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Culture/Reviews > Movies
Movie reviews from Proletarian Internationalist Notes—news, reviews and analysis from a global perspective
Something to dream about: “Total Recall” and delusions and realities of anti-imperialist struggle
Dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, others
R, 113 minutes, 1990
Reviewed in May 2016
To answer the question, it’s probably all a dream; there’s a lot of evidence for that. But it’s a nice dream. We all knew this was a movie anyway.
This continues to be one of the best Amerikan sci-fi movies ever. It is one of Schwarzenegger’s best films, up there with “The Running Man” (1987). “Total Recall” looks particularly good today. It is about helping a people who have been accused of “terrorism,” but whose cause appears to be a just one despite TV propaganda and what some alleged fighters do. The people on Mars are struggling to overthrow an oppressive colonial government. The rebellion leader is compared to George Washington. People on Earth are aware of those fighting for independence as “extremists.”
Alien artifacts are rumored to have been discovered on Mars, but there isn’t a single alien character in “Total Recall.” There are just mostly white English-speaking colonists, no indigenous inhabitants at all. It is a caricature of how some people in the real world today still see British colonies that gained independence from Britain. But some viewers may think of the Third World or an oppressed nation when they watch “Total Recall” if they don’t think of Mars as some kind of “multiracial” U.$. city. People work in mines or work in the hospitality and sex industries. Many of the poorest seem to be people with deformities caused by radiation exposure due to insufficient air and inadequate shielding. (Birth defects caused by environmental and economic factors are highly concentrated in the Third World in reality.) “Mutants” in a red-light district on Mars include both sex workers and a child in the street who is a fortune-teller. On Earth, there are two “blocs.” A news presenter says, “The chairman defended the attack, saying that space-based weapons are our only defense against the Southern Bloc’s numerical superiority.” The Northern Bloc colonized Mars.
The science part of this science fiction movie also includes various futuristic technologies, such as instantaneous full-body scanning, and use of technology to manipulate memory and identity. An organization called “the Agency” is able to erase and insert memories for spying purposes. A company, Rekall, uses apparently the same kind of technique to give people virtual vacations that are experienced as memories. People pay to have what they know beforehand will be a false memory indistinguishable from a true memory. They pay to have a contrived identity somehow experienced as real after leaving Rekall despite the obvious potential for conflict with reality. There is an ongoing question of whether the main character played by Schwarzenegger is experiencing a “free-form delusion” due to an attempted “double implant” involving a secret-agent “ego trip” fantasy, or actually is a spy on Mars. Recalling the political use of the “schizophrenic” and “psychotic” labels against protesters and revolutionaries historically (particularly non-whites), the words “permanent psychosis” and “paranoid delusions” are used to describe the main character’s experience of government agents pursuing em in the context of a liberation struggle. In this case, the alleged psychotic is white.
“Total Recall” is set far in the future, but the idea of going to Mars and mining space resources seems increasingly realistic to many. The self-driving taxicabs in “Total Recall” are almost here as others have pointed out this year. One thing to keep in mind is that Amerikan workers are already highly privileged, in fact exploiters of Third World workers. They have been so for decades. So when viewers see Schwarzenegger has a comfortable life at least off of work as a “lowly construction worker” in “Total Recall,” they should understand that isn’t just fiction. While most Amerikan workers are presently able to buy 55-inch 4K TVs now costing less than a thousand dollars, people continue to have unnecessary water shortages in African countries with colonial relationships with the united $tates involving the uranium in those countries. Mars in “Total Recall” has “turbinium.” The same people who control the oxygen supply on Mars want to mine turbinium for export to Earth and keep the flow going. They stand in the way of Mars’ having a breathable atmosphere.
Hero Douglas Quaid doesn’t save the world by emself or mostly by eir own effort, and in fact armed rebel Melina (Rachel Ticotin) saves Quaid. If the rebels didn’t want to use Quaid, Quaid wouldn’t have been able to do much to help the Martians in terms of the physical kind of fight that happens at the end. Quad does play a decisive roll in conjunction with other people. The real problem with “Total Recall” – if there is one – isn’t that an Amerikan plays such a prominent role. It is the movie’s suggestion that an Amerikan has to travel to the Third World and make things easier for the CIA in order to help. It is not necessary to be a double agent, or get people in the Third World to lower their defenses, to help. For that matter, even somebody already in Langley could help just by opposing increasing an already bloated budget, if the money won’t go to some other department.
Not everything has to be spectacular. “Total Recall” unfortunately shows just a chase and physical struggle on Earth while Quaid is in a state of utter confusion and ignorance. There are plenty of things Amerikans can say or do from inside U.$ borders that don’t involve breaking the law or violence, that would help the oppressed in the world. The key is to be anti-Amerikan without siding with any one group in the united $nakes regularly, such as Democrats or the whole or some portion of the so-called working class or middle class. U.$. Democrats and u.$. atheists and liberals are often found at the forefront in intelligence and diplomatic contexts. These people who prefer spying, threats, non-military thuggery, assassinations, and drone attacks – over letting males flaunt their physicality running around on the battlefield – are no better than Republicans.
