You might not realize it at first glance, but Paul Verhoeven's 1990 sci-fi thriller Total Recall and Bill Condon's quiet 2015 mystery, Mr. Holmes, are pretty much the same movie.
OK, perhaps that's an overstatement, but they sure have a lot to say about the same thing: the question of what makes a human being.
Can that be possible? These two films are as different as oil and water. Total Recall is a violent, in-your-face action film with slam-bang editing, fierce gun battles and bloody all-around mayhem. Mr. Holmes, on the other hand, is a subdued, elegant picture that centers on the aging detective Sherlock Holmes while being driven by precise characterization and loaded dialogue. What in the world can connect these two movies?
Well, both of them are about memory (or the lack thereof) and how it shapes human beings. In Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Quaid is haunted by memories that may or may not have been implanted in him artificially. It turns out that he was actually someone else, a villain, who removed his mental identity and gave his body a new one in order to lead him to the whereabouts of mutant rebel Kuato. Yet when he finally meets the latter personality, he is told something very important: "A man is defined by his actions, not his memory."
That's exactly the kind of philosophical territory Mr. Holmes approaches, too. In it, the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes ponders a case he worked on but cannot remember the end to, due to his decreased mental capacity. He has feelings about it and painful, scattered visions but nothing concrete. What he wants to do is set it right — to correct the account of it that his late colleague Dr. Watson disseminated. That mystery is lodged in his mind, making him two people: the brilliant, dapper Holmes of the past and the tormented, declining Holmes of the present. Does he have the choice to turn himself into something else? Does he have the capacity to become another person?
These questions inform both Total Recall and Mr. Holmes, giving them a psychological bent that's rarely present in motion pictures of today. Their similarities, however, don't end just there. Both Quaid and Holmes are searching for their identities, and in doing so, they raise the question of what makes an individual. Is it action, and if so, is it previous or current behavior? How should people be judged: on what they did in the past or what they continue to do as they move forward? If someone made bad decisions in the past, can they be redeemed? What, exactly, forms humanity, and what, exactly, shouldn't be part of it?
I recommend watching both of these flicks back-to-back, as they would shed significant light on the ideological inquiries they raise, as well as provide sufficient contrast within a movie-viewing window. Still, that contrast is merely superficial — I can't think of any two pictures that are more different from each other in content, yet more similar in perspective. Both are well worth watching. Both are well worth discussing.
Both also provide the right answer to at least one of the questions they posit. They show that people's worth is determined by how they change — for better or for worse. That idea that people can change is a fundamental position in these pictures, and it's quite an optimistic viewpoint. Humans, according to #TotalRecall and Mr. Holmes, aren't set in stone.
One day, perhaps, some movie house will show these films as a double feature. I would love to attend that kind of event, though for now I'll have to be content in the knowledge that I have both of these flicks at my disposal. Because although action, not memory, determines the value of an individual, we're not yet at the stage where we can absorb two pictures at once. Maybe we'll get there in another science-fiction universe.
As long as Holmes and Quaid are there to guide us as we move along, I think we'll be all right.
Did you see the similarities between these two movies?