Total Recall Review
Paul Verhoeven's classic 1990 sci-fi action-thriller, Total Recall, is one of Schwarzenegger's all-time best movies, earning itself a stunning native 4K release courtesy of Studiocanal, complete with Dolby Vision and Atmos.
Total Recall was an unlikely but perfect confluence of elements, coming together almost impossibly under the circumstances, and credited with contributing heavily towards a seismic shift in the status quo in Hollywood which basically left the most expensive movies made at the time being 18/R-rated. Based on the original short story by Philip K. "Blade Runner" Dick, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale", it was adapted first by Alien writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, but went through over forty further drafts, the majority of which had no final act. The inherent problem was the difficulty in resolving the superb premise of a simple worker who attempts to have a virtual adventure on Mars by memory implant, only to discover that he may have already been there as an actual spy involved in a conspiracy to keep air privatised on the red planet before having his memory wiped once the mission ended.
What was genius - in a way comparable to the themes of Blade Runner - was the ongoing idea that the whole story might have been the actual virtual adventure, being played out, blending ideas of dreams and reality in the same way that Blade Runner questioned whether its protagonist was human or android.
Cronenberg was originally on board to direct, which would have undoubtedly resulted in a very different movie, and he was looking for Richard Dreyfuss as the lead, but by the time the project landed in Arnie's lap he was almost at the height of his career, coming off the back of a tremendous run from The Terminator to Commando to Predator to The Running Man to Red Heat. Arnie now wielded far greater control over his projects, having veto control over director, script and casting. Having been in the running to play Robocop, and being impressed with the final film, he sought Verhoeven, who was similarly approaching the height of his career, with Total Recall's Box Office success only to be bested by his subsequent Basic Instinct.
Very much an Arnold Schwarzenegger film directed by Paul Verhoeven, as opposed to a Paul Verhoeven film starring Arnie
Verhoeven would bring with him Ronnie Cox, whose smug villain had basically just walked off the set of Robocop, whilst this would be his first work with rising sex symbol Sharon Stone, who hit the Big Time here, even before the super-stardom of Basic Instinct. But ultimately there was only one real star of this show and, unlike his earlier Robocop, Total Recall would be very much an Arnold Schwarzenegger film directed by Paul Verhoeven, as opposed to a Paul Verhoeven film starring Arnie.
Nonetheless it's easily one of Arnie's top five movies, up there with the likes of Predator and Terminator 2, boasting some epic visuals, impressive production design, award-winning scoring, a perfect supporting cast, some tremendous action sequences, and a story which - but for some niggling plot holes and an arguably flawed ending - was certainly more cerebral than anything Arnie fans had previously been familiar with from his movies. Sure, Arnie's acting was a limitation, as was his somewhat implausible role as a mere construction worker - or as a triple-agent spy - but somehow the film managed to bend to those limitations like a boxer on the ropes and launch back with the one-two punch of Arnie action and Verhoeven excess. It's blisteringly great sci-fi action entertainment.
Total Recall 4K Video
Total Recall makes its UK 4K bow courtesy of Studiocanal, who has come to be one of the leading releasers of premium 4K discs, promoting a near-flawless record and continuing the trend for this lavish set. This Ultra HD Blu-ray release delivers its now trademark Dolby Vision-blessed native 4K remaster in spectacular style.
The disc presents a 3840 x 2160p resolution image in the film's original aspect ratio of widescreen 1.85:1, and uses 10-bit video depth, a Wide Colour Gamut (WCG), High Dynamic Range, as well as Dolby Vision, and is encoded using the HEVC (H.265) codec for HDR10.
We reviewed the UK 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Total Recall on an LG 55B7 Dolby Vision 4K Ultra HD OLED TV with a Panasonic DP-UB450 Dolby Vision HDR10+ 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
It's easily the best the feature has ever looked, leaving you wowed on several occasions - if not throughout
Total Recall is both perfect and, let's say, less than perfect as a candidate for 4K - on the one hand it has a gorgeous palette rich with tones which Dolby Vision just laps up and delivers in unsurprisingly sublime fashion (c.f. Studiocanal's recent UK Flash Gordon 4K Dolby Vision release, which similarly enjoys red overload). On the other hand, it has some of that similar dodgy overlaid effects work that, cutting edge as it was in 1990, does NOT translate to a perfect image no matter how advanced the tech remastering you have at hand, rendering a stunning sequence which suddenly jumps to a considerably less stunning shot in an instant, and then back again - much like the recent Back to the Future sequels in 4K. Take, for example, Arnie and Sharon chatting whilst the TV is playing in the background, it looks tremendous on all the shots where the TV is just outside of the frame, but when you've got it next to - or between - them, the image pales in comparison. Ditto for all the astounding miniatures work, which is clearly far better than CG and looks absolutely tremendous, but as soon as you lump real life people in there, the image quality on those characters drops off the chart.
