Friday, 6 April 2012

We can remake it for you wholesale

Above, the trailer for Len Wiseman's August-scheduled remake of Total Recall. From the overall appearance, it's strongly based on the 1990 Paul Verhoeven original (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside and Rachel Ticotin) which in turn was loosely based on the 1966 Philip K Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

For those who haven't read the original, it's one of PKD's 'existential problem' stories. It concerns a lowly Chicago clerk called Douglas Quail (renamed Quaid in the movie) who, to his wife's derision, yearns to visit Mars. Unable to afford the trip, instead he goes to Rekal, a company which can implant memories. Rekal technicians begin the implant - a memory involving Quail going to Mars as an "Interplan" secret agent - only for them to find in mid-process that he really has visited Mars in that capacity. They sedate him and dump him in a cab wth half of his fee refunded, but he becomes curious about the half-remembered Mars trip; he's uncertain if it's a real memory or a failed Rekal implant. At this point he finds himself pursued by police and the Interplan agency, who have a telepathic tracking device in his skull, but he makes a deal with his trackers that he will surrender if they can reliably erase the Mars memories. An Interplan psychiatrist determines that Quail has a craving for adventure that will always drive him to seek out Rekal. The only way to reliably dislodge the Mars memories appears to be to replace them with a powerful fulfilled fantasy that will make Quail happy to live a mundane life yet simultaneously feel vastly important. Interplan finds this in one of Quail's childhood memories: the fantasy that he saved the lives of some tiny aliens ("like field mice") who in gratitude deferred their invasion as long as he is alive. He is, in effect, the most important person on Earth - simply by doing nothing. They begin to place the implant ... only to find that this story too is true.

I'll always watch the 1990 Total Recall, and in fact most Schwarzenegger films - I won't even distance myself by claiming them to be a guilty pleasure. Schwarzenegger, despite his limitations as an actor (such as his Austrian accent, and the much-ridiculed gormless "Eueraaaaaargheugh!" all his characters make in anguished scenes) always turns in a characterful performance, and has shown his adaptability in being capable of delivering emotional subtlety, self-parody (in The Last Action Hero) and pleasant light comedy (in Twins). He has not escaped the parodising of Jon and Al Kaplan, who have produced the songs Crom, from an imagined Conan the Barbarian: The Musical, and, pertinently to this post, The Mountains of Mars from Total Recall: The Musical.

The co-writers of the 1990 Total Recall screenplay are clearly highly familiar with the PKD story, whose plot the film tightly follows until the end of the Recall visit, and some specific elements make it into the film, such as the robot cab and the Recall receptionist experimenting with colours (though in the story, it's not her nails; she's topless - PKD's futures often contain highly quirky clothing - and her breasts are painted blue one day, orange the next). By taking it to Mars as an action movie, the film picks up and runs with PKD's reference to a Martian secret agent, yet extends the existential side in characteristic PKD fashion. In the story, we have no doubt what is real and what isn't, and the film's additional twist that that the whole Mars adventure may be part of the Recall implant is very much in tune with similar motifs in other PKD works. This is especially so at the point where the Recall psychiatrist turns up on Mars to talk Quaid out of the implanted adventure.

The remake of Total Recall, by all accounts, removes the Mars aspects and confines the story to a dystopian Earth, where Quaid is caught up in a political conflict between "Euroamerica" and "New Shanghai". From the trailer, it looks a visually excellent film. While I like the original a lot, I'm keeping an open mind on this new contrafactum.

It's an odd quirk of pop-culture history that the works of Philip K Dick, who spent most of his career in near-poverty, have inspired a long series of popular movies made after his death: Wikipedia lists Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau. Although, mostly, they've been padded out into action movie format, there's something about PKD's take on the uncertainty of reality that appeals to the modern zeitgeist. However, one notable omission so far is the superb Ubik. Last year there were reports - e.g. in Empire Magazine - that Michel Gondry is working on a screenplay for an independent film. I hope it will materialise soon.

See the previous post, PK Dick, Ubik and conceptual breakthrough, and the detailed analysis of Total Recall (its thoroughly ambivalent stance on politics, race and gender issues, and its relation to PKD's ideas) in Memory Prime: Total Recall, chapter 2 of Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick at the Movies (Jason P. Vest, Phillip Lopate, University of Nebraska Press, 2009). Described as "the only book to examine the first eight cinematic adaptations of Dick’s fiction in light of their literary sources", from this previewed chapter it looks altogether good reading.

- Ray


  1. Gee thanks for making me feel really, really old first thing in the morning. When I start seeing re-makes of movies that I thought I just saw yesterday ... *sigh*. Maybe I should take a nap or have some prune juice.

    I completely agree with you about Schwarzenegger -- though I don't consider it a "guilty pleaure." There is great satisfaction in being un-PC. I think I like his comedies better than his action movies (they certainly age better), but I enjoy them all. [Actually, I haven't seen any of the Conan pictures.]

  2. Sorry - but just view it as they've done the remake very soon, rather it having been a long time since the original.

    Conan the Barbarian is excellent; I'll write about it in the next post.

  3. I agree that Squashiknicker is at his best in the comedies (Last action hero being my favourite) ... I appreciated his action stuff more after seeing him in comedy.

    The action padding, IMO, does Philip K Dick no favours in general ... though I do rate Ridley Scott's Bladerunner very highly.

  4. Meandering on along a train of thought since my comment a few minutes ago, it occurs to me that I would love to see straight (ie non action padded) film adaptions of many PKD stories. They wouldn't be financially viable, of course ... maybe an indie art house maker somewhere...

    Galactic pot healer would be top of my wish list.

  5. Me again...

    RG> she's topless ... and her breasts are
    RG> painted blue one day, orange the next

    PKD isn't the only one to be taken with this idea. In particular, the very different Robert Heinlein had secretary Eunice Branca painting and repainting her breasts (as sea shells for example) in I shall fear no evil.

  6. @Felix: I would love to see straight (ie non action padded) film adaptions of many PKD stories

    Agreed. Screamers is probably the closest so far - the action somewhat padded and taken to another planet, but not essentially departing from the post-apocalyptic warzone where Second Variety was set. I have hopes for Ubik.

  7. @Felix: PKD isn't the only one to be taken with this idea

    PKD's idea of future clothing is weird and eclectic:

    G.G. Ashwood, wearing his customary natty birch-bark pantaloons, hemp-rope belt, peekaboo see-through top and train-engineer's tall hat, shrugged indifferently. He, obviously, saw nothing wrong.
    - Ubik