As US-based HD DVD fans of 'Total Recall' are probably already aware, this film was released on Blu-ray in the United States in August of 2006 by Blu-ray exclusive distributor Lionsgate. And while this would usually mean that you're out of luck if you hope to watch this title on HD DVD, in this case (if you're willing to spend a few extra bucks), there is a French import available.
It's worth noting that not all next-gen releases are identical across formats and/or international territories. In fact, as we've discussed in other reviews, similar titles (such as the Japanese HD DVD edition of 'The Brothers Grimm') have carried entirely different video transfers, audio tracks and supplements.
So how do these two releases of 'Total Recall' compare? Read on...
When history recalls its greatest sci-fi visionaries, Philip K. Dick's name doesn't come up nearly as it should. While Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson are likely familiar to most, Dick remains largely unknown to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that more of his works have been adapted into motion pictures than any of those other sci-fi greats. While the merits of such Dick-inspired films as 'A Scanner Darkly,' 'Paycheck' and 'Minority Report' may be debatable, just the fact that 'Blade Runner' exists at all should be enough to earn Dick his rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic sci-fi greats.
Then there is 'Total Recall.' Perhaps Dick's most well-known tale after 'Blade Runner,' it also boasts one of his most intriguing conceits -- and that's saying a lot. Simple on the surface, yet rich with existential complexities, 'Recall' tells the tale of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an everyman toiling away as a laborer in the year 2048. Strangely, Quaid has a series of luxuries seemingly at odds with his lowly station in life, including a beautiful wife (Sharon Stone) and a surprisingly swank apartment. When we first meet Quaid, he's having recurring dreams of Mars, so he goes in for some "virtual vacation memories" via a hi-tech "transplant" service. Things soon go haywire, as Quaid's dreams appear to be buried memories of a former life. Is he really Hauser, the one-time rebel leader of an uprising against the evil Mars dictator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox)? As Quaid/Hauser descends further and further into this Kaftka-esque nightmare, he will question his very identity, and the blurry line that divides reality and memory.
A sizable box office hit during its initial 1990 theatrical release, 'Total Recall' is certainly Schwarzenegger's best film outside of the 'Terminator' flicks. I'd also argue that, after 'RoboCop,' it is Paul Verhoeven's best sci-fi effort (I was not a fan of 'Starship Troopers' or 'Hollow Man'). 'Total Recall' definitely boasts some great action, Verhoeven's typically bombastic directorial flourishes, and very cool pre-CGI special effects courtesy of Oscar-winning makeup maestro Rob Bottin. Yet despite all these plusses, I've never quite warmed to 'Total Recall' as much as its sizable cult following. Perhaps it's because 'Total Recall' ultimately succeeds more for its ideas then its action movie elements, which upon subsequent viewings don't hold up very strongly.
To be sure, on the surface, 'Total Recall' has all the right elements. Dick's story is undoubtedly captivating -- I've always been a fan of his literate, profound meditations on the merging of fantasy, reality and spirituality, and 'Total Recall' is fueled by some very heady ideas. Verhoeven, too, was in his prime here, and he was a smart enough filmmaker to avoid dumbing down the material into just another routine Schwarzenegger action flick. As he showed in 'RoboCop,' the Dutch auteur can be terrific at mixing dark human tragedy with ironic humor and sharp social satire. Though not quite as pointed and subversive as 'RoboCop,' 'Total Recall' is still laced with plenty of typical Verhoeven zingers at capitalism, governmental oppression and our culture's relentless avoidance of pain by wallowing in pleasure -- all of which helps to elevate the film above the run-of-the-mill piece of '80s sci-fi hokum.
However, unlike 'RoboCop,' sometimes 'Recall's 'Fugitive'-like action scenes feel a tad bit uninspired. Compare 'Total Recall' to 'Blade Runner,' and it is easy to see why the latter has transcended its genre and era, while the former arguably has not. With 'Blade Runner,' we still remember the film's haunting themes and characters as much as its milieu, action and incredible visual design. After watching 'Total Recall' for about the fifth time now with this HD DVD release, somehow I still don't feel I'm watching a true classic, but merely a great piece of pop filmmaking.
Then there is Schwarzenegger. For some reason, I've always pictured someone more slight of build in the role of Quaid/Hauser, like a Michael Biehn type. (James Cameron was certainly smart to cast Biehn as the hero in the first 'Terminator,' versus Schwarzenegger, who originally wanted the good-guy role.) Watching Arnie in 'Total Recall,' flexing his gigantic muscles and spouting Dick's literate dialogue in that clunky, thick accent, I just couldn't quite buy him as mundane Average Joe. (And I certainly couldn't buy him as a love interest to Sharon Stone!) By the time of Quaid/Hauser's revelatory paradigm shift at the end of the first act, it is hard to empathize with or feel any vulnerability in the character. We are so conditioned to see Schwarzenegger just pick up a machine gun and start shooting, that it's hard to feel much fear for him. As a character in the movie says, "A man is defined by his actions, not his memories." By the end of 'Total Recall,' I've always ended up feeling exactly the opposite.
