Rekall: my thoughts on both movies and the story that inspired them

We saw the new “Total Recall” movie not long ago, and that got me wanting to see the Arnold version again. So we watched that Monday night. And between the two, I’ve been wondering for some time what the source material was like. So Tuesday morning I bought “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick from the Kindle store. (It’s about a 25 page short story. Very quick read.)

Well. I like all three, but they are very different (and yet the same). In case anyone out there was curious, I decided to write up my take on a comparison between them.

As a (rather obvious) note, this will include some spoilers.

Character Development

I think it will come as no surprise that I think the acting was much better in the 2012 movie release. Perhaps on a related note, I think the character development was best in the 2012 movie than either the earlier film or the story. (I’m not sure how much was the scriptwriting, but there is no denying that the actors chosen are also quite capable.)

One thing I can point to as an example: the girlfriend. Melina shows up at the beginning of both films in the dream sequence. In the 1990 movie, she’s barely recognizable in appearance due to the space suit she’s wearing. You certainly don’t get a sense of her personality except that she likes Quaid. In the 2012 movie, the dream sequence is much more detailed and involved, and Melina actually gets to be a kick-ass heroine to match Quaid.

Melina’s not in the short story, so I can’t compare what she’s like there. I have to say, though, while reading the story I kept visualizing the characters from the movies. There wasn’t much character development of note in the short… though in my experience that’s rather typical of stories from that era. Character was often second to plot, at best.

(Side note, the story’s main character is named Douglas Quail, not Quaid. A slight change, but an interesting one. Also interesting is that both movies used the same alternate last name. But then, the 2012 movie seems to use all the same names as the 1990 movie, whether or not the characters showed up in the original short story.)

Another example of how I think the character development improved with each incarnation: Quaid’s “wife”. In the story, she is chiefly a nag and brings him down from his dreams of Mars. Then, when he gets back from Rekall, Inc, she leaves him. End of her part in the story. In the 1990 version, she’s a lot more involved in the intro, then kinda tries to kill him, then waits for rescue from her real boyfriend. She even sticks around until half to two-thirds of the way through the movie until she’s finally killed.

And then there’s the 2012 version. Her early development in the movie is about as extensive as in the 1990 movie, but when she tries to kill him, she *really* tries to kill him. Down to a run-across-the-rooftops chase. And then she spends the rest of the movie hot on his heels, still trying (against orders) to kill him. It’s not until the very end of the movie that we finally see the last of her. Now… was this the best choice for the character? I’m not sure. But it’s a more developed character, and one I find immensely more enjoyable.

Setting

Based on the story, I understand that in this future reality there are hovercars, birds from Mars, and large-chested women who go around naked from the waist up and paint their breasts funny colors. This is about all I gathered from the setting. Not what I would call a strong story when it comes to visuals. Perhaps this is part of why the two movies varied so differently? There was no strong PLACE to use in the source material.

Both movies are set in the nebulous future. The 1990 one, though, looks an awful lot like modern day civilization. The buildings look like our buildings (then and now), people look generally like the people of 1990 (big hair and all). The biggest difference is cabs are driven by robots. (This is from the story, to be fair.) The sheer amount product placement was hilarious, though sadly I could see it happening in the not-too-distant-future.

The 2012 film does have the advantage in the setting department. They tweak the modern world to fit their futuristic vision of overcrowding, and make it look both like a human civilization and like the future. I was impressed by the way the movie looked. “Place” was an important part of the movie, which is something I like in a film.

Visual Appearance

(Naturally this leaves out the story, as it leaves the visuals to the imagination. My impression of the visuals the story sparked in me have been covered above.)

As expected, the effects were much better in the newer movie than the older one. 20 years difference between the two… what do you expect? Between the effects and the fact that they weren’t using “Mars lighting” (aka red, red, red) I think there’s no contest as to the prettier picture.

Plot

The plot in both movies is remarkably similar. Well, to the point of actually going to Mars. The 2012 movie does not, while that is a huge part of the focus of the 1990 movie. However… both movies also diverge from the original story at that point.

All three have the same basic premise: a man thinks he is a boring, average Joe, and goes to Rekall to have the memory of being a secret agent implanted in his brain — only to find out that he really IS a secret agent, and that now Bad Guys are out to get him. And then the story goes a separate direction than either film. In the story, Doug Quail then decides that there’s no way he’ll manage to survive, so he makes a deal with the police that he’ll turn himself in and they’ll implant a new, more exciting fake history in his head. (The problem with the average Joe memory is that he’s too much of a thrill-seeker to be satisfied with that.) The ending of the short story, believe it or not, is marginally closer to the ending of the 2012 movie than the 1990 one.

Anyway… once the movies split from the book, they only go a short ways on the same track before they also split from each other. They have the same principle of “remove the tracking device, meet up with the girl, and try to get to the place the Bad Guys are trying to keep you from,” but one involves Mars and the other doesn’t. The “create air for Mars” climax for the 1990 film seems to have been created completely separate from the original story — perhaps because by 1990 we knew that Mars as it is now can’t support life. There are no Martian birds brought back to Earth as in the Phillip K. Dick story.

Alternately, the “stop the invasion” climax for the 2012 film is perhaps marginally pulled from the short story. In the short, when Doug goes back to Rekall to have his new, more exciting life created for him, he discovers that his second fake memory is ALSO real: there are aliens out there, waiting to invade Earth as soon as he is dead. Well, the 2012 film doesn’t include the aliens. And the invasion isn’t waiting on Doug Quaid to die. But there is an invasion, and he does stop it. So… technically they’re a little similar.

(Wow. This is a long blog. I wonder if anyone’s still reading?)

Do I have a preference among the three? If you take all aspects together, I think I like the newest movie best. But there are so many things about it that I only like best because it’s more modern. The Philip K. Dick story is very dated. The idea is fabulous, but the telling is not anything like a modern read. And the Arnold movie is a cult classic (at least among my sister’s high school friends), but it’s a product of its time, too. I’m so very glad that people these days don’t wear the clothes we thought were cool then. And the effects… It’s really amazing how far we’ve come in 20 years.

Just think… when we do eventually send a man to Mars, they can remake this movie again. Imagine what the special effects will look like then…

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4 thoughts on “Rekall: my thoughts on both movies and the story that inspired them

  1. A fascinating comparison Nicole. I’ve only watched the Arnold version.

  2. Chris says:

    Wow! I can’t believe I didn’t know that this was another PKD inspired film. Haven’t seen the new movie, either.

    I love Blade Runner (esp the director’s cut), but it’s a bit dated, too. That’s the challenge of science fiction, isn’t it?!

    Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood seems ever more plausible, so maybe I’d prefer the stuff that ages into impossibility…

    • Nicole says:

      You’re right… Old sci-fi can really age poorly, because the tech advances so quickly. The weird thing with this PKD story though was not that the tech had become commonplace (because it hasn’t) but that the storytelling style was unlike the modern style. I don’t know if his novels are like that, but it’s like the difference between reading LOTR and any modern fantasy story. No matter how good the story, no matter how well it ages, the way it’s told is different.

  3. […] Nicole has a thoughtful comparison of the new Total Recall movie, the old Total Recall movie, and th…. […]

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