Saturday, October 03, 2015
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter Two: Prisoners of Dragos" (September 16, 1978)
In the second fifteen minute installment of Jason of Star Command (1979-1980), titled “Prisoner of Dragos,” we meet the series’ charismatic villain for the first time.
As played by Sid Haig, Dragos is quite evil, and quite dedicated to his plan of “total conquest” of “the entire galaxy.” He also seems to have quite an array of technology (including eye lasers...) at his disposal.
As part of his plan of galactic conquest, Dragos knocks Jason (Craig Littler) unconscious and fashions a duplicate known as an “energy clone.” Once programmed, this individual will look and act exactly as Jason would, all while furthering Drago’s agenda of chaos.
Worse, as Jason discovers, the Commander Canarvin (James Doohan) he rescued in the previous story was also an energy clone. Now, that villain has been returned to Star Command while the real Canarvin languishes in the Dragonship prison...
“Prisoner of Dragos” moves at a fast-clip, a lot like an old pulpy movie cliffhanger, but this episode is notable for adding some sets and characters to the drama. We meet Dragos for the first time, and also see the interior of his magnificent and monstrous Dragon Ship.
I find it interesting that the Dragon Ship -- like the Star Command -- is built upon an asteroid, in this time a kind of orange-hued one. I wonder if space vessel construction occurs on asteroids on this scale because of the need for gravity. The giant asteroids of Space Academy/Star Command and the Dragonship may provide such gravity, thus preserving the “ships” energy for other crucial tasks or services (including life support, weapons, and defense.)
Still, the Dragon Ship hails from a “dark mysterious” galaxy, and so the fact that it shares a construction technique with Earth technology suggests something vital, I think about in-universe space travel.
At any rate, it’s fun to speculate about.
This episode also introducesthe crucial plot-twist of the series’ Year One narrative.
Energy clones belonging to Dragos have infiltrated important positions in Star Command, and this replacement has been carried out in secret. In 1980, this very idea -- android duplicates – was the crucial plot-point in the TV series Beyond Westworld. More recently, the idea found play in the re-booted, post-9/11 Battlestar Galactica re-imagination. Considering the evil dictator/terrorist villain and this sleeper cell sub-plot, it is fair to state that Jason of Star Command is ahead of its time.
On a more literal level, throughout this season, “energy clones” cause a lot of trouble for Star Command and Jason, and here our hero must undergo the duplication process himself.
Fans of Space Academy (1977) may also realize by this juncture that the source of Filmation's inspiration has changed from Star Trek to Star Wars. This episode -- like all episodes of the first season of Jason of Star Command -- is more interested in capture, rescue and battles, than in the examination of human morality and confrontation with diverse alien cultures.
Still, Jason is swashbuckling fun.
Next episode: “Escape from Dragos.”
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Castaways in Time and Space" (September 17, 1977)
This week, on Space Academy, Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) and cadet Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin) investigate a nearby black hole from the relative safety of their Seeker. Investigative results are "negative," but then the ship disappears inside the black hole, and the personnel are feared lost.
Meanwhile, back on Space Academy, Laura's brother Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott) is desperate to rescue his sister but meets with resistance from Paul Jerome (Ty Henderson), a new cadet on the team.
But Chris is adamant, and on a Seeker mission with Jerome, Tee Gar Soom and Peepo, the resident robot...)
Gentry detects Laura's presence via their unusual mind-linking ability. His Seeker travels to "star speed" through the black hole, and emerges on the other side, at a desolate planet.
There, on the surface, the team confronts a giant creature. The creature is angry, and capable of rendering itself invisible for short spells.
Paul saves the day by distracting the creature while Chris and Tee Gar rescue Laura and Commander Gampu. In other words, he thinks of others before himself.
Space Academy’s (1977) second episode, “Castaways in Time and Space” might seem like a basic or rudimentary space opera tale, but it is very strong in terms of its handling of the series characters.
