“What do you want, Mr. Quaid?
The same as you; to remember.
To be myself again.
You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.”
And here’s the scene.
So before the hype machine cranks into gear for the forthcoming remake, it is timely to consider the original film, now 21 years old. At this distance, the special effects look almost Mélièsian in their artlessness (yet they were deemed worthy of an Academy Award) and the roles of the women are almost offensively under-written. But that is to miss the real cinematic achievement in Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece.
Despite being aimed squarely at the emerging multiplex mass market millions (and succeeding – box office $250M and counting), the film concedes nothing in plot twists and narrative complexity to Philip K Dick’s (PKD’s) approach to storytelling (the film is based on his short story, “We can remember it for you wholesale). Sure there’s a happy ending, but the film leaves loose ends and invites its public to think hard about what it means to be human, to have an identity, to be confronted with one’s past and the decisions that forces on the present. Crudely put, the film’s aesthetic and acting are drawn firmly from the Hollywood blockbuster paradigm, but the film’s (dare I use the word?) philosophy is subtle and opaque. Given that PKD wrote his science fiction for pulp magazines – yet explored this philosophy over and over again – the mismatch between the vehicle for storytelling and its substance, is rather appropriate.
Unlike pretty much every mainstream Hollywood movie since, Total Recall made me want to explore its source material, if not PKD’s less rewarding film adaptations (Minority Report, obviously, but also A Scanner Darkly and, yes, Bladerunner too). Amongst his vast body of work, often written both at speed and on speed, one finds dazzling novels like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in which PKD appears to foresee not just the internet, but Fox News too. But it was in the short story that PKD is shown at his best, with the early, beautifully realised “Human Is” perhaps his best work (full text here) and the inspiration for the quote at the top of this page – a tale that I find as spiritual as anything in a holy book.
For further PKD information, try this excellent biography. Oh yes, watch Total Recall again too – it’s worth it.