Presenting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Studio Canal offers a new 1080p/VC-1 encode (versus 1080p/MPEG-2 on the Lionsgate Blu-ray). Though there is no way to confirm whether the masters are even the same, I'm left with the same impression I had when reviewing the Blu-ray last time around. While much of the film still looks pretty fresh in high-def, I've certainly seen better, more pristine remasters of catalog titles from this same period.
On the plus side, the source material is good shape -- not pristine, but dirt and blemishes are minimal and generally not distracting. Blacks are deep and contrast is consistent across the entire grayscale. While sometimes remasters of older titles like this have that jacked up, overly-processed look, 'Total Recall' looks pleasingly film-like. There is a slight wash of grain throughout, but it looks natural and appropriate to the age of the material. Color reproduction is also a pleasnt surprise. 'Total Recall's main color scheme is red (it does take place on Mars, after all), which is always a challenge for video to reproduce accurately and cleanly. Yet hues are very stable here with no apparent noise, and are certainly more eye-popping than on any previous standard-def DVD version.
However, detail is still lackluster compared to some of the better remasters of late-'80s material I've seen. To my eyes, it looks like the transfer has been softened a bit to reduce the visibility of film grain, which results in a flat look in almost every scene. The sense of depth and clarity of fine details is just not incredibly three-dimensional. Most impressive are the everyday early scenes before Quaid/Hauser takes off to Mars, while the more surreal nightmare scenes are the weakest. Still, despite these inconsistencies, overall I was quite satisfied with this presentation.
Studio Canal has provided three audio options for 'Total Recall' in this HD DVD edition: a DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio 5.1 surround track in English (48kHz/16-bit), plus two DTS-HD High-Resolution dubs in German (5.1 surround) and French (2.0 Stereo only, despite being mislabeled on the back packaging as 4.0 Surround). Given current limitations in HD DVD hardware, I was only able to extract the 1.5mbps "core" of the DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio mix, which gave results close to -- but not the quite the equal of -- the Dolby Digital EX Surround and DTS-HD High Resolution options on the domestic Blu-ray release.
Again, neither Studio Canal nor Lionsgate provides detailed information on their masters, so there is no way to confirm whether the source used for this HD DVD is the same as the domestic Blu-ray. Other select Studio Canal import HD DVD titles have come under fire for problems with PAL audio speed up, as well as lower perceived bass output. While I am not particularly sensitive to PAL speed up (I tend not to even detect it unless it's a direct comparison), I did find the HD DVD to be a bit "softer" overall in terms of impact.
To 'Total Recall's benefit, for film nearing its twentieth anniversary the original sound design holds up pretty well. Surrounds are almost consistently engaging (although slightly more so in the Dolby EX mix on the Blu-ray, which had a slightly expanded rear presence). The action scenes are the main beneficiaries, with some very effective uses of panning effects between the front and back soundstages. Jerry Goldsmith's score is nicely directed to various speakers at key moments, such as the scene where Sharon Stone's character's true motivations are revealed -- subtle moments like this give an almost tech-noir feel to the movie (not surprising, given that it is a Paul Verhoeven flick).
Dynamics help out as well, with a smoothness and nuance to the entire frequency spectrum that further accentuates the various genres Verhoeven is attempting to mix. The .1 LFE also gets a nice workout, and I was equally impressed with the forcefulness of the low bass on the all the mixes. The opening and ending sequences were particular highlights, and there was even one moment mid-way during the film, when a bomb goes off in a crowded mall, that was so deep and effective I was genuinely startled by how powerful it sounded.
Ultimately, the differences between the various mixes on the HD DVD and Blu-ray are pretty minor, and the HD DVD may very well prove to be unequivocally superior once full-blown DTS-MA decoding becomes a reality. Until then, the domestic Blu-ray still ekes out a victory by a hair here.
Unfortunately Studio Canal hasn't included any extras on this French HD DVD edition of 'Total Recall.' This is in marked contrast to the domestic standard-def DVD releases, which included a bevy of supplements. To be fair, the Lionsgate Blu-ray release of the film was also barren, so when it comes to extras, high-def fans on both sides of the aisle are just plain out of luck.
'Total Recall' is a bit dated in terms of its special effects and late-'80s production design, but the heart of Philip K. Dick's original story still resonates. Paul Verhoeven also knows how to ratchet up the action and energy to such a high level that it's almost impossible not to have fun with such a bombastic vision of the future.
Unfortunately, this Studio Canal HD DVD import is not the ultimate in high-def. More or less on par with the domestic Lionsgate Blu-ray release in terms of video, audio and supplements, neither edition blew me away. Taking into account the high exchange rate for import discs, this one's probably only worth a purchase if you're both HD DVD-exclusive and a die-hard fan of the film.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.