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Face-Off: Total Recall vs. RoboCop

08.02.2012by: Paul Huffman
In last weeks Face Off, the two big blockbuster contenders of the year went head to head. Although one of the closest races we've seen since this column started, the newly released somber swan song of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises pulled out a victory over the action packed lighthearted thrill ride The Avengers.

The remake to one of the films of the hour is the big release this week, so we thought it fitting to put together a little love letter to Director Paul Verhoeven by pitting two of his action classics against each other in the form of a match up between the original 1990 version of Total Recall and 1987's RoboCop. Both films are classics that grabbed us by the neck and didn't let go until the credits, but which Verhoeven flick stuck with you more? Here's my two cents.
Story
Based on the short story “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick, Total Recall is an action thrill ride that is wrapped up by a more unique and inventive story than most. Not only is a program that has the ability to plant memories inside your brain of a fantasy life you wished you were living intriguing, it’s also pretty damn relatable. Who wouldn’t want to be a secret agent who “gets the girl in the end?” Betrayal at every turn and all. To hit my opinion home, if more writers put effort into writing stories this imaginative instead of focusing on remaking them, Hollywood would be in great shape.
Not too much depth to the plot in RoboCop, it’s a classic revenge tale albeit with a hero that has more resources to get the job done than most, but luckily for this film I dig the hell out of revenge flicks. A dedicated cop gets terrorized in the worst way possible and is preserved thanks to a giant corporations plans for the future. A story like this and its execution is the stuff great action movies are made of. Like Total Recall there are enough twists and turns to keep the proceedings interesting as we go along. I’d buy that for a dollar!
Action
Hands down the most interesting world Arnie inhabits, but he’s up to his same bad ass activities. We get chases, fist fights (including between Arnie and a certain sexy blonde), and a whole hell of a lot of gunfire. Boy is said gunfire unforgiving, a few critics of the film have stated that the films violence was a bit of a turn off for them, but aside from the famous hottie with the three funbags, the balls to the wall carnage were Total Recalls shining moments. Stand out scenes? Arnie’s fight with Sharon, the first chase scene, and the final fight with Ironside…poor prick.
We’re pretty much served with everything we got in Recall for RoboCop. Almost straight away we get a chase scene complete with gunfights and flying bodies that all builds up to the massacre of Murphy, which is I must say all the brutality of Total Recall wrapped up into one. Short but sweet is the fight between Murphy and ED, but damn did ED go out like a chump in both exchanges. Of course we get explosions galore thanks to the military weaponry our baddies are provided with, have to say that gun was all kinds of badass. Bottom line it was a pure joy to watch RoboCop fuck shit up.
Effects
Now I recently rewatched Total Recall with my family and every time we view an older film like this, my mother in particular ridicules how ridiculous the visual effects of the time were. Personally I like many others appreciate the practical effects at work here more than what we are able to do with CGI today. The only CGI in the whole film was the awesome in itself X-Ray sequence, everything else was done with practical effects and miniatures. So many things I saw in this film I won’t soon forget, the effect of the Mars atmosphere, the chip removal scene, the lady disguise, the reveal of Quato. Brutal and brilliant.
Rob Bottin worked on RoboCop before moving on to collaborate with Verhoeven again in Recall, so one can only imagine the brilliant work they pulled off here. From the design of RoboCop’s suit, to the wonderful stop motion animation for the ED-209, all the way to the make-up affects for Murphy’s destruction and one of our baddies confrontation with a tower of toxic waste. These are things that should have stuck in my mind as a kid when I watched it, but alas I needed a rewatch to fully appreciate it. The suit design while Weller is no longer wearing the mask is brilliance. Everything the effects team did for this film they carried over to Recall and got way more ambitious, and damn did it show.
Cast/Performances
I know what some of you may be thinking, Paul is judging the performances in an action thriller really that necessary? Well, when the performances given were actually pretty damn good, why not? I think this is one of Arnie’s best performances personally; especially the couple scenes he gets to have fun portraying the man he was before the mindwipe. The supporting cast did their job well with the standouts being Sharon Stone (with her damn sensuality) and the great Michael Ironside, who managed to add a bit of depth to his role in terms of how much he seemed to care for Miss Stone. Rachel Ticotin did great with what she was given.
I’m actually going to give the edge to RoboCop in the acting department, and I’ll tell you why. Peter Weller had a challenging role ahead of him by having to portray a machine that had his humanity stripped away from him. That said, he was able to add emotion to his role by mere gestures from his mouth. That’s talent. Other standouts are Miguel Ferrer and Kurtwood Smith and his gang of baddies. Everyone seemed to bring their A game for their roles here with Kurtwood in particular having a blast playing a crime boss. Only negative I have to report is one of the villains unbelievably annoying laugh.
Reception
Total Recall has a critical approval rating of 81%. The film debuted No. 1 at the Box Office and grossed $$261,299,840 worldwide. Roger Ebert has given the film his stamp of approval by calling it “one of the most complex and visually interesting science fiction films” around during the time. Some critics gave the film a semi-positive review by praising its visual brilliance but saying it offers little else than the typical action film carnage. The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and was nominated for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.
RoboCop earned $8 million in its opening weekend making it the 16th highest earning film of 1987. The film has an approval rating of 88%, the general opinion calling out how gory the violence is while at the same time praising it as a “smart sci-fi flick that uses ultraviolence to disguise its satire of American culture.” It was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Editing and Best Sound, and won for Best Sound Effects Editing. British Director Ken Russell has called RoboCop the best science fiction film at the time since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Would you agree?
Overall
Total Recall was exactly what most critics hailed it as, an intelligent science fiction adventure that had the excitement of Arnie kicking ass to boot. The performances were wonderfully over the top, the set pieces were works of art, and the violence was as brutal as it should have been. I’m not one to write a film off, but what I fear is that everything that made this original work is going to be absent from the upcoming remake, but we’ll see. Mind-bending in more ways than one, Total Recall is a classic. Ultimately, the tie-breaker in my mind has to be the imaginative story and the ending we were provided with.
RoboCop is a revenge flick of the highest quality. We got a great hero, brutal violence, and over the top villains galore. It spawned several sequels, and a looming remake. As I said in regards to the Total Recall remake, I don’t see a RoboCop remake capturing the magic of a movie like this simply because we do things differently these days. I don’t think the complete carnage of Murphy will be as brutal, I don’t think the villains will be as pleasantly cartoonish. There is the cheesiness of an 80’s action flick, but it has this intensity that we don’t see any more and for that, like other old school action films of its time it holds a special place in my heart.
Total Recall
So there it is all. This verdict in my opinion is no fluke, as much of a kick ass ride as RoboCop was, Total Recall delivered on the action front and stimulated the imagination in me. I looked at the screen during my recent re-watch wondering to myself if I was really seeing what I was seeing, that's a knock out of the park in my eyes. Also, I love endings that let me fill in the blanks so, extra points for that. But hey, that's just one persons opinion. Did you get more of a thrill out of seeing Alex Murphy's transition into "one bad motherfucker"? Let us know!

If you have an idea that you'd like to see in a future FACE OFF column, feel free to shoot an email to me at paulhuffman@joblo.com with your ideas and some ideas for the critique to base your ideas off. Thank you and in the meantime...

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