. Dick's short story) never let on whether the plot is all a dream or not, which no doubt is a result of the filmmakers themselves not knowing whether it was a dream or not. That may seem like a cop-out, but it's really not. They let you have it either way, something that apparently bothered one of the film's stars, Sharon Stone, who wanted something more definite in mind for her character.
Speaking of which, stars I mean, Schwarzenegger never looked better. He was well into his forties when he made the film, but in the several scenes where he bares his chest, we can see his exaggerated, Mr. Universe physique is still intact. What's more, he is as lighthearted as ever in the role, never seeming to take himself or the picture too seriously. Then, too, Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin make lovely and formidable heroines/opponents, as do Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox as the villains, Ironside making a particularly vicious heavy as only he can portray them.
I'd place "Total Recall" among Arnold's better pictures, just a notch or two below "The Terminator" and "Terminator 2" and on a par with "Predator" and the tongue-in-cheek "True Lies." Not that I disliked "Conan the Barbarian," but these other films gave the actor something more to do than merely posture. 8/10
As with all of the HD-DVDs I've watched, it appears that this transfer is as good as the print from which it was made. I know that Dean was not entirely pleased with the look of "Total Recall" on Blu-ray, saying it "looked only marginally better than the Special Limited Edition DVD playing in an upconverted DVD player." Not so here. The HD-DVD, while maybe not in the very highest echelon of HD picture quality, nevertheless looks quite vibrant and well delineated in its VC-1, 1080p transfer. Grain is almost never an issue, blacks are solid, hues are realistically rendered, and all the reds, oranges, and browns of Mars are captured in appropriate detail. Facial close-ups are especially revealing, although some medium and long shots probably looked a bit soft in the original camera negative. Still, it's a darn sight better looking than my standard-definition version of the movie.
If I have any minor reservation at all, it isn't in regard to the video quality, which, as I say, is quite good, but the way the film's 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio was trimmed for 1.78:1 widescreen playback. Namely, the engineers appear to have taken a bit too much off the right side, cramping the opening titles on the far side of the screen, compounded by my television's overscan, which amounts to another 5%. The top and bottom don't suffer as much as the sides because the studio had already matted the original aspect ratio from a 1.37:1 negative, and a little more cropping doesn't show. At any rate, it's a minor matter, one done all the time for widescreen movies of this size, and mainly affects only the opening titles.
The sound for English comes via DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which worked perfectly well through the Toshiba's analogue outputs. If you are using a player's optical or coaxial digital output, you will, of course, have to own a receiver with DTS decoding capability. Anyway, the sound is fine, if a bit thin in the deepest bass and rather sparse in the rear channels. There are several scenes where the surrounds are used to good effect, but they are not in the majority. Dynamic range, impact, and clarity, however, are outstanding, and the bigger, noisier action scenes come off pretty well. You like ricocheting bullets and big, loud sonic booms? You got 'em.
This poor film can't seem to get a decent set of extras to save its life--not on SD, not on Blu-ray, and not on HD-DVD. This time, the only serious bonus is a Studio Canal promotional trailer, with excerpts from several of the studio's HD-DVD releases, like "T2," "Serpico," "The Elephant Man," "King Kong" (1976), "Ran," "Rambo," and others, either out now or coming soon to HD-DVD. The disc also contains two very nice calibration tests, one for audio and one for video, that are better than the little THX Optimizers you find on THX-mastered discs.
Beyond these items, there sixteen scene selections, but no chapter insert; an on-screen info function; English and French spoken languages; and a whole slew of subtitles, including English, French, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Finnish, and a few others I couldn't read. Interestingly, you choose the language at the beginning of the film, not during play, and it saves your choice to the player's memory. In other words, if you choose English, the next time you play the disc it automatically defaults to English (although you can still change it).
Two other small matters one can live with: While the title on the cover, back, and spine is written in English, the rest of the jacket is in French. It is an import, after all. And the title on the spine is written opposite of what it is on American releases, bottom to top instead of top to bottom, so the spine reads backwards (or upside down) compared to your other discs. You could simply live with it. Or you could insert the disc case on the shelf upside down so the spine faces in the same direction as the other titles. Or you could do what I did and scan the cover, use a graphics program to cut the offending words, rotate and replace them, and then print out a new cover. But I'm obsessive. Fortunately, the disc comes housed in the same little Elite Red HD case we use in America, so, otherwise, it fits neatly into the rest of one's collection.
If you can stand the movie's relentless violence, or perhaps because of the movie's relentless violence, you might find "Total Recall" as entertaining and imaginative a sci-fi thriller as any around. The pre-CGI special effects hold up well, and the plot twists are as intriguing as ever. Fun stuff, especially in HD.