Total Recall (1990)
In the summer of 1990, Total Recall premiered and was billed as an action/adventure movie which is typical of summer
fare. Audiences were told: “Get ready for the ride of your life.”
The film was criticized for its excessive violence, but then what did one expect with Paul Verhoeven (whose previous
work was filled with profanity and gore) sitting in the director's chair. Actor Sylvester Stallone,
on the talk show circuit to promote his fifth Rocky film, rapped movies with glass shattering in an effort to contrast meaningless
action films with his sensitive project; the film he was referring to was Total Recall. Even director
Martin Scorsese (in his April 1991 interview in Playboy) admitted that while not having seen Total Recall, he
has negative feelings about films of that nature: “That violence confuses me and perplexes me. I
don't understand it.” However, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a vested interest in the product
he was praising, promoted his film, he called it incredibly “hip”. His assessment seemed as
foreign to the content of the film as his accent. What, one may ask, does Arnold Schwarzenegger know about
what's hip? The answer might surprise you as much as what Total Recall is really about.
screen credit is given to the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, Total Recall
resembles a Twilight Zone episode (from the 1985 - 1988 series) entitled “Dreams for Sale” in
which a woman from a futuristic society opts to be placed in a machine where dreams come true as an alternative to the unpleasant,
grim reality she lives. Unlike Douglas Quaid, the Schwarzenegger character, the woman chooses a nature
scene where she is peacefully enjoying a picnic outdoors with her loving family. A technical malfunction
occurs in the machine, and the woman cannot be revived nor does she want to be as a smile is evident on her face indicating
an appreciation for the dream life rather than the real world. Douglas Quaid could relate to her situation;
a similar fate awaits him for his discontent.
Of course, we do not see this in Total Recall. At
the end of the film, there is no cut to Rekall's laboratory where we find Quaid contented, but lobotomized.
We are led to believe what we see and hear - that Quaid's adventure is real, that he is not who he originally thinks
he is, and that he will learn about his real identity and profit from it by the end of the film. Characters
like his wife Lori, Hauser, and the villainous Cohaagen, tell him; and Quaid, himself, eventually believes it.
So why shouldn't we?
Let's examine the body of evidence which suggests that most of what occurs in the film
is actually a dream. This is not to suggest that this scenario is a liability to the story - for everyone
knows that the story-as-dream would be a major disappointment and would not be “hip”. Verhoeven
is too clever to annoy his audience - for in doing what he did, he is making a strong statement about man's obsession
with violence and fantasy.
At Rekall, Quaid is told by McClane, the man-in-charge, that if he chooses the deluxe vacation
(the “Ego Trip”) as a secret agent, he will be involved in an exciting adventure:
You are a top operative under deep cover.
People are trying to kill you left
.... By the time the trip is over, you get
the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the
Is it coincidental that Quaid gets exactly what he is promised by the time
the film is over? Immediately after his visit to Rekall, his life is endangered. (He
tells Melina, “People are trying to kill me.”) The opposition literally and figuratively stands
to the left and right of Quaid outside his apartment, at the X-ray screen, and in Cohaagen's lab. Eventually
he gets the girl, eliminates the opposition, and saves the planet Mars. All of this is effortlessly executed
by Arnold Schwarzenegger who plays the part as if he were befuddled. Schwarzenegger seems to be miscast
for the role; when he swears, it is laughable. But this is inspired casting and appropriate acting by Schwarzenegger
if he is only the lowly construction worker that he thinks that he is and not a heroic secret agent, and if he really doesn't
know what's going on.
The film begins with Douglas Quaid and a brunette on Mars. He loses his
footing and uncontrollably skids downhill (a metaphor for his fate). The translucent section of his face
helmet cracks, and he violently reacts to the Martian atmosphere. He is at the point of no return.
Quaid awakens, and we realize that the sequence is only a dream. In the last scene of the film,
Quaid is on Mars with “the girl of his dreams” and something similar happens to him. One can
reason that if the opening scene were a dream, the concluding one, as a dream, would add structure to the film.
One must also be realistic: Would someone activate a nuclear reactor, as Quaid does, to save a planet?
Would a nuclear reaction bring healthy air? Would clean air reverse the horrible biological changes
that Quaid's body is undergoing?
Doug's relationship with his wife Lori is a key to his having created a dream girl.
After Doug awakens in a state of panic, Lori tries to make him feel better by offering herself to him.
Does her erotic behavior and sexual enthusiasm take effect? In the next scene, he is in the kitchen
alone looking detached and preparing breakfast for himself as if he were living alone or wanting to be left alone.
