We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

"Total Recall" in One Shot

Paul Verhoeven's memory-lapsed masterpiece is encapsulated in one shot.
Aaron E. Hunt
One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. 
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has just discovered his uncanny ability to kill. After a series of efficient executions composed in canted close-ups, Paul Verhoeven cuts to a level, wide shot to survey the result of his protagonist’s killer instincts. Bodies lay, according to the rule of thirds, on a tile floor grid, and blood deliberately paints what would have been negative space on the canvas wall. Quaid fires the final round of a handgun, which conveniently finishes off his final assailant, and then finally comes to. This is the first action scene in Total Recall (1990), which either reveals that Quaid is a renegade secret agent who had his memory wiped by “the Agency,” which colonized Mars and commodified the oxygen supply of its original settlers, or a construction worker “recalling” the memory-implanted fantasy he paid for. Dream or not, and Verhoeven never feels obligated to concede one or the other, Quaid’s mission to decolonize Mars serves viewers the action hero thrills they came for. In Hollywood, Verhoeven’s always fed us our baser desires without the usual trade offs—depictions of sex without penalty (Basic Instinct) and violence without jingoistic propaganda. Like traditional action heroes, Quaid’s brutality is portrayed as singularly effective, unambiguously moral and absolutely necessary. But rather than use these skewed techniques to preserve the sanctity of American imperialism, which Hollywood upholds, Verhoeven employs them against it. The wide shot he cuts away to in the first action sequence is as close to a perfectly symmetrical composition as he and his frequent cinematographer Jost Vacano ever get. The shot’s wide angle of view relieves us from the claustrophobia of Quaid’s kills, which are framed too close and centered for us to look away from, and reminds us to consider the violence within the bigger picture. In Total Recall Verhoeven formulates his most justified target. More than Robocop, in which he mistakes the private sector for the heart of America’s police problem, and Starship Troopers, in which the victims of a futurist, peaked fascism are only bugs and itself. Quaid targets no less than the leaders of a settler state, frees the working class, and ultimately decolonizes Mars. These ends allow us to revel in the violent means without the usual aftertastes. When Verhoeven cuts away to the wide shot of the film’s first blood, not only do the shapes and lines of its violence perfectly align in the frame, but its political and moral justifications too.


One ShotColumnsPaul VerhoevenQuick Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.