Total Recall (1990) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

I don’t remember, I can’t recall. I have no memories of anything at all.

Total Recall adapts a story that questions reality while giving Arnold Schwarzenegger another blockbuster sci-fi vehicle. It also presents new ideas of space colonization and future technology to filmgoing audiences.

First Impressions

The first thing that the trailer for Total Recall does is make sure that audiences are aware this is a Schwarzenegger film. He is disguised as a large woman and evading a group of detectives or some other military force who are tracking him. The film takes place on Mars and showcases a number of the special effects from the finished film. Someone has swapped out Arnold’s memories with another person, and he appears to be running to solve the mystery before he gets caught. Aliens, other worlds, robots and high tech gear all make up what looks like a fun action film.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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Total Recall

Total Recall title cards.

The Fiction of The Film

Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a simple construction worker on Earth who is married to Lori (Sharon Stone). He has dreams of being on Mars with another woman that end in death. After seeing a news story one morning about Martian extremists attempting to re-open the Pyramid Mines, Doug suggests moving to Mars. Lori scoffs and tells him he’d hate it. On his way to work he sees a commercial for Rekall Industries showcasing their ability to implant false memories that seem real. At his job site, he tells his co-worker Harry (Robert Costanzo) about his plan to visit Rekall, but Harry dissuades him by mentioning a friend that was lobotomized.

Ignoring Harry’s advice, Doug visits Rekall anyway. The salesman, McClane (Ray Baker) explains the process and offers some different choices of “vacations,” including one to Mars. He guarantees that Doug’s brain won’t know the difference. He upsells Doug an Ego Trip, which is a selective program offering extra excitement where he’s a secret agent on a dangerous mission. When the technicians begin to implant the package, they hit a “memory cap” and believe that Doug has a schizoid embolism, as he starts ranting about them blowing his cover.

Wanting to avoid legal issues, and believing that he has already had false memories installed, they sedate him and toss him into a cab. He awakens and is assaulted by Harry and his goons, who Doug manages to kill. At home he explains what happened to Lori, just before she tries to kill him. She explains that he is actually Carl Hauser and The Agency implanted false memories of his marriage. He takes off being chased by Richter (Michael Ironside)–Lori’s real husband, and Helm (Michael Champion). They are under orders from the administrator on Mars, Vilos Cohaagan (Ronny Cox), to bring him back for re-implantation.

Total Recall

Doug Quaid is not the mild-mannered person from the original short story. Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger assured that.

Doug gets a call from another agent who provides him a suitcase complete with a video message from himself instructing him how to evade capture and get offworld. On Mars, Quaid goes looking for Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a woman he realizes is both from his dream and one of the key members of the resistance. With attacks still coming, probably due to Cohaagan raising the price of air, Mars institutes Martial Law and institutes a broader search for the rebel leader, Kuato. Doug is visited by Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) who claims that he is still strapped into the chair at Rekall. He says that everything that has happened to him is a part of his memory implantation, and offers Doug a red pill to return to reality or risk being lobotomized. Lori urges him to comply, but instead shoots the Doctor and Lori.

He is chased back to Venusville, home of the Martian mutants, and is hidden in a secret room by a mutant named Tony (Dean Norris). Once inside he is met by George (Marshall Bell) who offers to take him to meet Kuato. Kuato, it turns out, is a mutant living in the stomach of George. It uses telepathy to show Doug that the Pyramid Mines house a secret to creating a breathable atmosphere on Mars. Suddenly, Benny (Mel Johnson Jr.) a cab driving spy for Richter, shoots and kills Kuato. Cohaagan orders the air cut off to Venusville as Melina and Doug escape into the mines. Benny follows and attacks them in a mining machine, but Doug dispatches the spy.

Doug heads for the alien machine in the middle of the mines which will create a chain reaction of the Terbinium ore and cause a meltdown of the icy core of the planet, releasing oxygen. Richter comes after Quaid but falls off an elevator (when his arms are ripped out). Cohaagen then attempts to stop Quaid, be he activates the machine and the change in pressure blows the administrator outside where his eyeballs explode in the vacuum. Quaid and Melina get blown outside as well, and just like in his dream, Quaid’s head starts to explode from the vacuum. But then the air is released and they can breathe easy. The film ends with the two of them on a Martian plateau overlooking blue skies on Mars.

That’s now. In an hour he could have total recall.” – Richter

Total Recall

A holographic tennis program allows Lori to execute the perfect forehand swing.