He watches the news which includes a report on the violence on Mars. Lori joins him and tries to
distract him by switching the channel to a soothing outdoor scene and engaging in mild sensual foreplay. Instead
of returning her affection, Doug switches back to the violence and expresses an interest to move to Mars while Lori opts for
a trip to Saturn. He wants adventure; he wants more from life than being a construction worker.
In short, Quaid is bored with his wife and his life.
To show how desperate Quaid is for adventure, he visits Rekall
for a memory implant, a surgical procedure which almost caused one customer to be lobotomized. During the
procedure, problems arise for Quaid. It is possible that if something happens once, it could happen again,
and it may be happening to Quaid as he struggles in the chair. At Rekall, the doctor comments that after
eight years of marriage, it is time to explore other possibilities. What kind of woman does Quaid choose
to be part of his fantasy? Someone who is not like his wife in hair color and personality.
At one point, Quaid kills his wife, but it has been set up to the point where this is a justified reaction on his part:
Lori tries to kill him after he returns home from work; she confesses that she has only been playing the part of his
wife; she betrays him to those who want to kill him and is romantically involved with his enemy she kicks him in a highly
sensitive area (a visual pun for her being a ball buster) in two scenes; and she tries to kill Melina, his dream girl, who
comments, “What a bitch!” Quaid has created her in his image and, therefore, her elimination
is understandable. After all, he is not the problem; she is.
The appearance of Dr. Edgemar in the middle of Quaid's adventure
is a crucial scene in the story. Edgemar tells Quaid that he is not on Mars but in Rekall's lab where
he is undergoing severe problems which will cause irreparable damage if he does not make a conscious decision to return to
... you'll be stuck in permanent psychosis.
The walls of reality will come crashing down.
One minute you'll be the savior of the rebel
cause, and the next thing you
know you'll be
Cohaagen's bosom buddy.
What happens to Quaid? He becomes the savior of the rebel
cause and also their enemy, in an odd turn of events. But this does not happen until the walls of his apartment
crash down. This is as coincidental as all the other crashes that occur in the film: Quaid
crashes through the X-ray screen at the subway terminal; Quaid breaks the glass of the subway car and lunges inside; Richter
shoots out the windows of the subway cars, the JohnnyCab, the airport dome, and Benny's cab; a fellow agent informs Quaid
that the enemy will be “busting down” the door of his room any minute; Richter breaks the glass of the car door
to get a better shot at Quaid; a taxi carrying Quaid breaks through the front of a store; Richter jumps through the front
window of the Last Resort; after Kuato enters Quaid's mind, walls break down; the fish tank crashes to the floor; a mining
machine breaks through a wall giving Quaid and Melina eventual access to the reactor; wall-size windows break as the reactor
causes a chain reaction. (Tony is told to give Quaid “a break”.) The breakage,
all of which ironically involve survival for characters, serves many purposes: It signals Quaid's psychosis
(as Edgemar predicted), and more importantly, it indicates that Quaid is dreaming; this so-called “violence” is
meaningful, and not gratuitous. Quaid killing Edgemar is an indication that Quaid does not want to return
to reality. Why shoot a person who is unarmed and who offers salvation? Quaid killing
his wife is an indication that he does not want to return to her, his last link with the real world. As
for those who argue that Edgemar's sweating is a sign of the experience being real (which is what Quaid would like you
to believe), one should ask oneself, What doesn't occur in a dream? Where does it state that someone
cannot perspire in a dream where anything can happen?
Consider the other evidence.
1. Concerning the danger on Mars, Quaid
comments to Lori that the news(quoting Cohaagen) says that the rebels are only a few extremists.
Lori remarks, “Do you believe him?” Should he believe Cohaagen
later when he tells him that he is Hauser?
2. Bob McClane promises Quaid a “deluxe suite at the Hilton” which
is where Quaid stays when he arrives on Mars.
3. Quaid says, “They'll be here any minute! They'll kill
you all!” This is a reference to Harry and his crew who are waiting for him.
How could Quaid know what will happen? When Quaid arrives home after his harrowing
experience, he identifies his assailants as “spies or something”. While Lori accepts muggers
as a possibility, Quaid makes a connection associated with being a secret agent. Also the word “agent”
is related to the word “Agency” which the Rekall staff believes is behind Quaid’s memory loss.
