Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Total Recall

Total Recall, by Piers Anthony
June, 1990  Avon Books
(original hardcover edition 1989)

While it didn’t make much of an impression on me when it was released, Total Recall has gone on to become one of my favorite Schwarzenegger movies, second only to Commando. In hindsight one can see it as the apotheosis of ‘80s action movies: a big budget, the biggest action star of the decade, gory violence, one-liners aplenty, good special effects, an incredibly dark sense of humor, and a positively hard R rating. After this Schwarzenegger and Stallone and the other ‘80s action stars went for a “kinder, gentler” approach in the ‘90s, so in many ways Total Recall was the end of an era, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. 

I was 15 when it came out in the summer of 1990, but I didn’t see it then – either the commercials didn’t do much for me or I couldn’t get an adult or guardian to take me. It feels like a million years ago that Hollywood would churn out mega-budget flicks that were 90% targeted toward teens, but put an R rating on them, thus blocking out that target audience. I finally saw the movie on VHS shortly after it was released in that format, over at a friend’s house, but I recall not being able to get into the movie at all. In fact I had this eccentric friend – it was a group of us watching the movie, I remember – and at the climax he said, “I think this is the part where we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats,” and then literally jumped onto the edge of his seat. Super stupid I know, but not only is this an example of this kid’s eccentricity (I think he went on to become an airline pilot), but it’s just something that’s stuck with me over all these years, despite how super stupid it was. 

Somehow my opinion changed over the years, watching the movie on TV or laserdisc…I had another weird/eccentric friend (I’ve had a bunch of them, honestly), and this one who was a major movie fan, particularly anything with Schwarzenegger or with copious gore. So as you can expect, he was in seventh heaven with Total Recall. He was really into laserdiscs and I seem to “recall” I watched the movie again in that format some years later and realized how good it was. In retrospect, it’s the action movie Terminator 2 should have been; while T2 was a massive hit, in hindsight you could see it as where Arnold’s movies would be headed in the ‘90s – softer, less darkly humorous, less violent. Total Recall is the complete opposite, and in fact it’s a smarter movie than Terminator 2, and smarter than most action movies, given its multiple layers. 

Everyone who enjoys Total Recall likes to engage in the “did it happen or didn’t it?” game, or even wonder if the entire thing was just a dream. There will never be a correct answer to this, as Paul Verhoeven pointedly directed each and every scene with “both realities” in mind. So you could just as easily argue that the movie is on the level as you could that it’s all a delusion, a “schizoid embolism” that gets out of control until the hero is lobotimized at film’s end (ie the flash of white before the credits). Or you could argue the entire movie is just a dream, given that it opens and closes with a dream – the last line even a winking reference to this: “Kiss me quick before you wake up.” But then, I’ve found that it’s just as easy to take the movie at face value, that it’s all really happening to Douglas Quaid, a mild-mannered (but herculean-sized) blue collar worker who finds out he’s a secret agent with an erased mind who holds the key to a planet’s survival. 

This I think is just one of the many things that makes Total Recall so entertaining. And the gore, action, occasional nudity, and super-dark humor doesn’t hurt. (“See you at the party, Richter!” is still my all-time favorite Arnold line, and it pops in my head at random intervals.) But it would be difficult to carry this “is it a dream or is it reality” vibe in a novel, and truth be told Piers Anthony seems for the most part to treat everything on the level in this tie-in, first published in hardcover in 1989 and then in softcover when the movie came out. Given that his book was published a year before the film was released, Anthony most likely was working from an earlier draft of the film; most notably, the protagonist is named “Douglas Quail” in the hardcover, but this has been changed to “Douglas Quaid” in the paperback to reflect the movie. (The Avon editors did a good job of changing almost all the “Quails” to “Quaids” in the paperback, but they did miss one – on page 58.) 