The narrative concerns a Seeker -- with Laura (Pamelyn Ferdin) and Gampu (Jonathan Harris) aboard –inadvertently traveling through a black hole and becoming stranded on an alien world. Laura’s brother, Chris (Ric Carrott) is desperate to rescue her, but is thwarted at times by the new recruit, Paul (Ty Henderson), who possesses a different moral compass.
As I’ve noted before, I teach a college level course, Introduction to Intercultural Communications, and what it concerns is the fact that we shouldn’t always judge others by the standards of our culture, if they are from another one.
Instead, we should understand and respect other cultural traditions, just as we would like to see our traditions similarly respected. That’s what the dynamic between Paul and Chris really concerns here: two cadets from very different cultures, working together on the same mission. Chris misunderstands Paul’s behavior as being selfish, or even cowardly, when in fact, Paul is from a planet where survival is difficult, and he possesses a different -- but not necessarily inferior -- code of ethics.
In the end, Paul is true blue, of course, and proves that he is a hero, regardless of his cultural differences, and that’s a great message to send to kids (or adults for that matter). We might not always go at problems the same way as our neighbors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other, or achieve great success side-by-side.
In terms of special effects, Space Academy again impresses. Here, the alien life-form that lives on the planet on the other side of the black hole is rendered using stop-motion animation, and there’s even a scene involving a Seeker crash on the planet surface. Overall, the series compares very favorably to other (more expensive) American sci-fi series of the era, including Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981).
Two things age “Castaways in Time and Space.” The first is slang.
One of the characters in the drama is called a “turkey,” which is in perfect keeping with the 1977 real life context, but not so good for the 40th century or so.
And Loki and Peepo play a very primitive-looking computer game version of Tic-Tac-Toe.
Next week: "Hide and Seek."
Friday, October 02, 2015
Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster are experiencing quite a resurgence lately in the modern found footage film format. For instance, The Frankenstein Theory (2013) imagined Adam, the Monster, lurking in the 21st century Arctic (and still seeking a mate).
And the absolutely genius -- and mad -- Frankenstein’s Army (2013) imagines that a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein continues his ancestor’s twisted work creating life (or abominations, depending on your point of view) in World War II Europe.
I liked and enjoyed The Frankenstein Theory, though it is very much in keeping with conventional found-footage film standards. Basically, that film involves the hunting down, in our high-tech modern age, of a local legend by a film crew in an isolated environment.
Frankenstein’s Army is similar -- narratively speaking -- to that description, but is a period piece. More importantly, Frankenstein's Army is visually like no film ever conceived or executed. Director Richard Raaphurst’s movie boasts an anarchic energy in terms of both execution and visual imagery that renders it a truly disturbing and unique cinematic experience.
Meanwhile, matters of plot and character in Frankenstein’s Army are secondary to the idea of this film as an immersive, first-person experience, a first person tour of Hell on Earth.
Specifically, the film involves Russian soldiers (including a filmmaker) stumbling upon Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory facility and encountering -- one after the other -- the most horrific, imaginative, astounding monsters you can imagine.
These inventive and insane creatures are crafted with practical make-up, prosthetics and bizarre costumes -- no CGI whatsoever -- and the film wallows in messy blood and guts too.
Accordingly, Frankenstein’s Army is sickening and nasty, but it is nonetheless a film you won’t be able to look away from. The visuals are, in a word, amazing. And as weird and perverse as they clearly are, they are also grounded in solid production values and presentation. For example, the film benefits from a washed-out color canvas that suggests World War II propaganda films, and the period details are observed accurately.
Rewardingly, there’s also a thematic method to the film’s visual madness. In the closing moments of Frankenstein’s Army, Dr. Frankenstein brushes off a soldier's commentary that he’s insane for transforming human soldiers into cyborg monstrosities.
Why is he so dismissive?
Well, how can anyone accurately make the case that his madness is that awful in a world in which Nazis and Soviets are battling each other for world domination?
Why is this most individualistic mad scientist -- by any stretch -- sicker or more dangerous than those two destructive ideologies and their advocates?
The answer, simply, is that he is not. He’s small potatoes by comparison.