4. Quaid incorporates elements
from his reality into his fantasy as Dr. Lull indicated.
a. Lull shows Quaid images of “alien stuff” which Quaid characterizes
monsters” later to reappear as “freaks” in Venusville.
b. Lull hands Ernie a tape (“Blue Sky on Mars”) to program Quaid;
in the end, Mars' red sky turns blue.
c. Ernie, the lab assistant, is the voice of JohnnyCab.
d. Quaid's construction work is related
to excavation on Mars; the sensation of his jackhammer simulates the sound and feel of the rapid-fire weapons and the high
powered drill which kills Benny. The name Richter, which sounds like the scale for providing seismographic
readings, connotes vibrations. A shoot-out is set in a cement factory. One illustration
that Quaid sees before he is sedated resembles the reactor area that Quaid remembers when Kuato hypnotizes him.
e. Quaid gets
involved with a person (Cohaagen) that he only recently saw on television.
mining ore is terbinium: Quaid will don a turban. The screenplay, describes what Quaid does in the hotel
room: “Quaid finishes wrapping the wet towel around his head like a turban.” The
construction machine has a stream turbine engine.
5. Ernie says about Quaid: “He's not going to want to come back.”
Quaid refuses Edgemar's assistance to return to reality.
6. After the antagonistic Quaid is sedated, McClane
asks a woman (Tiffany) and the frail Ernie to put Quaid into a taxi; later after Quaid is rendered unconscious in his room
at the Hilton, two Quaid-sized employees of the agency drag him away.
7. The innocent Quaid easily dispatches with four armed and menacing thugs
outside his apartment and at the train station, and his karate-kicking wife - without questioning how these newly-acquired
survival skills are so natural to him.
8. Quaid's bloodied hands touch much in his apartment, including his
wife's shoulders. The blood mysteriously disappears.
9. Why does Lori so easily confess
to him that she is not his wife - a startling revelation which jeopardizes all that is involved - if he does not want to believe
it? Couldn't she have told an acceptable lie which is more credible? Why couldn’t
Lori have waited for assistance to arrive instead of trying to subdue Quaid herself? After all, she did
telephone Richter who, because he cares for her, would not have suggested that she try to handle the situation herself.
10. Quaid sustains two major knife wounds without attending to them, and he leaves his apartment
without showing discomfort.
11. Quaid travels to Mars ironically to escape (i.e on one level, to evade
the bad guys and, on another level, to evade the unpleasant reality in real life.)
12. The malfunction with
Quaid's disguise at the airport relates to the malfunction caused by the implantation procedure.
13. Quaid is told, in reality, he
is suffering from a schizoid embolism; schizophrenia involves a second personality. Two people (Lori and
McClane) suggest that Quaid visit Saturn instead. On Earth Quaid takes two train rides on which two commercial
companies (Rekall and Botco) advertise. The standard package includes “two full
weeks of memories”. Quaid is strapped into two consoles: at Rekall where he is sedated twice and
at Cohaagen’s lab. He is given “a double implant”. Two characters
are slapped: Ernie by Lull and Quaid by Melina. Quaid makestwo trips in a JohnnyCab. On
Earth, two characters (Lori and Harry) close to Quaid betray him. In his fantasy, he creates an alternate
personality (Hauser). Quaid is located on the “second level, galleria.” In
two scenes, Hauser talks to Quaid on a screen. The hologram produces a second image; the hologram is used
in two scene(at the cement factory and in the mines); in the second scene, the hologram is used by two characters (Quaid and
Melina). Richter orders “two units” be sent to the old cement factory. As
a craft lands on Mars, two moons are in the background. At the airport, Quaid in
disguise states the length of time of his visit as “two weeks” (4). The
two words are written on the wall: “Kuato lives.” Quaid loses his head
which splits in two. There are two scenes in which characters are sucked out
(at the airport and in the mines); in the first scene, two men are sucked out. Two
thumbs are required to gain access to the deposit box at the Hilton. Quaid visits
the Last Resort on two occasions. Mary reassures Benny that his “two”
hands are adequate for her three breasts. Benny recommends “Siamese
twins”. At the Hilton, two characters (Edgemar and Lori) are
shot in the forehead; two men drag Quaid away. Melina appears to rescue Quaid twice
(at the Hilton and in the reactor core). Lori has two weapons (gun and knife) at
the Hilton. Richter uses two weapons to fire at Quaid and Melina inside Benny’s
cab. Melina calls Quaid “two faced”. After freeing
themselves from the consoles, they subdue two guards exiting from an elevator which
has two doors. Richter loses two hands.
