Total Recall ★★★★★

"I've got to hand it to you, Cohaagen: this is the best mind-fuck yet."

Only a lunatic like Paul Verhoeven could make a movie this violent and subversive and sleazy at this budgetary level and make it this massive of a hit. And only Arnold Schwarzenegger would have the clout to convince a major studio to let Verhoeven do it. This is probably why I love both of these crazy European bastards so much.

"Total Recall" might be Schwarzenegger's best movie, and it might just be the smartest, most subversive film ever made by a major Hollywood studio. It is, for my money, one of the smartest blockbusters ever made disguised as a big, dumb action movie. It satisfies every crowd-pleasing, spectacle-craving impulse of an audience and yet has enough subtext that you're still unpacking ideas and themes a dozen viewings later.

Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker who dreams of going to Mars. His wife (a total buzzkill played by Sharon Stone) wants nothing to do with Mars and shoots down the idea of a Martian vacation whenever he brings it up (which seems like a lot). When Schwarzenegger sees an ad for Rekall, a company that implants fake memories of vacations so that you can feel like you've been there when you haven't, he figures it's probably the closest he's going to get to taking that long coveted Martian vacation. When the salesman upsells him on a package that will have him going to Mars as a double agent and foiling an intergalactic plot, he decides that could be fun too.

At that point, one of two things happen: either Rekall's process uncovers memories that have been erased, and Schwarzenegger is really a secret agent who has had his memory wiped and stuck on Earth after he betrayed his dictator boss (the wonderfully odious Ronny Cox) OR the Rekall process causes him to have a "schizoid embolism" and he's really having a catastrophic mental breakdown while strapped to a chair.

The ingenious thing about this movie is that Verhoeven constructs and orchestrates this film so that it works both ways, it supports both theories. You can watch this movie as a kind of macho, action-packed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" about a delusional man whose brain is going apeshit. OR you can view this movie as a macho, action-packed extravaganza about a double agent who has betrayed his boss, had his memories wiped as a result, and must run for his life from his evil boss's minions (led by a fantastically boneheaded and evil Micheal Ironside) while trying to uncover the truth about who he is and what he discovered that his boss wants to cover up so badly that he erased who Schwarzenegger was. Whichever of these adventures you choose, "Total Recall" is a ludicrously exciting and ridiculously violent blast.

The brilliant narrative that works as two different stories is merely one of the reasons "Total Recall" is so great, and might be my favorite film that Schwarzenegger ever made (it's a tough decision though because "The Terminator" and, particularly, "Conan the Barbarian" are amazing). I love the special effects which, honestly, showed some seams when this film was even released, but are such a gnarly, gory treat that pulse with their own personality that the fact that you can tell that isn't actually Arnold's head at times doesn't matter. (Incidentally, has any actor had as many animatronic heads of themselves made as Arnold has over the years? I can't think of another actor that's even close, to be honest.) There's a cool mix of practical effects, creatures (Kuato alone is a stunning creation that manages to elicit feelings of uneasiness, disgust, sympathy and awe), miniatures (I love the train tooling along the desert surface of Mars), digital effects, makeup effects (those mutants are pretty cool, even though they'd be cooler if their eyes moved) and virtually every other special effects process known to Man. The visual effects still hold up for me, and that's probably because there's such a vivid personality to all of them, they add to the film's unique look.

The production design is excellent too. This is a future that feels like a lived-in and run-down extension of the modern world, not so much a dystopia as a world that has seen better days and, maybe, is right on the cusp of becoming a dystopia. Mars is a dystopia, but it mostly feels like what it is: a garish tourist destination built right alongside an industrial operation with sleaze and danger lingering just outside the margins. I feel like Paul Verhoeven is the only filmmaker who clever and slimy enough to put a Red Light District on a Red Planet. That's frankly inspired.

Paul Verhoeven's mind is a Red Light District. At least, that's how I picture it. "Total Recall" gives him plenty of space to indulge his weird sexual peccadilloes (most notably midget prostitutes and three-breasted mutant women) and also to deliver some of the most brutal violence I've seen. The 80s and early 90s were filled with brutal violence that sometimes rivalled that of the slasher movies that were also popular at the time, but in this and "Robocop", Verhoeven puts all the rest to shame. And this uber-violence isn't just perpetrated by the villains either: Arnold himself uses an innocent bystander as a human shield and rips a dude's arms off. As for the villains, I don't know if I've ever seen a group of baddies with less regard for innocent bystanders and regular civilians. These guys do not give one single solitary fuck about firing into a crowd and bloodily annihilating a dozen people if there's the off chance that they might possibly hit Arnold Schwarzenegger. This movie has more of a disregard for human life than perhaps any film I have seen, yet I find that...charming, here? Yes, I do. I cannot even explain why. There's a gleeful approach to the carnage here that is undeniably fun, even as it is nasty and gory and pretty abhorrent if you stop and think about it. (Abhorrent if you stop and think about it would be a pretty efficient way of describing the average Verhoeven film, actually, yet I love this Dutch psycho anyway.)

Shit, this movie deserves five stars if only for Arnold's one-liners. I feel that his finest one-liner, and probably the greatest one-liner in cinema history, is "You're Fired" from "True Lies". That is the "Citizen Kane" of pithy one-liners to deliver before killing someone. It is the Mount Everest that no film will ever top. But "Consider that a Divorce" and "See You at the Party, Richter" and "Screw You" are all right up there. No one matches Schwarzenegger in the one-liner department and I don't think anyone ever will. Yet even within this rarefied field, this is some immaculate work. These lines deserve to be etched in a stone column somewhere. Pure Genius.

Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside are fantastic villains, oozing pure unadulterated menace in virtually every moment of their screen time. It's always satisfying to see Arnold kill some genuine bastards, and these are prime bastards. Ironsides is a single-minded prick. Sharon Stone gets plays innocent, evil and everything in between in a way that puts even her "Basic Instinct" work to shame. It's a joy to watch Arnold kill these assholes. In the real world, I abhor violence. I believe it doesn't solve anything. But in action movies, it makes me happy.

And that's really all this boils down to: this movie brings me joy. It brings me joy to see Rob Bottin's stellar effects work, to see the grin fade from Ironside's face when Cox says "I'll erase your ass", to watch how this movie envisions death from an oxygen-free vacuum, to see the over-the-top carnage that should offend me but instead fills me with delight (in a way I am helpless to really explain). This movie delights my lizard brain, but its premise and plot and wealth of ingenious ideas satisfies my more intellectual impulses as well. This movie nourishes every part of my heart and mind. The fact that the hero is a fictional construct designed by the villain to achieve a nefarious goal is so damned clever and fascinating to me, and that's only a tiny piece of this glorious puzzle that finds new ways to stimulate and reward me every time I see it. Every scene works for me (especially the one where the guy from Rekall shows up in Schwarzenegger's hotel room). Every line of dialogue, every grisly death, every neat little flourish and idea (robot drivers, holograms, Terra-forming equipment built by ancient alien civilizations), I cherish every one of them. And all of this awesomeness is underlined by a phenomenal, heart-pounding Jerry Goldsmith score.

"Total Recall" is a perfect, weird, gory, sleazy little snowflake unlike anything else I have seen. It's a miracle that it even exists, and that's why I've seen it a dozen times, and will probably see it a dozen more.