So I'd seen this a few times back when, and recalled it as being a fun little diversion. Then I saw the remake, and I thought it was lame crap. Then, wouldn't you know, a theater here was playing the original, so I went to see it the next day (it was Weekend of Total Recall for me), and gee, I didn't even fully appreciate WHAT lame crap the remake is until I saw this. This is super cheesy, in a way that enhances rather than depreciates it's enjoyability, it has about a hundred more ideas than the remake, it has some emotional stakes and spectacle to it, and, most of all, it remembers that a movie like this should be FUN. And this movie is just Super Fucking FUN.
We open with some amusing 80s credits. Then we're on Mars, where two people in spacesuits are walking--perhaps a mistake because we can't tell who the woman is--and Arnold falls, cracks his helmet, his eyes bug out as he dies, and he wakes up--it was all a DREAM! Next to him is his wife Laurie, played by Sharon Stone before Basic Instinct. They watch the news, where we start to learn that everyone with enough money has moved to Mars, and that there is a government leader, Cohaagen, who is trying to crack down on these rebels, led by Quato, whose right-hand man in Hauser, who has been missing for a while. Doug goes to work--which is a real construction site in the dirt, where he uses jackhammer--then afterward stops by Recall, where he is sold a package. He is told he can have memories implanted, but he can also add an optional "ego trip," which is where he goes as someone other than himself. He then goes in to the room and meets the workers, and the whole thing is a very funny satire of consumerism.
Typical Verhoven perverse genius is to NOT show Doug freaking out, but cut to the sales office, where the sales guy is selling a plan to a new customer, as we see one of the technicians screaming silently on an unanswered video phone. Doug has some cognitive freak-out because he actually IS a secret agent. People show up to kill him, and he escapes. He goes home and tells his wife what happened, and before you know it, she's trying to kill him, too. He escapes her, then runs into his friend from work, and HE tries to kill Doug as well. This is only the first quarter of the movie, but this is about as far as the remake covers, and it just keeps on from here and focuses on chases, making Doug's wife his nemesis throughout the whole movie.
SPOILERS > > >
Doug gets a briefcase with a toolkit and a message--from himself. Turns out HE is Hauser, and they caught him, wiped his memory, and planted him with this fake life and fake wife. He has to reach up into his nose and pull a ping-pong ball sized tracker out of his head! It's silly, sure, but it's a lot more fun than the stupid cell phone in the hand of the new film. By the way, I haven't mentioned that Michael Ironside is after him, and that this obviously hails from the time when your futuristic bad guys just wore black jeans. Love it. Ironside is actually in a relationship with Stone.
So then Doug goes to Mars, where he is dressed as a middle-aged lady, and gets busted. Now, this movie is mostly shot with models and practical special effects--which are sometimes cheesy but still have that sense of wonder--but there is a soupçon of early CGI included, but so little that what there is really works and seems astonishing. The first is when Doug's woman head splits apart in a way that--because the rest of the special effects are so delightfully clumsy--is still amazing, even now (or maybe it wasn't digital, you tell me). Then there's a gun battle in which the walls get breached, and all the air gets sucked out, which is fun, true, but also crucially and viscerally sets up the important idea that there is no air outside, and that a breach of their protected bubble could kill everyone.
In here we introduce the class of mutants, who are relegated to Venusville, the seedy part of town, and get to know them enough to feel sympathy for them. Compare this to the anonymous group of lower-class citizens, none of whom seem that unhappy or oppressed, in the remake. When the air for these people is cut off, that's a much more basic and comprehensible manner of oppression than the vague economic disparities portrayed in the remake, and it has one visceral image to express it: the slowing and finally stopping of a big vent fan. We also start to have several mindfucks, for example when a doctor shows up and tells Quaid that he's still back in the chair at Recall, and all of this is just his imagination. It's around then that one has to admit that, cheesy as this is, it's still jam-packed with really interesting sci-fi ideas.
Eventually it all leads to a big climax. In the remake, the climax is to destroy the big elevator that takes the workers to their jobs in the higher-class neighborhood, which is a bit of a dud, considering that we haven't gotten very involved in the economic struggle there and watching a CGI elevator explode is a bit of a 'who cares.' Here, the climax is to give the planet of Mars a breathable atmosphere! Woah--big consequences! And it's accomplished with big, visceral effects such as a mountaintop exploding and pouring massive amounts of steam and clouds into the sky! So it really seems that something important and world-altering is happening, which makes all of the events of the film seem important, which makes it feel like there's a reason you watched this, aside from spending two hours in air conditioning. It's good, but honestly, it wouldn't seem quite so good if there wasn't a remake showing us precisely how lame and uninteresting it could have gotten.
< < < SPOILERS END
So let's review. We have characters that are actually somewhat sympathetic and involving. We have a political and economic situation that is handled in such a way that generates personal and emotional involvement. We have a number of intriguing and mind-blowing sci-fi ideas to keep you on your toes. We have big, visceral images that both work to express the story and characters, and supply the thing with a monumental climax that works for the story and also gives the whole tale some stakes and consequences. And now, decades later, the whole thing seems super cheesy in a way that only makes it more FUN and adds a level of humor that in no way detracts from the awesomeness.
If you think that doesn't sound so hard, well, see the remake. When the new version came out the we're several reviews referencing this version as a "classic," and I was rolling my eyes at how fairly lame and silly things like this suddenly become "classics" if they merely last long enough in memory. Well, upon review, it's much better than I thought, holds up better than anyone could have imagined and, gee, now I see what they mean.
Yes! It's super fun, well-made, and has ideas. You remember ideas, right?