14. Schizophrenia behavior is suggested by characters
who show opposite traits: Lori is both innocent and deadly; Melina is demure and sleazy; Melina slaps Quaid’s face and
then kisses him; Quaid is a guy guy, but he has an evil counterpart as Hauser; Benny befriends Quaid but later betrays him.
15. Why would Edgemar
risk his life if Quaid will be subdued within minutes? Lori's plea to Quaid would
be a foolish gambit if she were not telling the truth.
16. Impossibilities prevail: Quaid's removing a large device from his head through
his nose, a shootout at the vacuum sealed dome, Quaid leaping a great distance and catching a scaffold, Richter
firing a shot in the sealed dome which hits a thin pipe, the bad guys not getting shot in the crossfire
the first time Quaid uses a hologram as they do when Melina uses it.
17. Like his adventure, the following aren't real: the JohnnyCab driver, the
hologram image, a woman with three breasts, Benny's hand, and a baby emerging from a man.
18. The word "(bull)shit"
which is frequently used implies a lie. Quaid's astrological sign is Taurus,
the bull. Benny lies to Quaid about his progeny and Melina calls Quaid a liar.
19. The advertising slogan (“Get ready
for the ride of your life!”) can be rephrased: When one is “taken for a ride”, one is deceived.
20. Melina says to Quaid,
“... you've lost your mind."
21. Cohaagen insults Quaid, “You're a stupid dream.”
22. Melina tells Quaid, "I can't
believe it. It's like a dream."
Of course, the quotations are taken out of context, but they do provide information that can be interpreted as
The story also makes use of circles which is related to a comment that
Benny makes to Quaid and Melina as they enter his cab: “You guys are going in circles.” And
the phrase “going in circles” implies going nowhere or back to where one starts which in Quaid’s case is
the console in Rekall which Quaid never left. Circles or rounded objects are evident with the following:
the bulging eyes in the first and last scenes, the motion of the food mixer Quaid uses, the mirrors in Quaid’s bathroom,
the red dots on the tracker screen, the towel “around” Quaid’s head, the twisting of the Johnny Cab driver,
the spinning around of the cab, the plastic housing of the bug in Quaid’s head, the planets in the background when Quaid
lands on Mars, the motion of the drilling machines, the fan blades in Venusville, the windows on the exterior of the Last
Resort, the hand-imprint area for the reactor, the exit door to Kuato hide-out, the hole Quaid drills to kill Benny, the tunnel
opening in the mines.
Why the need for subterfuge in the film? Verhoeven is saying that
things are not what they seem to be: Quaid's adventure is not real, and Total Recall is not
an action/adventure film. Total Recall is a film with human concerns. It puts man in
a very unflattering light - something the film audience, if consciously aware, would avoid instead of embrace.
What statements are being made in the film?
1. Humans neither know what they want nor do they appreciate what they have, and they are willing to risk all for nothing.
Quaid seems sure when he chooses the secret agent package, but let's look at the unsurity in the film.
When Harry asks Quaid if he is going to Rekall, Quaid's response is: “I don't know. Maybe.”
Quaid chooses a woman who is sleazy and demure - a contradiction; the character at the reception desk keeps changing
the color of her nails at whim; a potential customer at Rekall expresses unsureness; when Benny asks Quaid
if this is his first visit to Mars, his response is: “Yes. Well, actually no. Well,
sort of.” He wants to be a secret agent, but then when he is told that he is,
he doesn't want to believe it. At first we think that Quaid knows what he wants, and he seems to want
more; in fact, his bulging eyes in his dream is a metaphor for his unsatisfied appetite - for his
wanting more than what he has. Quaid marries a blonde, but now he desires a brunette.
Will he live to experience a redhead? Quaid needs to “wake up” (a command he gives to
Kuato’s protector George before the soldiers invade the hideout) not only from his fantasy but from his obsession to
transcend what he has with a loving wife.
2. Man would choose violence instead of love. In Quaid's
fantasy, he is too busy fighting than considering romance; after the initial sexual encounter with his wife (which
she, and not he, initiates), Quaid sweats with Lori only when they fight; he refuses her suggestion to get involved in kinky
sex. He never gets physically close to another woman. When he meets Melina, she begins
to get romantic, but he says something to turn her off. A prostitute offers herself to Richter and gets
killed; a shootout occurs in a house of prostitution which houses rebel headquarters. A kiss between Quaid
and Melina is interrupted by a rebel holding a rifle; in the end, their kiss fades to white light, an indication of his demise.