The Russian and German soldiers who have committed themselves (and indeed, their lives…) to murderous, genocidal regimes are thus exposed for what they are: hypocrites. What they’re doing is fine and dandy, but Frankenstein’s transplant surgeries are insane?
Thus Frankenstein’s Army reveals a world of mad monsters and bloody transplant surgeries, and notes -- somewhat caustically -- that these creations are hardly more sinister or alarming than man’s propensity to destroy himself in wars over ideology and belief systems.
Frankenstein may be mad. But he is not alone in that condition.
It’s a mad, mad, mad world.
“You’re an educated man: what do you think is happening?”
A Soviet filmmaker, Dmitri (Alexander Mercury) is embedded with a platoon of soldiers as they advance into Germany during WWII.
The group happens upon an industrial factory which is actually the laboratory of a mad scientist, Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden). The mad scientist has been using live human beings and arcane machinery to create a new breed of super soldier.
In truth, Dmitri has known about Frankenstein all along, and is on a mission to recruit the scientist to the Soviet Union. The good (or mad…) Doctor has different plans, however. He decides that Dmitri should chronicle his creation of machine/man hybrid/super soldiers.
Dmitri has no choice but to agree, and watches as some of the soldiers he has befriended go under the doctor’s bloody knife…
“A man of vision is always misunderstood.”
In terms of ingenuity and sheer variety, Frankenstein’s Army is the most impressive “creature” horror movie to come down the pike since Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990).
This found footage film introduces viewers to an array of monstrous, hideous creations of remarkable breadth and depth. The most notable is, perhaps, Mosquito, a giant black specter on serrated stilts with a functioning drill for a mouth. This guy is truly fearsome in his Nazi helmet and gas-mask.
And Mosquito is just the bloody tip of the creature effects iceberg.
One of my favorite monsters in the film is Propeller-head, a biped with a plane engine housing and functional propeller blades for a head. As you can imagine, things get messy when Propeller-head is nearby.
Then there are other remarkable beings: Razor Teeth, Grinder, Hammerhead, Machete, and Dentist.
One creature -- zompod? – is just a cauldron or container on tiny human legs. He dutifully follows Dr. Frankenstein about the lab, his pot-top opening and closing. He’s kind of a malevolent horror version of R2-D2.
These creepy creations are inventive, and beautifully show-cased. They are successful boogeymen not merely because of their bizarre, steam-punk-ish appearance, but because they move about, on-set so convincingly. As I’ve written before, I can stomach CGI in science fiction films when the technology is utilized to create landscapes or alien vistas.
But the horror genre is about flesh and blood, and CGI is too clean, too unreal, too lacking in gravity, to carry the right visual impact. Frankensttein’s Army is grounded in reality…crazy, sick, perverse reality, and I love the visceral, organic nature of the visualizations.
There’s a terrific, sustained shot late in the film wherein Dmitri runs deeper and deeper into the blighted industrial laboratory facility. He turns one corner, is confronted by a monster, turns another corner and encounters another monster, and so on. This composition continues at impressive length, and generates tension at the same time that it introduces the colorful Frankenstein’s beasts. The immediacy of the first person camera is coupled with the shock of real, monstrous creatures coming out of the woodwork and the effect is electric.
Frankenstein’s Army settles down in a chamber of horrors during the final, extended scene after a lot of running around and violent death scenes. Frankenstein takes center stage himself, and the audience gets a close-up look at his insanity. At one point, for instance he attempts to meld the frontal lobes of a Nazi and a Communist, in an attempt to bridge their different philosophies.
On one hand, this is clearly insane.
On the other hand, Frankenstein’s approach of physically joining opposing view-points in one brai is an acknowledgment that humans have a difficult time understanding people who are different from them. Frankenstein attempts to forge peace by bringing the two opposing philosophies together in one organ. His experiment is an utter failure -- and nuts, of course -- and yet at least he has peace in mind…somewhere.
It’s difficult to say the same thing for the other characters. Both the Nazis and the Soviets covet Dr. Frankenstein because he can help them destroy an enemy, not forge peace between people. And the soldiers -- who on first blush may seem like innocent victims of a mad doctor -- have committed their very mortality to destroying other human beings. In this light, and given the atrocities of World War II, it is difficult to make the claim that Frankenstein is any madder than the Nazis or the Soviets. The life that Frankenstein creates is twisted and perverse, but he sees it (importantly) as work that will help and improve humanity. His motives are good, but his logic and reasoning are terrible.
