“Total Recall,” the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, says it’s set in 2084. But despite its terrific sci-fi visuals, we know better. When Arnold grabs an ax and starts swinging it at his enemies, it’s Conan the Barbarian time again, as he goes to Mars and further reddens the Red Planet in a big way. This time, though, he’s Doug the Barbarian. Or maybe Hauser the Barbarian, depending on which identity is his real one. He thinks he’s construction worker Doug Quaid, married to blond dish Sharon Stone on Earth. But he keeps having dreams about being with brunette Rachel Ticotin on Mars. When he buys a simulated Mars memory implant from an outfit called Rekall, he flips out. Seems the fake travelog memories jarred loose some hitherto deprogrammed real ones.
Finding himself chased by trigger-happy heavies and trying to unlock his past, Arnold zhoops to Mars, which has been turned into a slave colony. It’s run by a man who looks and acts like a defrocked televangelist, but is getting richer by the minute mining a militarily strategic ore and monopolizing the air supply. It seems that solar radiation unblocked by Mars’ thin atmosphere has created a population of mutants. Now everybody lives underground, or behind giant sun shields, paying exorbitant prices for air. Flummoxed Arnold has reason to believe he used to work for the mining company before his deprogramming and reprogramming, but now wants to throw in with the mutants, led by an elusive figure named Kuato, and shored up by the woman of his dreams. His blond wife, it turns out, was an Agency baby-sitter.
Schwarzenegger was never an actor, and here, mercifully, he doesn’t try to become one. There’s none of the humor of “Twins” here, and little of the tart irony of “The Terminator” as Arnold stays endearingly wooden and isn’t shy about returning hostile fire. What gives the film a flavor it eventually sacrifices to chase-movie cliches is director Paul Verhoeven’s sardonic sensibility. His affection for sci-fi is felt even beyond the spectacular special effects and imaginative cave-like mutant haunt known as Venusville -- the Red Planet’s red light district. An estimated $50 million went into the making of this movie in Mexico, and you can see a lot of it on the screen in the form of panoramic red desert shots and oppressive heavy metal underground interiors.
Ironically, Mexico City was able to provide enough examples of architecture’s New Brutalism for Verhoeven to trenchantly convey the idea of an oppressive, violence-addicted society. Verhoeven also laces his film with wry black humor, in a scene of subway riders being routinely X-rayed for weapons at a turnstile, in a warehouse scene where Arnold eludes pursuers by removing a homing transmitter from his head and feeding it to a scurrying rat, and, in a jab at the film’s own shameless product placement, with a red-logoed newspaper coin box selling MARS Today. The mutant sequences are mostly fun to watch, too, even when the Venusville clipjoint turns into the last-gasp saloon after the baddie shuts off the air supply. The film’s latex budget was well spent. And a hologram homage to Orson Welles’ Hall of Mirrors scene in “Lady from Shanghai” works, too.
But given the chance to top his pounding, inky, eerie “Robocop,” Verhoeven moves “Total Recall” away from what made that movie special, copping out into genre cliche. Abandoning atmosphere and character (the bad guys are all nondescript), he merely amps up the gunfire, splashing lots of blood and body parts across the stony, monolithic sets. What begins as perversely apocalyptic declines into something merely crude, mechanical and brutal -- especially in a subway rush-hour shootout on an escalator, where corpses are pressed into service as bullet-stopping shields, then trampled by scattering passengers. You’ll want to think about taking children to this one. And you won’t want to take them after a full dinner. The kinder, gentler Arnold unveiled in “Twins” is back to his old megajolt tricks in “Total Recall.”