I have a friend, D., who has aspired all his life to be a stand-up comedian, though he has never said so, and indeed he may not think so. He's at his best impersonating. His impersonations are nothing groundbreaking, but they're infectious, and they do what they should: improve upon the source martial. So much so that the source material becomes completely lost, and the far more entertaining impersonation is all we remember. No one has become more lost and more improved by impersonation than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Thus watching any movie he's in is an excavation of the real Arnie, quickly thereafter forgotten. It's a disorienting thing--him and the activity of unearthing him. Imagine my shock at the first scene of "Total Recall", in which he is thrown into the Martian desert without a space suit, and he begins to scream. In a special effect that is unsettling as much for its gruesomeness as its cheesyness, his eyes bulge out of their sockets, and he emits the proto-Arnie-noise. You know, the one everyone does, from Dana Carvey to Dylan Moran to my D.: alwalwalwalwalw--a guttural vowel through jaws moving rhythmically up and down as if on an exercise machine. Undoubtedly that's how it began--as a jaw exercise. The amazing part about this is that even though I watched this only 24 hours ago, I have just described D.'s impression to you, not what I heard. Because I don't remember what I heard.
This is exactly the kind of tiresome mind-game that can sustain Phillip K. Dick's wonder. (He wrote the short story on which Total Recall was based, of course, as he did quite a few other fanboy-enshrined Sci-Fi films.) He subjects everything to the same kind of philosophical doubt, and so his work is a gold mine for film-makers aiming for the "let's smoke a bowl and watch something" crowd. The basic "whoa" in this film: Is the protagonist's experience a self-indulgent fantasy being synthetically pumped into him by--you guessed it--a sleazy corporation or is it real? It turns out that both his identity and his idealism are constructs intended to secure the corporation's monopoly. But oh no! It back-fires: He, the construct, fights to not be erased by his "true" identity, and triumphantly saves the world from the corporation's greed.
Among all this, there are innumerable funny Schwarzenegger noises, or action scenes as some call them. The unpathologized nonchalance with which he spins innocent bystanders into his heroic imperatives gave me pause. People who have barely met him sacrifice their lives for him, and then he uses their corpses as body shields. His role is comparable to one of the most gruesome weapons he wields in the film: an enormous hand-held drill. He uses it to drill all the way through the armor plating of a vehicle threatening to kill him and his sidekick/lover, and finally into the flesh of its operator. Ugh.
Let's talk about something else. How about that this heavily accented actor is supposed to pass for a white American everyman? At the film's start he and Sharon Stone flounce about their apartment like the married couple you want to murder every time they come over for dinner. When he wakes up, she hounds him for information about this other girl in his recurring dream. He sulks, and watches the news on their enormous flat screen. She bitchily turns it off with the most awful smile (this perhaps is Stone's talent). He sulks some more, and then goes to work. Apparently, he's a construction worker. Like his more recent job as governor, one is always thinking that surely he's actually a body builder, and surely he's just visiting from Austria. Maybe he's actually perfect for both this role and in politics because his accent and mannerisms form a kind of cognitive bomb. One sees and then, in a flash of bent diphthongs and flexing muscle, one does not.
The only part of all this worth watching as far as I'm concerned is Schwarzenegger being apathetic and sarcastic. It's a very brief scene, but unparalleled. He's watching a video of himself telling him what to do, because the one watching has contracted amnesia under duress. What he's watching, then, is the way back to himself. The route involves a lot of difficult, adventurous tasks, and he's depressed by this. "Yes, yes," he says, slouching, as if his wife just scolded him, and then, hearing the worst of it, "great," dripping with ennui. Captured on screen is the most honest reaction he's ever had to his life's work.