The other characters in the film are largely delineated in terms of how they can use people for their own ends, whether pro-social or not. For example, Dmitri betrays his fellow soldiers and is on a secret mission for the Kremlin. His mission is to recruit Frankenstein, or a loved one who is being held hostage will die. But again, Dmitri is placing someone he knows (and presumably agrees with, philosophically) over the lives of others. How is that any better than Frankenstein’s crazy plan for world peace?
I don’t approve of Frankenstein or his twisted experiments and ambitions. My point is merely that in a world of insane people, he hardly seems like the worst offender. A catalog of atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin demonstrates that such madness exists in reality, and can be far worse than the creation of monsters.
Frankenstein’s Army impresses structurally because it works, essentially, as a tour guide of the most hellish place on Earth. Armies clash. People die. And then there’s Frankenstein’s experiments. The first part of the film is all action, and the last part is a close-up look at one man’s particular brand of madness. Because of the backdrop of world war, it is impossible to see Frankenstein in a vacuum. He is not an aberration; he is fully part of a world in which technology and ideology are being used to kill people by the millions.
The negative reviews for Frankenstein’s Army focus largely on the lack of a developed narrative and fully-dimensional characters. I understand those complaints, but Frankenstein’s Army is a visual masterpiece that informs us about our world (or how our world looked, mid-20th century).
For its uniqueness and creativity, for its commentary on real madness (world war), and for its amazing monsters, Frankenstein’s Army deserves attention, and the love of genre fans seeking something that is both old-school and revolutionary at the same time.
Thursday, October 01, 2015
If you came of age watching sci-fi movies in the 1980s and 1990s, one fact was clear: Arnold Schwarzenegger had rapidly become the genre’s most valuable player.
The actor and future governor went from strength to strength in the form of The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987), Total Recall (1990) and T2 (1991). Rewardingly, he rose to the top of the action star pack by embracing the genre rather than shunning it.
By contrast, Sylvester Stallone didn’t begin making sci-fi based films (like Demolition Man  and Judge Dredd ) until the early 1990s, and by then, Schwarzenegger had all but cornered the market.
How did he do it?
In particular, Schwarzenegger seemed to have an authentic knack for picking good projects and good collaborators. Some would call this knack his “business” sense, but that isn’t entirely fair. It’s an artistic sense too.
But the actor also seemed to understand another significant fact: that his presence in a film was only one part of the successful movie equation.
The other piece involved serious science fiction concepts (like time travel), mind-blowing twists, and even embedded social commentary (The Running Man).
Total Recall, Schwarzenegger’s 1990 collaboration with Paul Verhoeven -- the auteur of RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) -- represents perhaps the trickiest and most twist-laden of those efforts, and is something of a high-water mark for the actor, post-Terminator.
Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short-story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, the film concerns a man who discovers that his whole life is a lie consisting of implanted memories…a lie which places him at the heart of an interplanetary conspiracy to keep the good people of Mars down, and keep cheap, clean air off the market.
Accordingly, Total Recall might be interpreted two competing fashions.
The film either exactly as it appears to be: a straight-forward (though left-leaning…) action/sci-fi film about a near-future fascist state in which profits matter more than people, and one man discovers the truth…and joins the revolution.
Or the film is about a man suffering from a “schizoid embolism,” -- a psychological breakdown -- living out implanted memories that have no bearing on reality.
In the film, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) submits to a memory package called an “ego trip” that transforms him, essentially, into an outer space secret agent.
Afterwards, the adventure we witness is, therefore, a psychotic episode.
Indeed, virtually every development in the narrative from the physical appearance of freedom-fighter Melina (Rachel Ticotin), to the map of Mars’ alien pyramid, to the remarkable notion of “blue skies on Mars” appears both in Quaid’s travel agent/ego trip package and in the ensuing adventure.