History in the Making

Total Recall is the second sci-fi film made from a Philip K. Dick story, with the first one being 1982s Blade Runner. It was based on a 1966 short story called “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,” which has the same basic premise as this film, but features alternate characters (Doug Quail instead of Quaid) and a different ending (Quail having a memory of aliens promising not to invade while he was alive, Quail being killed and the bad guys realizing those memories were also real). The original story also portrayed the protagonist as a slight office worker, and not the hulking, muscle-bound caricature that is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even with these alterations, the film is still a strong sci-fi film about humanity, memory, and the self.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, who had previously directed Robocop, Total Recall shares a similar tone with Verhoeven’s earlier work, but focuses on different themes. The graphic amount of violence and blood pushes the level of acceptability that filmmakers had with the ratings board. Verhoeven would go bigger and hold on scenes longer in order to elevate the amount of violence. As with Robocop, a lot of this really seems to be over the top, and a reaction to the more puritan view of American censors of the time (Verhoeven was Dutch). However these scenes did raise concern with parent groups and others that called for better censorship of films, even R-rated ones like this. Total Recall also dove into the abuses of power, with Ronny Cox once again playing the bad guy. It was still a corporate environment that attempted to squeeze all it could out of the populace while making money. This time air was the commodity instead of real estate, but the results for the antagonist were still the same.

The film was released in summer 1990, having to contend with one of the busiest release schedules in some years. Besides the star studded Dick Tracy and the Tom Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder, there were also several sequels being released that year including Another 48 Hrs, Die Hard 2, Back to the Future III, and Robocop II. Total Recall was not a household name, but it did have one thing going for it, and that was its star. This was Schwarzenegger’s 11th leading film (since Conan the Barbarian) and his 4th science-fiction film (after The Terminator, Predator, & The Running Man). Schwarzenegger was at the height of his career and a guaranteed draw. Fans knew they could expect action scenes, shootouts, and atrocious one-liners from this star, and he did not disappoint. The film boasts some of his best worst-lines, including “screw you!” when he takes a drill to Benny, “consider that a divorce,” after shooting his “wife” Lori, and “see you at the party, Richter,” after dismembering the assassin with the side of an elevator.

Total Recall

Security is tight with this screen that allows guards to see weapons (and possibly other contraband) in a TSA-like environment.


With the advancements in special effects made in the 1980s, Total Recall is able to create some truly amazing additions to the world of on-screen sci-fi. The main emphasis of the film is Rekall Industries and their ability to implant memories so real that your brain doesn’t know the difference. This is a similar conceit to the memories implanted in the replicants of Blade Runner. The Rachel unit has a mix of memories and photographs that support those memories which leads her to not understanding that she is an android. Here, Quaid has no reason to believe that he’s not a construction worker married to Sharon Stone. But as with most stories like this, small pieces of his former life begin to leak out, reminding him in subtle ways to “get [his] ass to Mars.” The Rekall Institute also has some other, smaller effects that showcase the future. The offices have video conferencing between them, but not the TV looking units that have been seen before. Here they are small rectangularly vertical screens, very much like a smartphone. They appear to have been filmed using video assist with the actor interacting with the character on the screen, rather than a video playback. The secretary is also seen using a stylus to adjust the colors of her fingernails with a touch. While nothing like this exists, it is reminiscent of some photo editing programs where bulk colors can be swapped out with a single click.

Holograms are also reintroduced in new and interesting ways. Lori’s character is seen using a holographic tennis program to practice her swing. It is a much cleaner image than is usually shown, lacking a number of the glitches or scan lines as depicted in other films. This imagery also has a security implementation as well, showing up when Doug uses the wristwatch projector to escape from the bad guys, twice. His hologram device creates a mirror image of himself allowing him to insert himself into the line of fire without getting hurt. When the bad guys fire at this hologram, he can strike from an entirely different direction. Other than some minor blocking problems when filming this (sometimes Arnold’s mirror image is backwards; guns end up in the wrong hand, etc), it would seem like an excellent addition to a spy arsenal.

Travel security also gets a boost in the film with the weapon detector screen. In this future, set around 2084 based on clues in the film, transit security has the use of a large black slab which projects x-ray images of passengers as they walk behind it. Any contraband, such as weapons, are immediately flagged with large red, flashing circles. Seemingly a much handier device for weary security techs who might be on duty for 8 hours at a clip. The world of Total Recall also includes semi-sentient automated cabs, called Johnny Cabs. These golf cart sized vehicles contain a waist-up robot cab driver, with animatronic features and a rudimentary AI personality. Voiced in this film by Robert Picardo (Explorers, Innerspace), the Johnny Cab character is a wise cracking, semi-literate robot that answers questions as a robot would, unaware of sarcasm, nuance, or idioms. Unfortunately, a bug in the coding seems to come to light when a passenger refuses to pay. In those cases, the cab short circuits and races toward the person, attempting to kill them by exploding. Minus three stars on Yelp!

Total Recall

This model of “the fat lady” and Arnold’s heads is one of the amazing live-action effects to be built for the film. It took longer than “two weeks” to complete, however.