Quail was the name of the protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” which “inspired” Total Recall. Verhoeven I believe is the one who changed it to “Quaid,” which is a more fitting name for a Schwarzenegger character. The script had been in development hell for some years, with a tide of writers, directors, and actors becoming involved with it, making changes, and then jumping ship. Once production began someone must’ve thought it would make sense for this new story, which was wildly different from Dick’s original (I was going to write “the original Dick,” but thought it would sound too sophmoric), to receive its own novelization. Piers Anthony somehow got the gig, and as mentioned this one even received a hardcover edition, meaning it received appropriate industry coverage in 1989 – even a review in Kirkus

I’ve never read any of Piers Anthony’s sci-fi, but I have read his Jason Striker series, and his Total Recall novelization is of the same caliber: a fast-moving plot with good description, but an occasional tendency to overexplain things, either through exposition or authorial lecturing, plus an inordinate fondness for goofy puns and malapropisms. The lecturing especially tends to make the story come off as a bit too stuffy and ponderous at times. To be fair to Anthony, he had his work cut out for him, trying to make sense out of this film; it’s my understanding that the third act of Total Recall was the most problematic in the development stage, and Anthony does his best to give more depth and explanation to what’s going on. Indeed, he works in a galactic threat in the finale; Mars and the rest of the solar system will be wiped out if Quaid doesn’t prevail. There’s also an entire storyline about the aliens who lived on Mars eons ago. But then again, perhaps this material was in the script Anthony was working from – it’s also my understanding that a lot was cut from Total Recall for budgetary reasons. 

If you have seen the movie, the book really isn’t all that different. In fact it’s a classic example of what a tie-in should be: it tells pretty much the exact same story as the film, only with minor changes, and also fleshes out the characters and the world a bit more. The question here though is how much of this extra stuff is Anthony’s imagination or stuff that was never filmed. For example, one of his most notable changes blows the most memorable moment in the film – a moment which was blown in the trailers, too. I am of course talking about the heavyset woman disguise Quaid wears when he enters Mars, which goes haywire and keeps saying “Two weeks.” The audience is just as surprised as the people in Mars in the film, but in the novel we already know Quaid’s in the costume; but then, in the novel we’ve also seen his trip to Mars, which we didn’t see in the film. 

And also to his credit, Anthony does cater at times to the idea that this is all a dream; Quaid, even though on the run, constantly questions things and wonders over how bizarre everything has become. But unfortunately in many cases Anthony will then go out of his way to over explain what’s happened, or why it’s happened, or how it could have happened; this is why I say he mostly treats the story on the level, as he seems to be at pains to work out every little detail and make it fit. Of course in dreams (or schizoid embolisms, I assume) things don’t always fit, so what could be seen as gaping plot holes in the film (ie changing an entire planet’s atmosphere in minutes) could also be seen as just the usual random events of a dream. Even here though Anthony will over-explain how indeed an atmosphere could change so quickly, so the book would be beneficial for those who do take the film at face value but want to understand how all of it could have really happened. 

The novelization also world-builds more than the film does. We’re not told what year all this is occuring, but we are told that the solar system has been colonized, and the 1980s are now considered “ancient” history. Interplanetary travel is common, and technology is so good that you can have real-time videophone conversations between Earth and Mars. We’re also told of things like “Venusian wine” and glasses that are cut from perfect crystals grown in zero-g. Anthony also finds the time to work some left-wing sermonizing into the text; we’re lectured on how gas-guzzling cars were finally banned (even though the government didn’t want to!), and it was about time because they were destroying the atmosphere and such. Indeed, getting rid of them allowed the ozone layer to “finally repair itself.” That one really took me back; I’d completely forgotten about the ozone layer panic, which was the early ‘90s version of climate change. Actually the world of Total Recall is the one we’re rapidly heading toward: a vaguely-socialist overpopulated hellhole of crime and poverty, ruled over by mega-corporations that are outside of the law. 

I’ve gone this far and haven’t mentioned the tone Piers Anthony uses throughout Total Recall. Just as the film was for the most part aimed like a heat-seeker for a young male audience, so too is Anthony’s novel. I hate to use modern progressive terms, I mean they’re just such passive-aggressive bullshit, but folks the “male gaze” is strong as hell in this book. And in fact, the only way we’re going to win this culture war is to appropriate the other side’s words, sort of like how us Americans supposedly took the insult “yankee doodle” from the damned British and wore it as a badge of honor. So yes, the male gaze runs rampant throughout Total Recall. We are told of the breasts and appearances of every female character we meet, with even ruminations on what their sex lives must be like. Mind you, this isn’t a complaint; I loved the unbridled testosterone of it all. I mean here’s just one example – a notable example, though. Here’s Quaid in bed with his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) at the beginning of the novel:

This my friends is an author who knows his readership is made up of similarly-horny men. Lori’s “impressive architecture” will be mentioned throughout the novel, even in sequences where she’s not even around. Here we have the novel’s sole sex scene, as Quaid and Lori enjoy a little roll in the hay before Quaid heads off for work. I found it difficult to imagine Schwarzenegger in such a scene, so it’s just as well there’s no more such material in the book; I recall reading years ago that his character was supposed to kiss Vanessa Williams in Eraser (1996), but this was cut, because per Williams it just “didn’t work:” 

Quaid’s still so turned on by his hotstuff wife that he almost considers round two, but knows he’ll be late for work. Here we have a bit more world-building than in the film: we’re informed that Quaid and Lori have been married for eight years, and she’s well above him in the social strata, a daughter of wealth who for inexplicable reasons fell in love with meathead Quaid. He assumes it’s because she was turned on by his muscles! And as you can see by the mention of the “dream woman” in the excerpt above, the novelization follows the film; Quaid has just awoken from a dream of Mars, in which he explored a structure with some beautiful, brunette woman (whose bust, we’ll eventually learn, is “fuller” than Lori’s!), and then he was separated from her and fell into a chasm. 

And indeed, the book just goes on to follow the film as faithfully. Quaid seeing the Rekall commercial on the crowded subway to work, going there himself, and freaking out before the implant can happen. From there the novel, just as the film, turns into an extended chase sequence, with Quaid’s former work friends the first who show up and try to kill him. Here we see one of the biggest differences between the film and Anthony’s novelization: the book lacks the ultra-gore of the film. While there is a lot of violence and killing, Anthony does not dwell on the sprays of gore and whatnot; the action scenes are more nondescript, along the lines of “Quaid shot down two of them.” In that regard, it would’ve taken someone like David Alexander to write a Total Recall tie-in that matched the ultra gore of Verhoeven’s film. 

But even here Anthony is at pains to explain things that the film doesn’t; Quaid is such a bad-ass, able to kill three men with his bare hands in a few seconds, because of his “hidden, alternate self.” Throughout we will learn that this “alternate self” will come to Quaid’s rescue when his survival instincts kick in gear, even imbuing him with a sixth sense at times. Ultimately this will of course turn out to be “Hauser,” the “real” Quaid, same as in the film. Anthony even explains around this: near novel’s end we’ll learn that Quaid’s full name is Douglas Quaid Hauser! I don’t believe this was stated in the film. Again, maybe it was in the script Anthony worked from. It’s just another example of his striving to make everything “make sense” in the book…otherwise the reader might question where the name “Quaid” came from, if “Hauser” was the guy’s original name. But this too comes off as clumsy, as why would all of Hauser’s old colleagues keep referring to him as “Quaid,” even when the cat’s out of the bag and Quaid is aware he’s nothing more than a “personality construct?” 

The trip to Rekall is another fun demonstration of the male gaze at work. First there’s the receptionist, who same as in the film is changing the color of her fingernails with a stylus, but unlike in the film she’s also topless: 

You’ve gotta love how Quaid instantly decides Lori will need to get a similar top! Quaid is not only much more introspective in the novel, he’s also more horny. Earlier, when getting on the subway, we had a bit where he hoped that the X-ray machine would go haywire and he'd instead see the nude bodies of the women boarding, instead of their skeletons. Now, for no reason at all, he even broods over the sexual proclivities of the frowzy Rekall scientist who is about to put him under for the memory implant (this, by the way, after he’s imagined “being in bed” with the nurse who set up the IV): 

“He did not care to be victimized by her imagination.” Awesome! That’s how you turn the tables, folks! Another of the key bits that make Total Recall’s second half seem like a haywire memory implant also happens here: the technicians are able to recreate the spitting image of Quaid’s mysterious Mars woman, who is “wanton…and demure,” just like the woman of his dreams. In the film, we see her face on the screen before the implant procedure begins, and eventually will learn her name is Melina (Rachel Tictotin). However in the novel, toward the very end, Anthony also explains away this seeming incongruity; Melina, despite the fact that she and Quaid are at the moment running for their lives, mentions that she once “did some modelling” for Rekall! But then again, this could be another facet in the entire “did it happen or didn’t it?” scenario. 