Thankfully, again like the BTTF 4K set, it's utterly understandable, utterly forgivable, and relatively harmless in the grand scheme of this glorious remaster. Indeed, again like the Back to the Futures, it's almost handy to have as a point of comparison, because it leaves the rest of the movie looking all the more stunning, enjoying some tremendous native 4K shots which look nigh on perfect, lapping up pin-sharp detail on faces, skin texture, hair, clothing and backgrounds. The sets, and practical effects, truly impress all the more here, and the movie, but for its dodgy VFX, could have been shot much more recently than 30 years ago if we were to judge on this remaster alone. Amidst a succession of fabulous remasters from Studiocanal, Total Recall still stands out, promoting a finely rendered grain level which reminds of the immaculate work done in applying just the right amount of DNR to clean this baby up. Hell, and this is all before we even get to the colour scheme.
So here we have HDR, WCG and Dolby Vision used to Flash Gordon levels of perfection, with Total Recall promoting the kind of excessively red-dominated palette that would just be begging to crush into all kinds of hell, but is instead handled with care and rendered with a depth and richness that this film has simply never before known. It's not perfect, the reds are desperate to bleed out, but it's easily the best the feature has ever looked, leaving you wowed on several occasions - if not throughout - and with only a few scant moments across the entire runtime which remind you that they're still playing with 30 year old material that has some limitations. Amazing work.
Total Recall 4K Audio
Total Recall's 4K Blu-ray also gains an impressive upgrade in the form of a 3D object-based immersive audio track of the Dolby Atmos variety, which expands the engaging soundtrack to deliver a more engulfing ride.
A largely enjoyable Atmos upgrade
Dialogue is rendered clearly and coherently throughout, on what is still an often front-dominated track, taking precedence where appropriate and generally disseminated from the front, but for in a few instances of more ethereal voices. The score from Jerry Goldsmith is only a slight variation on all the other action scores he did during this period, but right from the surprisingly long opening credits sequence it feels utterly perfect for the movie, giving it a sense of sci-fi scale and visceral action impact, and enjoying some warm LFE underpinning. Perhaps the LFE could be a little more present at times, but that's a relatively minor complaint given the limitations of the source material, and the more hectic moments enjoy a decent degree of expansion across the array, affording even a little overhead immersion. It may not compete with recent productions or even a few top tier classic remixes but it's a largely enjoyable Atmos upgrade nonetheless.
Total Recall 4K Extras
Studiocanal promotes Total Recall in a 4K set not wholly unlike its Flash Gordon 4K set in that, whilst it has a hefty price tag, you get a lot of bang for your buck. There are several options, with the most extensive package being a 5 disc offering that includes the 3 movie-related discs - a single 4K disc already packed with extras, as well as two Blu-ray Discs, one being a further dedicated extras disc, and then a 2-CD copy of the soundtrack - and the second option being the cheaper, but still not inexpensive, Steelbook set, which has just the 3 movie-related 4K and Blu-ray discs in it and ditches the soundtrack discs. Of course, the full lavish set has a bunch of other tat to go with it, including everything from the now-mandatory artcards, to a poster to a booklet on the movie.
In terms of actual on-disc extras, most are available on the 4K disc itself, which is headlined by a great Audio Commentary from Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger (the bit on the ending alone is worth the listen, which was recently discussed on our podcast) that fans will undoubtedly already be familiar with. There are also New Featurettes on the Score and the Production Design, as well as the Documentary Total Excess: How Carolco Changed Hollywood, which looks across a number of Carolco features (unsurprisingly, the list Studiocanal have been working their way through - Angel Heart 4K, the Rambo Trilogy 4K, Cliffhanger 4K, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day 4K to name a few), with the 4K disc's extras rounded out by a Trailer. The dedicated Blu-ray extras reportedly include a couple of further Featurettes and, of course, if you buy the 5-disc set you get the 2-disc CD soundtrack too. It's pretty comprehensive.
Total Recall 4K Verdict
Total Recall 4K Blu-ray Review
Studiocanal had a tremendous 2019 with wall-to-wall classics, action, cult or otherwise, and whilst 2020 may not have had as many heavy hitters, the second half of this year has given two of the best sets to ever grace the format in Flash Gordon and now Total Recall.
Blisteringly great sci-fi action entertainment
Released in the US under Lionsgate, this is the exact same disc - not a port, the exact same disc, conveniently giving you the option to select UK or US at the outset which will dictate the only change between the two 'versions', namely the Lionsgate vs. Studiocanal logo on loadup. With excellent native 4K video with Dolby Vision, and solid accompanying Atmos, as well as a comprehensive selection of extra features as part of a lavish boxset, Total Recall 4K is an absolutely unmissable release of a stone cold sci-fi action classic, and an utter joy to revisit.
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