Happy 20th Birthday, Total Recall

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It’s the twentieth anniversary of the release of Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoven’s appropriately subtle science fiction tale of a man whose dreams reveal a forgotten history and connection to Mars. But, while the movie may be best remembered for the line “Consider that a divorce” and watching people’s heads react to the airless vacuum of space, it has a much more important place in cinema history – As the place where Philip K. Dick’s books started being mistreated by cinema.

The Dick purists amongst you may point out that Blade Runner wasn’t the most faithful adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, but it was hardly the rewrite that Total Recall was. Admittedly, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale may not have been the most movie-ready story – for length, if nothing else – but Verhoven (and screenwriters Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman) did more than just lengthen the story: Total Recall invented the rules for how to adapt PKD for the screen, for better or (let’s face it), worse. Thanks to Total Recall, Dick’s paranoia gets mainstreamized and – in almost every case – legitimized when it goes from page to screen (There really is someone out to get you), and the ambiguity and sly, dark, sense of humor finds itself submerged and replaced by action sequences, visual pizazz and the occasional catchphrase-bound wisecrack.

Like the best science fiction, Dick’s writing predicted the world we live in today years ahead of time – but in such a way that is still, perhaps, too close and/or too dark to translate faithfully for mainstream audiences… leading to letdowns like this:


or this:


or even this:


Sure, each of those are good enough films, but all fall short of what they could have been. All of them follow Total Recall‘s lead of keeping just enough of the original Dick to create a good hook for the trailer, but filling the rest of the movie up with everything you’d expect from any other summer action movie. It’s odd to think that the most Dick-esque movies are made from non-Dick material, but here’s hoping that the success of something like Christopher Nolan’s Inception could persuade Hollywood to let Dick be Dick for once, instead of constantly trying to be Arnie.

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