When I look back on that year, there is one movie that has embedded many images into my mind. It has steered the course of my taste in films since and stands out above all the others.
It was a Schwarzenegger vehicle and probably the first movie of his that I ever actually sat down to watch. I remember Terminator being on in the background a few times as I grew up. As a kid, it didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t see Total Recall in the theater. Of course, my parents weren’t taking a 13-year-old kid to see an R-rated film. But a few months after its release, it started airing on one of the premium movie channels that we had.
I remember that it was a perfect storm one evening. My mom was at work. She worked in a hospital, and she had the 3 pm-11-pm shift. My dad was getting ready to leave for his job as a firefighter. My brother and I were getting ready to spend the evening at home all alone. We’d been fed, and I was popping some popcorn and flipping through the TV Guide to figure out what I was going to watch. I saw that Total Recall was about to come on. I had seen the commercials, and I knew I wanted to see it. Being the honest kid that I was, I went to my dad as he was leaving and asked if it was okay if I watched it. He thought about it for a minute and said, “Yeah, but don’t tell your mom.”
Now a little about the movie itself. Total Recall is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Of course, it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, and Michael Ironside. It was directed by Paul Verhoeven, the same guy that had brought us Robocop a few years before and would make Starship Troopers a little while later. The concept grabbed me immediately. Arnold plays a regular guy who works as a construction worker. He has all these dreams of being something bigger than he is. He sees an advertisement for a company called “Recall” that specializes in putting manufactured memories in your brain. The idea is that if you don’t have time to take a vacation, you can have the memories of a vacation put in your brain. It's the same thing. He goes through with the procedure and things go a little sideways. He discovers that he is a spy and he has a mission to complete on Mars.
I went back and watched this movie again a little more recently, about the time the remake with Collin Farrell came out a few years ago. The special effects don’t hold up, and the story gets clunky toward the end. It suffers from a classic problem where a movie has a great story but it needs to wrap up so quickly for no other reason than it’s time to wrap it up. But, even today, I can watch it and get lost in that world. Some of that is Verhoeven’s vision. He had a way of world-building that gave us futuristic satire of our society that made you think. He did it in Robocop as well. You see the things happening around the character and you think to yourself…”Yeah, I can see that happening”. But it is also a product of Philip K. Dick’s mind. He could tell such big stories in just a few pages. And when it is handled by the right filmmaker, it can deliver something truly amazing.
Total Recall may be considered to be a middle–of–the–road sci-fi flick in most critics’ eyes…but it is the one film from 1990 that left the biggest impression on me.