How Arnold Schwarzenegger Saved ‘Total Recall’ From Development Hell

How Arnold Schwarzenegger Saved ‘Total Recall’ From Development Hell


The Big Picture

  • Total Recall
    was misunderstood at first but is now recognized as a modern classic for its effects and themes.
  • The adaptation of the film faced multiple challenges and false starts before Arnold Schwarzenegger took control.
  • Schwarzenegger used his star power to save
    Total Recall
    from development hell, showcasing his artistic courage.

Films as audacious, innovative, and provocative as Total Recall are generally misunderstood in their time. While a financial hit, the dystopian science-fiction film by Paul Verhoeven was dismissed by critics, receiving mixed reviews and written off as mindless popcorn entertainment, which was ascribed to its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Art’s greatest ally, time, allowed a revisionist wave to hit Total Recall. Today, the film is recognized as a modern sci-fi classic for its groundbreaking practical effects and prophetic commentary on privatization and colonialism. It’s a blessing that the film has been critically reclaimed, but it’s a true miracle that Verhoeven’s film was even made. Luckily, Schwarzenegger, a star defined by his muscle-bound physique, heroically saved the film from the clutches of development hell.

Total Recall

When a man goes in to have virtual vacation memories of the planet Mars implanted in his mind, an unexpected and harrowing series of events forces him to go to the planet for real – or is he?

Release Date
June 1, 1990

Paul Verhoeven

113 Minutes

‘Total Recall’ Was an Enticing Science Fiction Property in Hollywood

Based on the Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Total Recall follows Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger), an ordinary construction worker who is fixated by recurring dreams about a journey to Mars. Hoping to clear the mystery of this dream, he buys a holiday from Rekall, a corporation that manufactures implanted memories. During the memory implantation process, he recalls a past life where he was a secret agent fighting against the evil Mars administrator, Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). The film presented a dynamic turning point for its principal artists, Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. Thought of as just a brute resigned to playing antagonists and Herculean figures devoid of humanity, Schwarzenegger proved himself as a bonafide superstar who could be viable as an R-rated action star and a lovable comedic force. Originating from the Netherlands, Verhoeven made his mark on American audiences with RoboCop, a radical action/sci-fi film that pushed the envelope with violence while rebuking the Reaganomics policies of the 1980s.

Adapting Dick’s short story for the big screen pre-dated Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven’s eventual collaboration. Adapting “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” to the big screen was daunting, as the text’s intersection of reality and dreams serves as an obstacle in constructing a clear narrative, especially for a big-budgeted film played at multiplexes. Replicating Dick’s esoteric sci-fi world on film was equally burdensome. Early stages of development began in the 1970s, and the special effects of the period were primitive. However, if there were one writer you’d want to envision a sci-fi story that is both thrilling and thematically engaging on the screen, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett would be your ideal candidates. The Alien writers got a draft of Dick’s story on the ground. Not long after, the script was the property of Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian producer specializing in sci-fi and horror.

Dino De Laurentiis Failed to Adapt ‘Total Recall’ to the Big Screen

With an established writing team and producer signed on, Total Recall‘s greenlight was inevitable. De Laurentiis saw the film and his production company dissipate as he struggled to find the right star and director. A flurry of stars, including Richard Dreyfuss and William Hurt, were attached to play Quaid, then named Quail—which was faithful to Dick’s story. The master of body horror, David Cronenberg, was set to direct, but conflicts with O’Bannon and Shusett’s script caused him to exit the project. The writers were mystified by Cronenberg’s approach to mimicking the abstract and cerebral tone of the original short story, and they insisted that the film adaptation should be informed by an action caper like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Scrambling for replacements, De Laurentiis hired Bruce Beresford to direct and Patrick Swayze as the star. In the book Tales From Development Hell, this version of Total Recall was “Spielbergian,” less gritty and more fun than Dick or Cronenberg’s vision. De Laurentiis’ bid for a blockbuster-friendly take on this story was short-lived, as his production company went bankrupt during pre-production. A film adaptation of Total Recall appeared to be a fleeting dream inside the mind of Douglas Quaid.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder-turned-action star, sought to expand his filmography by taking an unconventional path to his career. His career is defined by naysayers telling him to stay in his lane. First, they told him that he couldn’t be an actor with such an unpronounceable surname and heavy accent. Then, they told him that he couldn’t do comedies. Now, he was being told that Total Recall was out of his range. Schwarzenegger vied for the role of Quaid while the film was under De Laurentiis’ control. The producer did not buy the former Mr. Universe in Total Recall, even though he produced Schwarzenegger’s introduction to American audiences, Conan the Barbarian. Once De Laurentiis’ production company closed its doors, and with Total Recall in jeopardy, Schwarzenegger arranged a deal for Carolco, the indie studio behind the Rambo series, to purchase the rights from the producer.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Used His Star Power to Revive ‘Total Recall’

Total Recall’ (1990) (1)
Image via TriStar Pictures

Schwarzenegger effectively utilized his movie star clout to save Total Recall, now canonized as a sci-fi masterpiece, from development hell. The actor showed integrity in his business dealings with De Laurentiis, as the two supposedly had an acrimonious relationship. In his 2012 autobiography, aptly titled Total Recall, Schwarzenegger claimed that De Laurentiis “despised” him. He allegedly referred to Schwarzenegger as a “nazi” when speaking to Conan director, John Milius. Schwarzenegger’s determination to bring Total Recall to the screen is indicative of his artistic taste. During his prime, he relished experimenting with new genres and working with unheralded directors. Schwarzenegger, as the titular Terminator, was fond of another dystopian sci-fi film about a cyborg killing machine, RoboCop, and he wanted to work with its director, Paul Verhoeven. After years of spiraling into a creative abyss, Total Recall began production with a brand-new star, director, and production company.

Total Recall was destined to be a mainstay of development hell—a legendary failed production of a promising concept. It was thought that the scale was too lofty, the idea was too cerebral, and no script could clarify the messy third act. The thin line between dreams and reality from Quaid’s perspective served as another glaring issue. The film’s hopeless state of production was the perfect task for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who thrived off of being doubted. Helping adapt Philip K. Dick’s esoteric vision of the future to the screen was just another step for Schwarzenegger to climb up the mountain of success. For Schwarzenegger, who was already a viable movie star, saving the Paul Verhoeven film from development hell wasn’t a professional survival tactic. He could have played Herculean warriors and killing machines forever, but his curiosity and artistic courage separated Schwarzenegger from the pact.

Total Recall is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.

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