Ultra-violent and yet ceaselessly entertaining, Total Recall thus plays with reality in a way that would forecast the decade’s big sci-fi action hit, The Matrix (1999), right down to a scene in a hero is implored to swallow a red pill and see reality for what it is.
I suppose it’s tempting to witness all the blunt-faced, brutal, over-the-top violence of Total Recall and dismiss the movie outright. Yet even the film’s violence fits into Total Recall’s either/or dichotomy, representing a future of over-militarized police, or, contrarily, a world of the imagination where the death of innocent bystanders (as human shields) matters not…because they are just avatars in a fantasy, not real flesh and blood life forms.
“Take a vacation from yourself.”
On Earth, a lowly construction worker named Quaid (Schwarzenegger) dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman (Ticotin) there. He wants to relocate to the Red Planet, but his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone) doesn’t think it is a good idea. Instead, Quaid goes to REKAL, a company that can implant two-week’s worth of memories into his brain.
Quaid selects the “ego trip” memory package, in which he visits Mars as heroic secret agent. But something goes wrong during implantation, and Quaid grows confused about reality. Is he a secret agent, or isn’t he?
Soon, Quaid’s wife, his best friend on the job, and shadowy pursuers all attempt to kill him.
Before long, Quaid learns that he was once Hauser, an agent working for Coohagen (Cox), dictatorial governor of the Federal Mars Colony. Now, it is up to Quaid to take Hauser’s knowledge and save the people of Mars from Coohagen’s tyranny.
The only way to do that, however, is to create an atmosphere on Mars using an ancient, alien machine hidden in the sealed off pyramid mine….
“That’s a new one: blue sky on Mars.”
The science fiction films of Paul Verhoeven slyly go after the tenets of extreme right wing philosophy (and the Reagan eighties). There are other science fiction films, of course, which attack precepts of the left such as Statism (see: THX-1138) or communes (see: Zardoz) but that’s not the case here.
RoboCop imagines a world in which everything -- even the police force -- is run as a private business or enterprise and corporations run amok, literally stomping on the little guy on the way to shoveling in the profits.
Meanwhile, Starship Troopers is set in a world of mindless nationalistic propaganda in which nuance and reason can find no purchase in the head of any pretty (male or female) soldier during wartime.
Total Recall is not far afield of these films in terms of its philosophical underpinnings. The future here is one in which corporate logos dominate the landscape, both on Earth and on the Federal Colony on Mars.
And wall-sized TV screens constantly report biased news stories (coming from the mouths of beautiful women…) about the “terrorists” on Mars who are disrupting the flow of minerals, and therefore both the Northern Bloc’s war effort, and the flow of commerce.
Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) is the governor of Mars and he is responsible for the business practices that sold “cheap domes” on Mars, and turned a whole sub-set of colonists into genetic mutants or freaks. Cohaagen reveals terrible disdain for them and notes that the “lazy mutants” think they “own the mine,” when of course…he does.
Even worse, Cohaagen charges money for air, a resource that ought to be free to any living being. He declares martial law and heavily polices Mars so that business is not interrupted by people demanding more liberty. He also makes the people of Mars work for sub-par wages, so that they can’t escape their economic enslavement.
The mutant nature of the underclass in Total Recall is specifically designed as a visual allegory for ethnic minorities and the poverty-stricken. The word “lazy” as applied to mutants is a code word often adopted by racists.
Quaid joins the revolution of freedom fighters, led by Kuato (Marshall Bell), and activates an alien generator that will provide free air to everyone on Mars. Make no mistake or misreading: this act represents a re-distribution of resources from those in power to those without power. The whole corrupt system -- built on cheap domes and expensive air -- is brought down by this act or rebellion, and the worker is the one who benefits.
Again, I seek not to litigate the politics of this issue, or to state that I agree or disagree with the movie’s viewpoint. I only note the many visual and verbal cues in the film support the philosophical framework I diagrammed above, from the surfeit of corporate logos on the city streets, to the propaganda-heavy news reports, to the many shots of poor-families gathered together, choking to death for lack of free air.