However Anthony is at pains to tie up any loose ends the film might’ve had, no matter how minor. For example there’s the part where Quaid, hiding in the slums of the city, is contacted by a mysterious guy who has a package for him. We’ll learn that this guy is named Stevens, and he was “pals” with Quaid back in the Agency, ie the sadistic government agency which runs roughshod in this future – the guys trying to kill Quaid are all agents of the Agency. Chief among them is Richter (Michael Ironside), who is depicted here almost exactly as he is in the film. The only character who seems different, for that matter, is Mars boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who in the novel is described as being nearly as muscular as Quaid is. Well anyway, in the film this mysterious helper leaves Quaid a bag and takes off. In the novel, we see that Richter eventually gets hold of him and kills him. We’re also informed that Richter has killed off the Rekall office workers who tried to implant Quaid. 

As mentioned the package has the “fat lady” disguise in it, and Anthony explains how it works. This all was a surprise reveal in the film, but here we know Quaid has it from the get-go. And we see him try it out when he boards a passenger spaceliner bound for Mars, a scene which also includes Richter and his Agency minions searching the ship for Quaid – who walks right by Richter, in the fat woman disguise. But here in the novel the mask’s glitch is it keeps asking “Where is my cabin?” instead of “Two weeks.” We also learn here that Richter is a passenger on this same ship to Mars, but Anthony doesn’t describe the voyage itself; Quaid decides to take the trip “in stasis.” I don’t believe we’re even told how long the voyage to Mars takes. The reveal of Quaid in the fat lady disguise is kind of the same as in the film, only as mentioned the glitch that outs Quaid is “Where is my cabin?,” which his mask keeps asking as he disembarks the ship on Mars. 

And again from here on it follows the film pretty faithfully. Other minor changes would be that Tony, the Resistance member on Mars who was played by a pre-fame Dean Norris in the film, is not stated as being a mutant. As fans of the film know, Tony in the film had a seriously mutated face, and thus was the recipient of one of Quaid’s more insensitive one-liners. (Tony: “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around here.” Quaid: “Look who’s talking.”) Here in the novel Tony just appears to be a regular human, as no mutation is mentioned. But I’m sure you all want to know about the most famous mutant in the film: the three-breasted lady, of course. Yes, she’s here, but curiously in the book she isn’t topless in her memorable intro: 

Dude, “farted and oozed.” WTF? Glad that wasn’t in the film! Melina comes off the same here as in the movie, though more of a deal is made out of how she is both “wanton” and “demure,” per Quaid’s request at Rekall – she merely poses as a wanton whore here in a cheap bar in the Venusville district of Mars, but in reality is a fiery member of the Resistance. The novel at this point really turns into a sequence of action scenes, but the most memorable bit is the visit by “Dr. Edgemar,” the Rekall rep who claims to be visiting Quaid in his mind and tells him all this is a “schizoid embolism.” This sequence plays out pretty much identically to the film, as does most everything else that follows. Only the violence is minimized; for example, that “See you at the party, Richter!” part in the film features Quaid memorably holding aloft Richter’s severed arms before tossing them away. Richter meets his fate with both arms intact here in the novel. 

By far Anthony’s biggest change is to the explanation of what happened to Hauser. Not only does Anthony provide a long backstory on who the Martians were, but he even includes a subplot that Hauser was not a double agent, as revealed in the film’s finale, but really a triple agent. The film has it that, as Cohaagen’s minion, he ingratiated himself into the Resistance, and then “Quaid” was created to truly get in their confidence and to bypass the mental probes of the mysterious mutant leader Kuato. Anthony however develops a whole new plot out of this: Hauser actually fell in love with Melina, who made him find the good in himself, and thus he tricked Cohaagen by going along with the “Quaid” gambit, all in the hopes of wiping out his mind and protecting Melina and the Resistance from the truth he, Hauser, discovered in the ancient ruins. 

And this is the other big change. When Kuato does his mind-meld with Quaid, we are treated to a long chapter that comes off like its own separate short story. This part is the most “sci-fi” bit in the entire novel. Hauser, when separated from Melina while exploring a massive pyramid on Mars, discovered a cavern built by the ancient Martians who lived here 50,000 years ago. He enters into a chamber which takes him on a mind-meld sort of trip into Mars’s past, were he sees the No’ui, ie the human-sized bipedal telepathic ants who once lived on Mars. A “star seeder” race, the No’ui looked forward to the future and realized that the humans would one day come to Mars, and so have prepared this test sort of chamber thing, and it all works out that now Mars can either be saved – the atmosphere turning into one like Earth’s – or both it and the rest of the solar system could be destroyed by an artificial supernova the No’ui also prepared all those eons ago. It’s all very unwieldy and hard to grasp, and comes off like an entire change to the storyline in the eleventh hour. The question is whether it’s all Anthony’s creation or was material excised from the film. 

