A Fascinating Puzzle Is at Heart Of `Total Recall'

Suspense and Schwarzenegger make sci-fi tale compelling. FILM: REVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WITH an intriguing conundrum as its premise, ``Total Recall'' has much more to offer than the usual action-film. There's plenty of gore, and most of the acting is so limp it empties the violence of emotional authenticity - which turns out to be a plus.

But rather than go into total recoil, viewers can enjoy this science-fiction film's highly entertaining intellectual problem, futuristic gizmos, and amazing visuals.

In the next century, men vacation on Mars, by then a mining colony for Earth. But why pay for space travel when having a copy of someone else's memory of Mars - or even a made-up memory - mentally implanted is cheaper than the trip and indistinguishable from real experience?

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When construction worker Doug Quaid, played with unusual vulnerability by Arnold Schwarzenegger, drops by the Rekall memory boutique, the implant process seems to trigger enemy-erased recollections of an incomplete spy mission to Mars, in which he alone can give vital assistance to the leaders of a rebellion.

Trouble is: That scenario may be exactly what Rekall intended to implant. Did it succeed? Is what happens next real or fabrication?

Many may find ``Total Recall'' reminiscent of ``Blade Runner,'' with its identity-shaking questions about life and immortality. Both movies sprang from the tales of sci-fi master Phillip K. Dick.

In the current film, Mr. Quaid could be secret-agent Hauser, double agent Hauser, or merely himself - a frustrated laborer whose mind has abandoned a lowly identity and latched onto the glamorous super-agent role. More than once he must decide whether to revert to his old identity, one his new consciousness despises.

In the film's most effective moment, a visitor shows up at Quaid's hotel room on Mars, claiming that Quaid is actually still strapped into the Rekall machine back on Earth and is experiencing a violent reaction to the memory implant. The man says his image has been inserted into Quaid's mind by the Rekall people to calm Quaid down.

Roy Brocksmith's brief but powerful performance as Quaid's visitor intensifies the suspense over whether any of this is even happening - as events continue to unspool according to the Rekall script, right down to the cataclysmic finale.

``Total Recall'' never achieves the poetry of ``Blade Runner.'' Director Paul Verhoeven (``Robocop'') wasted far too much effort concocting preposterous acts of violence that leave none of his characters out of breath or angry. Some of the footage for these was cut to avoid an ``X'' rating. The futuristic sets are too tidy to be convincing, unlike the rainy, sloppy ``Blade Runner'' design. It's also disappointing that 100 years from now people resort to the F-word as often as today.

These weigh the film down, but the suspenseful premise and the likable Schwarzenegger carry the day. ``Total Recall'' won't be quickly forgotten.

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