Archive for March 24th, 2014

A Writer Reviews: Total Recall

No no, not the new one. Look, I didn’t dislike the new one, but it’s the first shot of a troubling new trend in the film industry: remaking Paul Verhoeven movies that are still perfectly good on their own. We had a new Total Recall in 2012, a new Robocop a month ago, and there is fresh rumblings of a new attempt at Starship Troopers that hews a little more closely to the book.

I’m a huge fan of all three of these Verhoeven movies. They make for a fantastic triple feature if you want to just sit down and enjoy some fantastic satire connected through their jaded view of televised entertainment. But this isn’t about fawning over some of my favorite movies, it’s about taking one of them to task.

So what’s the big question at the center of Total Recall? The one question that people debate when they’re actually debating something so silly as 90s Schwarzenegger movies?

Does the movie happen or not?

Answer one: Yes. The movie is chronicling the actual events as Douglas Quaid learns that he is a secret agent who had his memory wiped and is living out a humdrum life on earth. Answer two: No. The movie is entirely the memory that Rekall has implanted into Quaid.

It’s a fun question. It’s at the heart of any unreliable narrator, just what parts can you believe or not? Unfortunately, and I hate to find such a glaring flaw in a Verhoeven movie, there’s only one possible correct answer. Douglas Quaid is, unambiguously, as the movie presents him. I will accept no other answer, because the movie makes it very clear in one important way.

Parts of the movie happen without Quaid on-screen.

If the movie was meant to be an implanted memory, these scenes wouldn’t exist. They couldn’t There is no way for Quaid to know what happens in these scenes, and thus no way for these scenes to otherwise exist. Sorry, the whole thing falls apart on that one moment, and any exploration about the nature of memory or reality is destroyed, leaving only a ridiculously fun story.

In the world of writing, this is what we call “head hopping.” That moment that a narrative jumps from one person’s point of view to another. On its own, head hopping is not a problem. Some stories (I’m looking at you, Frank Herbert) do it constantly. Some stories will switch between points of view at scene or chapter breaks. Some will stay firmly in a single point of view. Some will back off it all. The problem comes when head hopping happens accidentally. When that happens, it can feel like a cheat, pull the reader out of the story, or even destroy some of the potential drama.

So pick your point of view. If it’s not working, change it up. Just make sure it’s internally consistent.

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