Societal Commentary

Total Recall’s themes are similar to a lot of Philip K. Dick’s other work. They have to do with individuality and the nature of reality (ie, what is real?). This film is often defined as being able to be viewed from two standpoints: either the events of the film are actually happening or it’s all a dream. The dream idea is certainly a fun one to entertain. All of the things that happen to Doug during the film are set up in his earliest moments at Rekall. He wants to meet a brunette woman that is both athletic and demure, is given the spy operative Ego Trip where he will fight off bad guys, and eventually help Mars attain its freedom. Check, check and check. However fun that might be, the reality of the film is one in which Doug really does those things. There are several aspects, from a filmic perspective, that point toward the film being reality, and not a dream in Doug’s head.

If Doug were experiencing a memory, one would expect all the scenes to come from his point of view, or at least include his character in them. If that were the case, the explanation that “it’s all in his head” would work to an extent. But there are at least two moments that communicate information to the audience without Doug being around (or conscious) for them. The first is after he “busts his memory cap” and freaks out in the Rekall chair. He is sedated and the Doctor informs McClane that he was never given the “trip.” This has the potential to be the beginning of a “dream” but is not played as such. The second moment is after Doug escapes from his apartment and Richter catches up with Lori. He kisses her and the audience finds out she’s his wife and not Doug’s. This too plays out as a real moment that would be unnecessary in a dream sequence. Of course, Doug is almost convinced that it is a dream, when Dr. Edgemar shows up and asks him to take the red pill (a nice future nod to The Matrix). The doctor tells him that this is all in his head, and that he’s a memory implanted to warn him and help him escape. It’s not until Doug catches the good doctor’s bead of sweat rolling down his face that he realizes this is reality and kills him.

The scheme that Cohaagen and Doug’s previous alter-ego Hauser cooked up is quite complex. They apparently subjected Hauser’s memories with those of Doug Quaid and hoped that when presented with the video evidence (of Hauser being buds with Cohaagen) that Doug would relent and allow that “person” to return. What they didn’t count on is the idea that Kuato presents to Doug; that “a man is defined by his actions, not his memory.” The idea that memory can be faulty, but that also, it’s in the past plays heavily in this film. Hauser is only a memory, and really just an image on a video screen. Doug Quaid is the reality and it’s his actions that define the man, not who he was. This is also a reminder to the audience that regardless of past actions, there’s always a chance to make a new choice and start down a new road. No matter what has happened, second chances are available.

Total Recall

The duality of Arnold’s character is brought into question when he is visited by Dr. Edgemar.

The Science in The Fiction

One hundred years in the future of this world, humankind has learned to colonize Mars. There is space travel and domed cities allowing the growing population to move to a new home. Unfortunately, the scientists (or perhaps the contractors) that put together these domes did not take enough precautions. A lack of safety protocols created domes that were too thin and allowed radiation inside, creating a generation of mutants which include Kuato. That might bring a lawsuit anywhere else, but the corporate overseers maintain strict control, preferring to maintain the status quo. The construction of the stations also has other serious flaws as depicted in the film. For starters, a single bullet strike shatters the domes exposing citizens to the vacuum outside. This is probably related to the thin glass used, which certainly kept construction costs low. But unlike some other films that automatically close breaches when opened, Total Recall’s world requires an individual to slam their hand on a panel to hit the override button that closes the metal shutters. That’s just in the smaller customs area. When Quaid and Melina escape his hotel, they are in a large open air atrium with giant domes. Helm warns Richter not to shoot, lest he puncture the domes. There appears to be no safety protocols in place for a breach in place such as this. This is all less of a scientific oversight and more of a corporate greed aspect, since Cohaagen seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to squeeze very Martian-nickel out of this venture.

Total Recall

Hauser, now in the Doug Quaid persona, confronts Cohaagen as Melina and Richter watch.

The Final Frontier

Total Recall has had its share of spin offs. For a while there was work being done on a sequel with Schwarzenegger that used elements from the plot of Minority Report (later to be made as a Tom Cruise film by Steven Spielberg). But instead a Canadian TV series called Total Recall 2070 was produced instead. It aired for one season in 1999 and featured the Rekall Corporation and elements of the Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The film rights changed hands a number of times until it was remade in 2012 by Len Wiseman and starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel. The plot of that version of the film also differed from the original short story, and this version, spending its time on Earth with a giant elevator that passed through the Earth’s core, called The Fall. It does share themes of identity and duality, but fails to capture some of the fun and adventure of this 1990 version.

Total Recall creates a great universe and has fun special effects that really entertain. It is notable for having three amazing prosthetic heads of Schwarzenegger created that look as real as he is. The scene where he removes the tracking device from his head, through his nose, is an excellent example. The film also set the bar for Philip K Dick adaptations being profitable ventures. At least half a dozen films based on his work would come out within the next two decades, as his work underwent a resurgence. Thematically, at least for an action film, Total Recall has its share of philosophical moments that many previous sci-fi films did not. It paved the way for new ideas and themes to be explored both in sci-fi cinema and on television.

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