In Susan Jeffords' essay "Terminal Masculinity: Men in the Early 1990s", she argues that much of the ideological work done by 90s action films involves a rejection of the violent, hard-bodied narratives of the preceding decade for a more nuanced approach towards masculine subjects that not only allows for but advocates emotionality and familial ties. These films often figure their male heroes as, in a way, helpless, betrayed by society and their very bodies into enacting the violent and alienating action celebrated in the films of the 80s. As Jeffords' writes of the 90s action hero, "The body that he thought was 'his,' the body he had been taught to value as fulfilling some version of a masculine heroic ideal - suddenly that body became transformed into a separate entity that was betraying the true internal feelings of the man it contained" (146). Jeffords begins her analysis in the year 1991 with only a few mentions of films from 1990 and her argument lacks reference to a film from that year that I consider important in this shifting configuration of masculinity, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall.
The film, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as an "everyman" character who is inaugurated into a world of interplanetary action and adventure after visiting a fake memory vendor, is concerned primarily with the way that masculinity was constructed and reproduced in action films of the 1980s. Schwarzenegger's Quaid is a normal man with a normal life, or rather a life as normal as Arnold Schwarzenegger living in the sci-fi future can be. From the start, the film urges its audience to believe in the promise of the Hero's Journey, to believe that this impossibly muscular man has a destiny greater than any of us. This myth is central to the film's narrative, in which conflict arises out of a confusion of fantasy and reality; is the adventure that Quaid embarks on genuine or simply based on a delusion? The film succeeds in confusing its audience largely through the star power of Schwarzenegger; there is no way that this impossibly muscular man is simply supposed to settle for anonymity in a world that's a playground of intrepid rebels and evil corporations, psychic mutants and ancient aliens. Schwarzenegger embodies the ideal that Jeffords was referring to, his status as a heroic action star was well established when he took on the role of Quaid and the film works in interesting ways to both reinforce this image while simultaneously undercutting it.
The film delivers all of its important worldbuilding information efficiently within the expositional phase of its narrative, before Quaid visits Rekall. The conflict on Mars is introduced through a news program playing in the background at Quaid's house while Rekall and its president, whom Quaid eventually meets and murders, are shown in a television commercial on a subway. Most interesting, perhaps, is the scene which takes place between Quaid and the salesperson at Rekall, a virtual vacation vendor that uses memory implants to simulate the experience of travel. The salesperson offers Quaid an upgrade from the standard vacation package called an "ego-trip", where he can choose between a number of heroic roles to inhabit, "millionaire playboy, sports hero, industrial tycoon, secret agent". Quaid chooses to become a secret agent and the salesman goes on to describe exactly what happens in the movie, he will "get the girl, kill the badguys, and save the entire planet". While there are a number of points in the film where it seems like either Quaid is fully delusional or completely sane, the film gains its most potent force from a reading which adheres to the former interpretation. Like Verhoeven's other satirical blockbuster efforts Robocop and Starship Troopers, Total Recall works effectively as a critique of the white male wish fulfillment present in a number of Hollywood features by presenting the consequences of the 80s action mindset to its violent, fascist, logical conclusion.