And that really is the main problem with the final quarter of Total Recall. Anthony tries to develop this massive galactic threat, with his hero outed as a former sadistic agent who found redemption in love and now can save the entire cosmos. It’s just too much to keep up with, and feels ungainly, not helped at all by the massive amount of exposition. I mean Quaid explains – sorry, “mansplains” (remember, we’ve gotta co-opt those bullshit terms) – everything to Melina as they are running from Cohaagen’s goons. But we do get the stuff from the film, like the cool watch that projects a hologram, complete with even the goofy as hell part where Quaid fools the dumb soldiers into thinking he’s a hologram when he isn’t. Anthony seems to have his tongue in cheek while writing this scene; it’s very clear that the author himself thinks the whole sequence is ridiculous, but he dutifully transposes it from the script. 

But as mentioned the changing of Mars’s atmosphere is explained here (actually, over-explained); it’s just something else the all-mighty No’ui set up all those millennia ago, and Quaid’s hand is necessary to trigger it. There’s even more exposition here as he and Melina ponder, “Can an entire atmosphere change in only ten minutes?” But then that’s one of the few areas in which films trump books; this whole sequence can be handled by fast cuts and crazy CGI (ie the eyes bulging out of heads on the surface of Mars), but poor Piers Anthony has to make sense out of it all. Oh and something I forgot to note – one of the biggest clues that the second half is just a Rekall program is the Rekall tech’s off-hand comment, when Quaid is about to be implanted: “Blue sky on Mars – that’s interesting!” This line does not appear in Anthony’s novelization; in fact, the entire “it’s all a figment of Quaid’s mind” scenario isn’t nearly as on the nose as in the film, and really only comes up via Quaid’s own pondering. 

But then to me a big sign that it isn’t all a Rekall mind trip is because Quaid kills all his friends in the opening act, and his wife is outed as a secret agent – indeed, he further learns that he’s only been married to her for six weeks, which is how long Hauser has been Quaid. The Rekall salesman, who is just as sleazy in the book as in the film, offers the “secret agent” element as a bonus to the Rekall Mars trip, and further he insists that Quaid will not be able to tell between his real memories and the Rekall procedure upon his “return” from Mars. So then, killing his friends and finding out his wife is also an enemy would very much conflict with Quaid’s real-life memories…but then this also plays into the idea that a “schizoid embolism” is creating this new wrinkle in the Rekall program. Or it could also mean it’s all a dream, hence the opening and closing “blue skies” on Mars. 

In the end though, I think this constant questioning of what’s “real” only adds to Total Recall’s appeal. (Hey, that rhymed!) And also, as Alan Moore once asked, “Aren’t all stories imaginary?” But then to continue arguing against myself, at one point a sequel to Total Recall was planned, one that would use Dick’s Minority Report as inspiration. I’ve yet to find the script for it (it was written by Gary Goldman, who so revised the third act of the film that he received billing credit), but I’ve read that it features Quaid on Mars heading up a police unit of pre-cog mutants. So then if that film had happened, there certainly wouldn’t have been a question whether the events of Total Recall “really happened.” There seems to be no question from Anthony, at least; after Melina tells Quaid “Kiss me quick before you wake up,” Quaid takes her in his arms, and Anthony ends the novel with: “[Quaid] was through with dreaming; reality was much better.” 

Anyway, Piers Anthony does a good job of making sense out of Total Recall and conveying at least some of its manic spirit. His version of Quaid is just a little too ponderous, though, and the frequent bouts of exposition kind of take away from the fun. But Anthony definitely succeeds in making a 278-page book seem half its length. I wouldn’t say the novel is better than the film, but it certainly adds to it, expanding on the world and particularly on Quaid; it just lacked much of the movie’s blood and thunder. But then it also inspired me to watch the movie again, which I plan to do posthaste.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Great info! Thanks for another year of excellent book reviews. Happy New year. Onward into 2022.

Johny Malone said...

Joe, I wish you a great year 2022 and may these wonderful reviews continue.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi guys, thanks for the comments -- hope you both have a great 2022, too!