Dreams in Red: Invaders From Mars and Total Recall

Dreams in Red: Invaders From Mars and Total Recall
By Adam Nayman, film critic for The Ringer and author of David Fincher: Mind Games and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks

“It was all a dream” is the hokiest genre of movie ending. It’s also arguably the truest. Whether you want to take the long way around and invoke psychoanalytic theory or circadian rhythms, or simply cite some subconsciously evocative titles—The Big Sleep; Nightmare Alley; Eyes Wide Shut; Inception—it’s hardly hyperbole to cite parallels between filmgoing and the dramas generated nightly in our collective mind’s eye. What goes on after the lights go down is the stuff that dreams are made of.   

Near the end of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars—a gloriously paranoid fable of alien invasion in Anytown U.S.A. released in 1953 opposite George Pal’s War of the Worlds—its ten-year old hero, David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), rubs his eyes and wakes up in his bed. With a mixture of relief and resignation, he realizes that he’d only imagined his recent, thrilling adventures as humanity’s unlikely last hope in the face of extra-terrestrial antagonists, navigating subterranean tunnels, dodging mind-controlled zombies (including his father) and helping the army blow the Martians to kingdom come. 

Like young David, construction worker Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dreams of Mars. “My poor baby,” purrs his supportive wife Lori (Sharon Stone) in the wake of another sweat-soaked night terror. “This is getting to be an obsession.” In narrative terms, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990)—adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”—functions as a sort of inversion of Menzies’ classic. Here, Mars is not a conquering empire but a colony-in-process, strip-mined for ore by rapacious capitalists trickling the profits back to Earth.  Doug takes his dreams as a sign that he needs a diversion and signs up for a virtual vacation to the red planet via a series of implanted—and sensorily authentic—memories. In the process, he realizes that his dreams are in fact traces of his past life as a secret agent embroiled in a violent rebellion against Mars’ corporate overlords. This is not his beautiful house, and Lori is not his beautiful wife.

When Total Recall was released, the discourse around it mostly had to do with its great, heaping gobs of graphic violence: as in RoboCop (1987), Verhoeven exploited a post-Star Wars moment of chrome-plated, luxuriously subsidized sci-fi as a pretense for hard-R rated provocations. Viewed thirty years later though, the film works best as a satire of the same brain-dead Hollywood escapism of which dismal daily-press critics saw it as a mere byproduct. Three years before The Last Action Hero made a conceptual joke out of the fact that a pumped-up figure like Schwarzenegger could only plausibly exist in a fictive cinematic universe—and four before James Cameron kidded “Ahnold’s” global celebrity by casting him as a self-effacing operative in True LiesTotal Recall wryly deconstructed its star’s persona. In another of his stories, Dick had wondered if androids dreamed of electric sheep; Verhoeven upped the ante by suggesting that, when The Terminatordreamed, it was of a quotidian domesticity—and also that dreams are as easily manufactured as any other product, provided the factory is large and ruthless enough to keep churning them out.

Visually, Total Recall takes certain of its cues from Invaders from Mars and the whole 1950s cycle of vividly cultured sci-fi thrillers; the scenes on Mars have the lurid, hyperreal coloring of dime-store paperback covers. Verhoeven would return to similarly vintage genre aesthetics in 1997’s Starship Troopers, adapted (and ideologically inverted) from the militaristic screed by Robert A. Heinlein; the title could have been Invaders from Earth. But where Starship Troopers telegraphs its comedic intentions from start to finish—to the point where you’d have to be a Pulitzer-prize winning film critic for The Washington Post to take its fascist kitsch at face value—Total Recall splits the difference between action-flick heroics and meditations on memory. “It’s the best mindfuck yet,” Schwarzenegger deadpans after being informed he’s suffering delusions of grandeur; the line could describe his own movie’s woozy ambiguity.

Menzies’ filmography beyond Invaders from Mars includes several other authentically (and more explicitly) dreamlike efforts, including producing a spectacular, ghostly visual rendering in 1930 of Paul Dukas’ classical composition “The Wizard’s Apprentice”—beating Fantasia and Mickey Mouse to the punch by a decade—and contributing special effects to the wildly oneiric Thief of Bagdad (1940). He also rumoredly re-shot segments of Spellbound’s (1945) celebrated, Salvador-Dali-authored hallucination sequence—a footnote to film history that probably deserves to be expanded into its own chapter. In moments, Invaders is expressly expressionistic in ways that exceed its remit as B-movie pulp. The frequently low, cramped angles convey not only a child’s-eye view of the world but an encroaching claustrophobia that Don Siegel later finessed for the more po-faced Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (originally entitled Sleep No More); the sandpit behind David’s house, which conceals the Martians’ base of operations, is framed by the camera as a topographical impossibility—Earth repurposed into an alien landscape. 

“That’s a new one, a blue sky on Mars,” remarks a side character in Total Recall, dropping a clue that everything we see, up to and including the climactic kiss between Quaid and his freedom-fighting paramour are just so much ersatz wish fulfillment: ever the clever showman, Verhoeven gives us a happy ending that points towards darker truths about denial. Invaders from Mars similarly undermines expectations by shadowing David’s awakening with the simultaneous arrival of yet another ominous flying saucer—an image that restructures an otherwise linear, straight-ahead entertainment-as-ouroboros. There is primal fear here, but also a sense of wonder, and maybe a tacit, humble acknowledgement of our perpetual desire to escape into even our most dangerous fantasies. “Gee whiz,” David remarks as the boundaries of his (and our) waking life blur ecstatically around him, and into infinity.