Mutant Popcorn #25

Nick Lowe

Total Recall

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Total Recall, Dick Tracy – appeared first in Interzone #40 (October 1990).

‘I’m sorry about your bumper, Mr Katzenjammer, berg, but this really won’t take a moment. You see, I’ve a script here I know you’re going to – Well, it’s an environmental action thriller inspired by those Sellafield fathers in England, you know? Except here there’s a meltdown at a top secret experimental nuclear station and all the core workers start producing this mutant testosterone. Well, the government tries to hush it up, but the guys escape and grow 24-inch stiffies that can shoot particle beams and stuff, and when the world gets invaded by horny aliens with giant semi-automatic steel peckers it’s a battle to the finish with humanity’s fate in the balance… Yeah, it’s called Dick Wars – what? Variety? No, I’ve been busy on the script, I haven’t had time to read… Oh. Well, listen, no, I think ‘reality overshoot’ is too strong a term… Oh. Uh-huh. Yes, I see. Yes. Well then, I’ve got a treatment here for a sequel I know you’re going to – yes, I know the lights are changing, but it’s called Honey, I Inadvertently Vaporized the Kids’ Heads with the Experimental Prototype Nullitronic Destructor Cannon… Excuse me! excuse me, my I Love Lucy tie’s caught in your window…’

Well, it’ll all be history by the time this appears, and there’s lots smarter money than mine riding on the forecast. But with Back to the Future Part III settling quietly for third, it does look as though the struggle for the midsummer boxoffice crown is turning to a straight slugitout between Total Recall and Dick Tracy; and it’s got to be said there’s something rather symbolic, all sophomoric double entendres aside, about the Dick vs Dick faceoff. For this, more than any summer rivalry in memory, is a contest in commercial virility. In the one corner we have an almost by-numbers, tailor-made new-Hollywood blockbuster, with a rising European director, heavily physical script, cackling sense of humour, blood by the pumpload, lots of women kicking each other in the stomach, guns the size of severely aroused elephant parts, and the whole thing plotted and edited for a projected consumer with the attention span of a hyperactive gnat. It couldn’t lose if you put Gene Wilder in it. And who do we in fact have grinning out from the centre of this frame? We have the no-contest biggest star on earth, the perfect and irreplaceable hero for the times. He’s beautiful, he’s funny, he’s a new Republican family man who believes in America and has got where he is by wresting control of his own life and pushing till the sweat pours off. And the ultimate irony is, he’s become his character. He’s completely unstoppable. We let him into our hearts of our own will, and now there’s this millionaire monster on the loose, commanding our dreams and invulnerable to all failure. He’s like a sincere, impossibly perfect human edition of George Bush; and God help us, we love him to death and back. Who will save us now?

But surely that can’t be his opponent? – that sad-looking emeritus gigolo, old enough to be a Rolling Stone, in the silly yellow coat that doesn’t even look rainproof? Yet there he stands, and around him the lushness of old Hollywood in all its thirties regalia: a Disney family adventure, in a nostalgic period frame. The colossal moon is always full, and the best player on the team is a kid with excess painted-on freckles. Even the cityscapes, which deliberately look drawn, call out echoes of ancient animation backgrounds. It’s soft, slow, sentimental, and trod to strains of Sondheim. There’s time to think about all the dopey plotting; and the last scene introduces a flagrant tease for the merchandise. Be like this child. Own a wrist radio. Live life in seven saturated colours. By eloquent contrast, the one and only commercial spinoff from Total Recall is a state-of-the-art Nintendo video game.

There are plenty of surefire things about Total Recall, but let’s start with the part that matters most to us (oh do stop it): the Dick (honestly, I don’t enjoy this any more than you do). Within the community, ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ is something close to a sacred text: perhaps the greatest story, certainly one of the half-dozen, by incomparably the most important producer of postwar magazine short fiction. Total Recall claims the vogue phrase ‘inspired by’ rather than the less cautious ‘based on’ or ‘from’; so we’re not looking for more than a general sense of fidelity to the spirit of grim metaphysical farce in Dick’s hardly filmable tale. But in fact, we get quite a lot more. The essence of the setup is preserved, even at the expense of some surprisingly clunky exposition and exquisitely dated references (‘trabinium’? holidays on Saturn? Mars??). There’s one sad fluff early on, when the narrative drops the Arnie viewpoint for a fatally objective glimpse of what’s really about, but I guess the pulp team supreme O’Bannon & Shussett aren’t the type to worry about external focalizors and the modalities of narrative. And if you can overlook that scene and pretend that you’ve never been told whose half of the plot is real and whose fantasy, the impossibly perfect genre ending and last-shot clinch have a fine Brazilian edge of irony that if anything improves on the story.