Indeed, Total Recall fits precisely into the world-view one can detect in both RoboCop and Starship Troopers, where wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the masses. The film knowingly refers to Kuato as both a terrorist and a George Washington figure (fighting for liberty and independence), but it is clear where Arnie’s character falls on that spectrum of thinking. He takes the side of the rebellion, not entrenched authority, and never looks back.
What I find endlessly intriguing about Total Recall, however, is the “mind fuck” or “ego trip” aspects of this work of art. Quaid goes to Recall (REKAL) and either learns the truth about himself and his identity (Story A), or slips hopelessly into delusional psychosis and experiences a “free form delusion” (Story B).
If we consider Story B for a moment, it’s amazing to see how much it makes sense in context.
Quaid goes to REKAL and is offered the “Ego Trip” package by the slick salesman there. He shows Quaid a package in which he becomes a “secret agent” operating on Mars.
When Quaid is about to be implanted with the “Ego Trip”, the doctor shows him some new upgrades to that package. It includes, explicitly, material about alien civilizations on Mars. A screen nearby toggles through imagery of alien beings and architecture. One such image is of the Air-Generator in the Pyramid Mine.
Indeed, it is exactly that generator, as we see in the last act of the film.
So ask yourself, how does REKAL have access to the interior of a closed (and guarded) Martian mine, and know about a top-secret machine that could alter forever the balance of power on the Mars Colony?
The answer is simple, REKAL couldn’t have that info. Instead, it has implanted this imagery in Quaid’s memory. He then experiences a schizoid embolism, and then his mind takes him on a tour of said implanted imagery. The mine is never real. It exists only in the program, and then in Quaid’s schizoid mind.
In the same scene, Quaid is asked to pick a “type” of lover he would like. He says his orientation is “hetero” and the doctors begin programming a woman for him to romance on his ego trip. She is not just any woman, we see, but the operating room’s screen actually shows footage of Rachel Ticotin’s Melina.
Again, not a lookalike, not a doppelganger, actually her. And then, after the embolism event, Quaid encounters her. But she exists not in the real world, only in the program and in his messed up head.
The mitigating evidence here, perhaps, is that the film opens with a dream sequence in which Quaid and Melina are seen walking on the canals of Mars together. He slips, she screams and tries to help him. So it is established that he is thinking of Melina -- a mystery woman -- before implantation, and therefore it cannot be a fiction created by the ego trip programmers.
Yet it is not impossible to believe that Quaid has already been implanted as the movie starts, but has no memory of it.
In other words, his trip to REKAL is included, actually, in the ego trip and the “secret agent” package.
Think about it for a moment: a trip to REKAL is the perfect place for a construction worker to determine that he is actually the savior of the solar system. So REKAL might be incorporated as part of Quaid’s movie-long fantasy, which commences not with the trip to the company in the body of the film, but occurs before the opening dream that awakens the inner secret agent.
By the same token, the doctor informs the salesman that she has not yet “implanted” the secret agent portion of the memory program. But, if the entire movie is an implanted memory, her comment means nothing. It is simply the mind’s way of rebelling against the idea that it is living in a fantasy. Remember, when Quaid asks if the memories feel real, he is told that his “brain will not know the difference.” So, to seem real, perhaps he must believe that he was a secret agent all along and REKAL never implanted anything.
In the same implantation scene, a doctor’s assistant looks at the ego-trip architecture and quips. “That’s a new one…blue skies on Mars.” A highly implausible Hollywood happy ending, right?
Yet the film ends, of course, with blue skies on Mars, the end point of the two-week “ego trip” memory implant.
A second scene, later in the film, finds Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) on Mars, attempting to talk Quaid down, because he is having a psychotic break (schizoid embolism). Notice the visual symbolism of this scene. The mise-en-scene is important.
Quaid is stationed on the left side of the frame, Edgemar in the middle, and a distorted reflection of Quaid (in a mirror) is on the right. This visualization represents the core of the Story B narrative. "Schizoid" means doubling or fragmenting of the mind, and this image shows us two Quaids, attempting to broach reality, with Edgemar as the mediator.
