In the future Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes to a firm that specializes in implanting memories so you can "remember" the perfect vacation -- a stupid idea* if you ask me -- but when they begin the process on Quaid it develops that he has already undergone a memory-altering process -- he is actually a completely different person from whom he thinks he is. When people try to kill him, he winds up on a mining colony on Mars where in his former identity he was involved in a rebellion against Cohaagen (Ronny Cox of The Car), the sinister master of Mars. Total Recall is what might best be called "schlock sci fi" in that it takes many different elements from science fiction stories, films, and comics, and throws them all together to make little more than an Arnold Schwarzenegger Action Flick. On that level the film is entertaining, and it certainly worked for Arnold. He had appeared in action flicks before but Total Recall is the film that really put him over the top. This was true, too, of European director Verhoeven [Showgirls], who had previously directed Robocop. Some saw this as an interesting filmmaker "selling out" to Hollywood to make crap, a notion that is pretty much born out by his later film projects. (He eventually left Hollywood to make films more along the lines of his earlier work.)
At one point in Total Recall the running Quaid dodges bullets and a perfectly innocent bystander gets shot, with Quaid using the man's body as a shield and then just throwing him at his attackers. Sure, this may be an act of desperation, but can you imagine Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks or even Audie Murphy (a real-life hero as opposed to a Hollywood one) not having any reaction to this? There had always been hard-boiled anti-heroes in movies, but by the time of Total Recall the heroes lost any trace of sensitivity and became not ordinary men up against extraordinary odds, but super-heroes (without the costumes) whose success seemed preordained. Compare that to Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci trilogy -- not great films, perhaps, but the hero is strong, intelligent, and recognizably human.
That said, the last quarter of Total Recall is quite exciting and amusing and has some good FX work, but it's never more than a moron movie. Cox is excellent, Sharon Stone (who later appeared in Verhoeven's Basic Instinct) is suitably sexy, Rachel Ticotin is adept, and Schwarzenegger is Schwarzenegger, which was enough for his fans. Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of his least interesting. Remade in 2012.
* If you know your memories are just implanted and never really happened, doesn't it sort of make it all pointless? What makes memories so wonderful is that they were real. Besides, memories can't compare to the actual experience.
Verdict: Arnold builds up the body count along with his muscles. **1/2.