But the really unexpected thing is that the conceptual mayhem is actually advanced rather than diminished by the (comparatively late) arrivals of first Schwarzenegger and then Verhoeven in the project’s development. The most surreal, postDickian metaphysical gag in Total Recall is the sober exploration of what it would be like for an ordinary earthling to wake up one morning and find you’re being played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. If your name is ‘Quaid’, what are you doing with that heavy Swiss accent and pex like a rhino? Wouldn’t you be more likely to be called something butchly Teutonic like, oh, ‘Hauser’? And are you sure you should be working on a building site? Wouldn’t you feel more natural wasting mutant riffraff with a nuker bazooka? It’s no wonder the poor fellow is a little disoriented. ‘Which is more likely?’ run the best line in the film – in fact, almost the best line in anything – ‘that you’re an invincible secret agent who’s the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he’s a construction worker?’ It hardly surprises when your wife calls the doctor and he turns out to be played by Michael Ironside, in shades yet (a career high, this performance: shouldn’t think he’ll be resting again for a while).

And then there’s Verhoeven. Not since Polanski has a European arthouse obscuro made the jump to Hollywood pop with such blaring, unimagined success. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s edged past with this film to become the most sheerly bankable maker in town. It’s not immediately obvious, looking back at his own-language work from the seventies, why it should have happened to him instead of (say) Blier or Argento, unless it’s that all the Dutch speak perfect English. He does farcical do farcical extremes of violence better than anyone, which I suppose is a handy qualification, but against that he has this agreeable streak of mischievous sadism towards his heroes that doesn’t readily fit in a Hollywood frame, and already is toning down in this first star vehicle. Whatever, just as Cameron was the ideal architect of the definitive Arnold persona, Verhoeven is the perfect choice to supervise its ultimate deconstruction. Never have such rampant machineries of firepower discharged themselves so expressively into the camera; and never have the idiocies of a O’Bannon plot seemed more amusingly forgivable. Is this Oz, or is it Kansas? What would really happen if you turned the entire core of a planet to oxygen in the space of ninety seconds? Did the American Human Association get any input on the fish scene? Isn’t the finale a straight crib from Dune the movie? Are those jerky edits in the gore shots deliberate, or are they the spoor of forced cuts? Why is the title so useless (apart from the fact that the story title was more so)? is the first word supposed to be an imperative? It’s okay to ask. It’s ironic. And under the trappings, it’s got an impressive serving of meat.

By contrast, I thought Dick Tracy was frankly a stiff, which goes to show how much my judgment’s worth. The script had that sort of pale, erased quality of a few rewrites too many: oddities of pacing, uncertainties over the passage and elapse of time, surprises going off half-cocked (like the villain’s identity, and the elimination of the rival candidate), and a few really dreadful lines that seem to have been left in because everyone’s too tired to argue any more. ‘Is the enemy of my enemy my friend’, &c. – what kind of person would think that was a funny line? ‘We thought you’d be more comfortable meeting here, in the basement of your girlfriend’s apartment, while she’s away at work.’ (Might as well save the pretence and just have them prefix speeches with ‘INT. DAY’.) And while there are some reassuringly familiar Beatty squints, frowns, and eyebrow movements, it’s hard to find much zing in any of such adult performances as aren’t prosthetically assisted.

No doubt a lot of the problem is just that the only Tracy strips I, or most this side, have ever seen are old Mad spoofs, giving the character the elusive flavour of one of those secondhand myths you absorb in childhood, like prep school or Tootsie Rolls. It’s one thing to recognise an icon of a squinty-eyed plod with a bleeper on his wrist and a honker that could punch open beers, but quite another to imagine what he actually does. It’s certainly a bit startling to hear him addressed either as ‘Dick’ (when they absolutely can’t avoid it, given that he dresses like a right one) or, far worse, ‘Tracy’. And I’m sure the largely inadvertent parallels in plot and stylistics with Batman haven’t helped the attempt to seem more than just a cynical replicant. It’s a very unhappy likeness, because Batman knocks spots in all the areas where comparison is legitimate, marketing included. A batlogo on your shirt said ‘I am a dark, unfathomable, and infinitely resourceful person of the night’, and presumably that’s why quite cool people can still be occasionally seen wearing them. But what does a silhouette of Warren Beatty sniffing his wrist say? ‘I am so faded and wrinkly that I cannot be directly lit, and furthermore I like talking to my arm’?

But somebody knows quite a lot about dressing stiffs, and there’s plenty enough about Tracy (tnh-hnh! sssh…) that would be philistine to write off. The villains, of course, are gorgeous, despite the persistently queasy implication that bad blood expresses itself in a subspecies of moral mutants – fine in heavily stylised graphics, unnerving to see in cold light. Hoffmann, especially, light-fingeredly walks away with the picture in fewer scenes than Joker Jack had changes of expression. The process-colour look is bold, if not particularly or even remotely comiclike, and the packaging and promotion have ended up if anything rather more interesting than the film, a kind of merchandising exoskeleton with some inspired iconography if little in the way of mythic aura. It’s still nailed to the perch, to be honest; but at least it stands up, eh mrs? I shouldn’t be surprised if it pulls the heavier score.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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