Show, Don’t Tell: How It Works in Total Recall

On Sunday, I watched Total Recall for the first time. Not the remake, but the original. I know, I know… I’m late to the party. But after watching the film, I noticed a very simple, straight-forward thing the film did that followed the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell” when it comes to world-building. Because Total Recall came out in 1990, I’m not worried about spoilers, but I promise not to be overly specific outside of discussing the specific world-building situations themselves.

Situation #1: The movie opens with the main characters in space suits walking around on Mars. Because they’re in a mountainous area, the footy is rocky, and one of them slips, slides down the mountain, and their face plate cracks open. The movie then proceeds to show us what happens to the character when deprived of air in the Martian atmosphere. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled anything for you.

Situation #2: The main character is going through his normal morning routine. One portion of his morning commute to work is to walk through the security scanner on his way to the subway. The security scanner, of course, scans for weapons, and of course, the main character walks through, no weapons visible.

Situation #3: At one point, the main character receives new tech to help him on his mission, and one of the pieces is a watch-type thing that projects a mirror-image hologram of whomever is wearing/holding the tech.  It’s nifty.

What’s cool about these three situations? Because each of these three situations sets something up: no explanation is given, and when the story comes back around, the viewer knows what’s going to happen when that tech/situation comes into play. The first go-around in each situation shows how something works, and the second go-around shows what it does in reference to the story. All of this without info-dumping exposition.

Which is neat. Total Recall might be an older, more classic SF movie, but I appreciated the straight-forward storytelling, and the trust the writers place in the viewer. A good lesson, even if it’s a little obviously telegraphed how things are going to work.

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