Edgemar tells Quaid that if he doesn’t ingest the red pill, he will lose all touch with reality. He will be a savior one moment, a betrayer the next. This “free form delusion” will even include “fantasies” about an “alien civilization.”
He’s a villain and a faker in Story A. But in Story B, every single one of Edgemar’s theories comes true.
Melina finally trusts Quaid, and then learns that he is actually Hauser, working covertly against the rebels.
And, in the end, Quaid countenances the tools in the pyramid mine, artifacts left behind by an alien civilization.
Total Recall plays drolly with this idea that there are parallel tracks at work in the film (Story A/Story B), and ends with a moment of incredible playfulness that honors both possibilities.
Quaid stands under the blue skies of Mars with Melina and says that the whole experience is “like a dream.” She replies that he should kiss her before he wakes up.
At this juncture, Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into a different mode, one that suggests tension and anticipation, as if Quaid is about to wake up. The ego trip two-week vacation is ending, and real life -- as a construction worker -- is about to come crashing back down on him. You can’t miss the menacing quality of the soundtrack at this juncture, as if the carpet is about to pulled out from under us.
The self-reflexive aspect of this ending is plain. We -- the audience -- have been “dreaming” with our eyes open for two hours, watching the film. And now, it too is about to end.
Back to real life!
So Total Recall may merely be a story of revolution against the wealthy and powerful on Mars, or it may be a story of a man undergoing a hallucination because of a trip to the “brain butchers.” Either way, it is our dream at the cinema, captivating our attention, and finally, ending with a return to reality.
I remember when Total Recall first premiered, many critics complained about the level of violence depicted on screen. There is a scene here of extreme violence worth mentioning. Quaid is pursued through a train station. He goes up an escalator, and runs into a trio of agents. They shoot at him, but miss, hitting another man on the escalator. Quaid uses the man’s corpse as a human shield, and then kills his attackers. Next, he throws the corpse down the escalator, onto Richter (Ironside) and another pursuer. After they all get off the escalator, Richter steps over the bloody corpse of one of his men without a look back.
This is a pretty bracing scene, for certain, and yet it is not gratuitous. In some ways, it is one of the most important scenes in Total Recall. If we are following Story A, this violence is an indication, like the ubiquitous corporate logos, of the overwhelming fascist state. Militarized police kill citizens without warning, without regret, and without legal repercussions. This is Coohagen’s preferred world, where the little people live and die by his whim.
Contrarily, if we follow Story B -- the “ego trip” -- there is no real violence in the scene at all, and part of Quaid’s mind must realize that. The action is a vacation “.fantasy,” like Call of Duty video-game, and the people who get caught in the cross-fire are not real, mere avatars to make it all seem real.
The screen is covered in blood in the film, and this is an intentional thing. Verhoeven even gives us a scene in which chunky rat blood pools on a view-screen, obscuring Quaid's visage. The screen then turns to the blood red of the Martian surface. This transition could be the trademark inage of the film (and Verhoeven's Story A/Story B parallel approach.)
Total Recall may be an action film on the surface, but it actually carries social commentary (about the dangers of a fascist/corporate-controlled state), navigates carefully and consistently a science fiction premise concerning the nature of reality, and features probably the best cast of all Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi films.
Ronny Cox is ruthless and terrifying as Coohagen. And Ironside is perfect as Richter, showcasing the idea that menace comes from attitude and screen presence, not from height or muscle mass. And Sharon Stone absolutely steals the first half of the picture, vacillating expertly from “loving wife” mode to “fierce assassin” mode. She switches back and forth adroitly, sometimes between breaths. And she is absolutely physically convincing in the fight sequences.
Only Rachel Ticotin seems a little out of her depth here, as Melina, and that may be intentional too. She is hemmed in by Quaid’s description of his perfect woman: sleazy and demure. There’s not a big range she can travel between those two adjectives. Her role feels like a commentary on female romantic leads in action films.
Witty and wicked, smart and subversive, Total Recall might just qualify, in Quaid’s colorful terminology: “the best mind-fuck yet” in Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi catalog.