His dream woman is part-soldier and part-whore (which is unromantic). References to sex(ual organs)
are only evident in profanity which is filled with hostility; sexual double entendres pervade the scene in which Benny tries
to kill Quaid and Melina. Quaid has chosen the role of a secret agent and not a playboy. His
choice of watching the violent news story rather than the tranquil nature scene or the arms of his wife attests to man's
preoccupation with violence. Quaid wants to travel to Mars: Mars is the red planet (with red being associated
with blood as in one scene, the blood of a rat overlaps the red Martian atmosphere). In mythology, Mars
is the god of war, and Saturn is associated with procreation. In the movie business, sex scenes contribute
to a film receiving the highest cautionary rating while violent scenes, with its R rating, seem more acceptable.
3. Man would choose fantasy instead of reality and suffer for it. The danger of choosing fantasy would
be evident when a person returns to reality; since fantasy is better than reality, the real world will disappoint by comparison.
Even more dangerous, the fantasy can get confused with, and become, the reality: If Quaid had no
problem with the procedure and if he were to return safely to reality, he would think that he really is a secret agent since
Rekall promised that he would not know that his memory is not real. Any way one looks at it, the subject
would be in trouble shown metaphorically with Quaid-as-the-woman in the airport having a problem with his disguise.
Damage to brains (i.e. characters getting shot in the head or speared and characters suffering from the depletion of
oxygen) hint at Quaid's fate: His schizoid embolism will doom him.
4. Ego is very important, and often
is a liability, to a male. Quaid, like the typical male, goes on an “Ego Trip”.
Quaid is “flattered” when Lori tells him that he has been her "best assignment", hinting at their
sexual interaction. Two women fight (literally and figuratively) “over” Quaid.
A prostitute volunteers her services when Quaid and Melina enter a room. Women will find humor in
this storyline element. They will say that men have always been on one.
5. Horrifying news stories
are more disturbing than graphic scenes of violence in films which, as everyone knows, are not real. Lori,
showing concern, comments to her husband: “No wonder you're having nightmares. You're always
watching the news.” It must also be remembered from where Quaid gets his dangerous ideas:
He is influenced by two television commercials, one advertising Rekall, and the other advertising a trip to Mars.
Total Recall was one of the highest grossing films of 1990. It obviously appealed to a male audience
who bought the package as Quaid did. The film is a mystery; its truth is hidden from its audience as it
is from Quaid and begs to be revealed and acknowledged. Women, to be sure, found the film an objectionable,
male fantasy. This is what it is and what it was meant to be. But film maker Paul Verhoeven,
to be sure, will not admit this; he knows how to keep a secret. He's “hip”.
If you don't believe it, just ask Arnold.
I felt that it was extremely important for
me, from a philosophical level, to make a
movie that had two levels and that both
levels throughout would always be consistent.
And that you could never say, Now we are in
a dream or now we are in reality.
(Paul Verhoeven in “Imagining
On the Special Edition DVD released in 2001, director Verhoeven acknowledges both interpretations of his film on both the
audio commentary track with Arnold Schwarzenegger and in the documentary “Imagining Total Recall” on Disc
2. In fact, Verhoeven indicates the clues which suggest that Quaid’s adventure is an adventure-gone-bad
in the scenes with McClane at Rekall and Edgemar at the Hilton giving Quaid, and the audience as well, a description of what
On the other hand, the Quaid-as-adventure scenario has problems with logic
in the background material which is never fully and convincingly explained. Did Hauser really betray the
agency to join the rebels or was his defection merely a ruse? Hauser’s memory was erased and he was
deposited on Earth as a ruse to get him to eventually return to Mars to locate Kuato. How could this happen
if he were overprotected by Lori and his co-worker who tried to deter him from visiting Rekall? Wouldn’t
Cohaagen give Quaid’s guardians explicit instructions not to have him killed? Cohaagen first orders
Richter to have Quaid found, have his memory reimplanted, and have him back with Lori. But how will this
be helpful in locating Kuato? If Hauser got close to Melina, why didn’t he have access to Kuato which
happens when he returns to Mars? If Hauser was not trusted by the rebels, why would they befriend him when
he rushes into the Last Resort with Melina in tow?
The action-adventure scenario simply asks the viewer to blindly accept
the reality presented on the screen; on the other hand, the dream is more complex and thought provoking. Verhoeven’s
ambiguity is consistent with filmmakers who refuse to answer the most important question - a film’s meaning.
One can, however, intuit in his response a statement about films: Films work on two levels - as entertainment (for
commercial purposes) and as social commentary (for artistic reasons). In this way, one can accept both
interpretations to understand the purpose of the medium.
Playboy. April 1991. 70.