“Total Recall” is accurate in that it suggests First World workers may be unhappy with their lot in life, but can be quite well-off. Quaid’s helping the rebels has more to do with eir own sudden survival needs than with being some kind of proletarian. There are class contradictions in the united $tates, but these mostly lead to fascism, particularly the economic and political struggles. There is no revolutionary class there. The idea that there is no revolutionary working class in the united $tates isn’t as controversial as one might think. Those who think everything has to be done through the Democratic Party, through the middle class, or via the united $tates’ diplomatic, intelligence and military apparatuses, are among those who think there is no revolutionary working class or white proletariat in the united $tates whether they profess to believe so or not. This is why it is important to have a method, theory, and strategy – not just one idea. Quaid’s fake wife, Agency spy and elite fighter Lori (Sharon Stone), tells Quaid the revolution could break out any moment on Mars, to discourage em from thinking about that planet. Most of the movie takes place on Mars. Many Amerikans think the revolution is in the Third World, but what they mean by that is overthrowing Islamic or secular governments there – regardless of the needs and possibilities of anti-Amerikan struggle, or because the governments aren’t pro-Amerikan, social-democratic or Western enough. Or they mean that Amerikans and people who are behaviorally and verbally indistinguishable from the CIA should be involved in leading or influencing revolutionary movements in the Third World.
Different spies seem to be on the Martians’ side in “Total Recall.” It should come as a surprise to nobody that the real-world Agency infiltrates proletarian and anti-imperialist movements and studies Islamist and Marxist works and phraseology. The way to make things more difficult for the CIA isn’t by being relaxed around people with some rhetoric or money, but by making sure everyone has an analysis and strategy that is appropriate to the circumstances, understands and is able to reproduce them independently, and actually applies them in doing useful work for the duration of any interaction.
“Total Recall” raises the idea that one could start from any point and make progress from there. One can always begin making good choices though it is also good to avoid being in a bad situation in the first place. Of course, if one wakes up and finds oneself in a police department, the oppressed would probably be most served by quitting that job, not by trying to be like the Mafia. Certainly anyone who knows they are on an imperialist or colonial police payroll shouldn’t expect to be treated as other than a pig.
Even as they use Quaid, the rebels are standoffish and cautious. They nevertheless make a few mistakes or potential mistakes, some of which unfortunately seem necessary for Quaid to end up in a situation where ey can “free Mars” as the rebels’ top leader puts it. A wad of cash is enough to get access to Melina, who in the forgotten past was romantically involved with Quaid. (“You never loved me, Hauser. You just used me to get inside.”) The rebels end up sacrificing several rebels to debrief one spy they must know could be giving them disinformation as a re-doubled or triple agent would. (That’s what the movie is about essentially. The rebels want a spy for some information ey might have, and the spy agency wants to find the rebels’ leader, who is inside a rebel operations center. These goals coincide.) Melina initially disregards Quaid’s “people are trying to kill me” claim, but the appearance of being attacked by the government is a potential cause of confusion that also seems to lead to letting somebody else through because ey is a mutant and says some words against Mars administrator Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). The mutant may believe those words, but enough money can buy many people. Knowing the truth, suffering from oppression, and being endangered by the government, don’t prevent the possibility of being a spy.
Quaid’s identity as a spy named “Hauser” close to Cohaagen is important to the rebels. But, “Total Recall” shoots down the idea of background vetting or questioning as a reliable to way to deal with the infiltration problem. More important than Quaid’s “real” identity are Quaid’s actions, rebel leader Kuato suggests. (“What do you want, Mr. Quaid?” “Same as you: to remember.” “But why?” “To be myself again.” “You are what you do.” “A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.” There is no “myself” to be again that is separate from Quaid’s suppressed anti-rebel “Hauser” persynality.) More important than what one knows or remembers is what one does with knowledge and memory. The doer is more/other than memory. The mutant, likely a psychic, who gets close to Quaid at the brothel (“You got a lot of nerve showing your face around here”) doesn’t detect any adversarial intention in Quaid, and there may in fact be none even unconsciously. But that doesn’t mean the Agency isn’t using Quaid. Many people who do something that helps an intelligence agency may be able to pass the best lie detection test because it isn’t a question of their knowing or not.
Other issues “Total Recall” raises have to do with anonymity or appearance. Nobody knows who Kuato is. The Agency doesn’t know what ey looks like. Even most of the rebels may not know. It turns out Kuato is somebody extremely ugly people rarely see, who might as well not be a distinct individual.
In addition, some of the revolutionaries are sex workers. They have to be, unlike many sex workers in the First World with full citizenship. There is no ideology of enjoying the sex or needing to satisfy the sexual “needs” of tourists. It’s just a job, one that fewer Martians may do after the rebel victory. The Venusville pornography is one of the most memorable things about “Total Recall” for some, but if some female nudity and Schwarzenegger’s bare ass help people swallow the message of “Total Recall” then so be it. Hopefully, the core message isn’t that helping Third World oppressed nations resist imperialism is just an action movie type fantasy or something that can only be done through spying. ◊