Producer Ronald Shusett purchased the rights to science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” for $1,000 after reading it in the April 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Renaming it to Total Recall, he wrote the script with Dan O’Bannon to write the script. After studios considered their script filled with too many special effects to be filmable, they went on to make Alien. The script was sold to Dino De Laurentiis’s De Laurentiis in 1982 and went through nearly a decade of developmental hell.
All manner of directors were suggested — Richard Rush, David Cronenberg, Lewis Teague, Russell Mulcahy and Fred Schepisi — and the script was written and rewritten as the budget went up and down. Cronenberg wanted to make a movie like Dick’s story; Shusett and De Laurentiis wanted “Raiders of the Lost Ark goes to Mars.”
At some point — probably while working on Raw Deal — Arnold Schwarzenegger became aware of Total Recall and wanted to be in it. Following De Laurentiis’ bankruptcy, he convinced Carolco Pictures to buy the rights. Arnold had substantial power: he retained Shusett as a screenwriter and co-producer alongside producer Buzz Feitshans, and oversaw script revisions, casting decisions and set construction himself, taking home $10 million and 15% of the profits (it made $261.4 million on an $80 million budget, so Arnold did more than fine).
Schwarzenegger hired Paul Verhoeven as the director and there were thirty rewrites before filming started. All in all, there were sixteen years in development, seven directors, four co-writers and forty script drafts before shooting began. The filming was filled with injuries and illnesses, as nearly everyone dealt with dust inhalation on set, as well as food poisoning and gastroenteritis.
To keep things from getting too rough, Arnold was a prankster on set, arranging water gun fights and throwing parties for the crew who were all working long six day weeks. Co-star Michael Ironside had a sick sister; Schwarzenegger helped him stay in regular contact with her using his personal phone in the days before everyone had mobile phones. He later discovered that Arnold was also regularly calling his sister to check on her health.
Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a man stuck on Earth who dreams of Mars, a place that he can finally see thanks to Rekall, a company that sends people on VR vacations thanks to implanted memories. But then what is reality? Is it what Quaid sees in his dreams? Or is everything after Rekall — his wife (Sharon Stone) being an evil agent and his true love actually being a Martian freedom fighter named Melina (Rachel Ticotin ) — just part of the vacation? I’ve wondered that so many times since I first saw this and like to experience the movie in different mindsets.
Between Ronny Cox playing another rich old man — Vilos Cohaagen — and Michael Ironside as Richter, his main soldier, this movie has a great collection of bad guys who are fighting to keep all the air from the people. And when it gets to Mars, there’s a really interesting world waiting.
It also feels like a Cannon movie because its politics — you can see it as an anti-corporation and revolutionary story — are muddled with the idea of Mars getting Arnold as its white savior. It has so many agendas along with a huge body count. I think too much about movies and the theory of Neal King — Quaid learns that he was living a lie, that he can change his life and yet because any good deeds that he performs are the result of who he was programmed to be, his free will is an illusion — obsesses me.
Like all Verhoeven movies, what appears to be escapist and empty ends up being filled with questions and revelations.
Arnold’s commentary on this movie is the best thing he’s ever created: