Total Recall: Special effects of the mind

Total Recall (Copyright: Columbia Pictures)

(Copyright: Columbia Pictures)

Films like Total Recall remind us how little we understand about how our brain - and our consciousness - shape our realities.

How erasable do they think our memories are? Are we already meant to have forgotten the original Total Recall and its career-best performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger as someone whose secret agent dreams may have more substance than his humdrum reality?
It’s barely 20 years since Paul Verhoeven’s freewheeling adaptation of David Cronenberg’s reworking of Philip K Dick’s story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, became an instant sci-fi classic. So why the remake with Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale that’s just been released? And why now?
Given that much of the 1990 Total Recall unfolds on Mars, it’s tempting to find  significance in the new film having had its US release within days of Nasa successfully landing their largest ever rover, Curiosity, on the Red Planet. The only tiny problem with this theory, and one of several big problems with the remake, is that this time round there’s no Martian action. Maybe they didn’t have the budget to go there.   
Which brings us to the reason why anyone should try – and in this case fail – to improve on a movie that revels in the bizarre possibilities of  waking up to find your memories have been altered and you are not yourself.
The denizens of Hollywood’s dream factory have always been attracted to tangled tales of life as a fairground hall of mirrors, of boundaries blurred between what’s real and illusion, of virtual realties. True lies, as Arnie himself might put it. Total Recall is one of the wild cards in a pack which – off the top of my not-entirely-reliable head – includes Inception, Memento, Vertigo, Spellbound, Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, Identity, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, eXistenZ, Long Kiss Goodnight,  Brazil and Dark City.      
There are hundreds more, even if you don’t count all those horror films that attempt to inject a quick fix of thrills using dreams, dream-within-dreams and movies-within-movies.  But there’s one film, which more than any other I know,  provides an unexpected inside-our-minds insight into why these kind of cinematic “reality checks” remain so compelling and popular.  And it’s a documentary about climbing.
Brain riddle
Touching the Void follows two mountaineers on a near fatal 1985 expedition in the Andes.  The 2003 documentary used dramatised scenes with the original climbers playing themselves. There’s a sequence, not in the original release but among the DVD extras, where one of them – dressed in the gear he’d been in when he broke his leg and was later left for dead – starts to freak out. He begins to think he’s still on the original expedition trying to crawl back to base camp, and that everything that’s happened in the last 18 years is just a figment of his imagination, a fantasy his mind has created to comfort himself as he loses the battle to survive.   
It’s a chilling moment – emphasised later when he angrily tells the crew: “Do you have any idea how bad it was? ... I died here!" For all the fictional examples of someone flipping between alternative realities, it’s the only instance I know where you can see it happen to someone who is a person, not a character. It shows how tenuous our grasp can be of where, when and even who we are. We continuously assemble our own universe and position ourselves in it based on our memories, our sense of self and what we are currently perceiving. Change enough of those inputs and we can switch from one version of events to another if it seems more plausible.

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