At the moment there is a lot of talk about Paul Verhoeven’s ‘trilogy’ of sci-fi movies being remade. I think the terms used to discuss the remakes are stupid, banal, and facile. Verhoeven made three fantastic social satires, that were also science fiction action films: Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers*. Okay, only two were fantastic, Starship Troopers was stupid. They were also all made at a time when you could make a grossly violent film and not be shunned by cinemas and TV in favour of PG13 violence – you know, the violence that is heavy on explosions and pew-pew noises, but light on the consequences of that violence, which raises kids to believe that violence doesn’t hurt anyone.
Robocop: The Reboot has just hit the cinemas, spurring people the internet over to complain about a movie they haven’t seen (new Robocop), a movie that hasn’t been made yet (new Starship Troopers – not to be confused with Super Troopers), and how terrible the recent Total Recall movie was. Anyone would think that Colin Farrell had personally shagged Arnie’s housekeeper the way they talk about the Total Recall remake.
So I did something unthinkable: I rewatched the remake, the Verhoeven/Schwarzenhamneggnburger version, and read the Phillip K Dick short story (or is it a novella?). The reason for doing so? Because these remakes were being derided so heavily. Nothing inspires people to touch wet paint like putting a wet paint sign on it.
Let’s start with the Total Recall remake. It is an action film: good start. It is a sci-fi: in that it doesn’t have a talking dragon in it, thus it can’t be fantasy, despite the lack of ‘science’ in the science fiction, making it closer to fantasy. It has half decent actors in it: I’d watch just about anything with Kate Beckinsale in it since seeing Shooting Fish, as long as the movie doesn’t have Ben Affleck in it – yes that one, let us not speak it’s name. It also appears to have a plot: I could be mistaken.
As a film the Total Recall remake is fine. All the right things explode, all the good guys live, all the bad guys die horribly, most of the needless violence is against robots so we don’t get caught up in the mass genocide that the hero performs. As an adaptation of the short story, you could be forgiven for thinking the film makers only read the first few pages; much like the original movie. As compared to the original Total Recall, it is a pale, facile shadow.
The Arnie version worked as both a straight up action movie, but also had a much better secondary plot about whether it was all happening or all in his head. This part is what makes the original movie closer to a Phillip K Dick adaptation than the new movie. Although the original movie being closer to the source material is probably because the screenwriter and Verhoeven had read the dust jacket of the story, whereas Len Wiseman and his screenwriter just took Verhoeven’s word for it that there was an original story to base the movie upon.
Dick’s story actually has a really funny and interesting twist ending, which neither movie used because the movies and story diverge at about the time when Doug Quaid (Quail in the book) arrives home after visiting Rekall. In fact, We Can Remember If For You Wholesale bears so little resemblance to the movies that you’d more call it an inspiration for them rather than source material. I don’t have a problem with this, as long as they handed Dick a great big cheque, maybe a signed picture of Arnie to go with it, maybe some Planet Hollywood shares as well.
The movies are both good fun, both are entertaining, both are well made, both had dubious understandings of physics. There is nothing wrong with the new movie as a piece of entertainment. But it won’t last the way the original movie has. This comes down to Verhoeven’s handling of the secondary plot, which might as well not exist in the remake. I certainly look forward to the even more facile Total Recall movie that will come out in another 20 years, which will probably not even have a three boobed woman in it.
* I could write an entire essay on how Heinlein’s original novel differed from the movie and how its social comment was far deeper and insightful than the movie.
5 thoughts on “Total Recall: the movie, the movie, or the book?”
Since he died in 1982, Philip K Dick probably wasn’t in the sort of state you’d want to present a cheque to in 1990.
Actually he’s a lot like Van Gogh, in that his real success came after he died. For most of his life he wasn’t particularly successful. It’s why so many of his novels and stories are a bit rough round the edges, he was churning them out as fast as he could pour amphetamines into his typewriter.
The original story is just weird, and IIRC the ending involves magical mice and a secret scroll that saves all mankind. The original 1990 film is great, but really PKD didn’t write most of it. The guy still deserves lots of acclaim, and the money, even though he was dead. I suppose his daughter Isa will have got most of the benefit of that.
I’m still waiting for someone to make a film of Ubik. The story is amazing, one of his best. I think it’d probably be one of his easiest to film, lots of stuff happens in definite locations, lots of explanatory dialogue and action. No mice. Half-dead people in cryo tubes, talking to the living through electronic psychic amplifiers.
Of course I’d hate to see Hollywood fuck up an adaptation, as they so often do. A Scanner Darkly was good though, so they CAN do it when they want to.
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I tend to regard movie adaptations as falling into a categorisation continuum:
a) lots of books never get optioned for movies;
b) of the books that do get optioned, very few actually get made into movies;
c) of the movies made, very few are actually good movies;
d) of the good movies, very few are faithful to the book.
Now, a faithful adaptation doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie either, so that is a caveat to bear in mind.
So really, fucking up an adaptation is one of the better outcomes.