Mar 9 2012 11:00am

“If I’m Not Me, Then Who The Hell Am I?”: Total Recall

One of the major themes of Philip K. Dick’s work—along with drugs and being awesome—is identity. The question of not only who they are, but what it means to simply be in the first place, is a quite common one for a PKD protagonist, perhaps even more so in the film adaptations of his work. Whether this is due to a greater focus on this question by the filmmakers behind those adaptations or a function of the necessary streamlining when turning a book into a movie, movies made from Philip K. Dick novels and stories have identity front and center. While it is more apparently an intellectual and philosophical concern in a picture like Blade Runner, I would argue that it is even more essential when articulated in Arnold’s question, “If I am not me, then who the hell am I?” in Total Recall.

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Clearly, there are other concerns in Total Recall (adapted loosely from PKD’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”), as well. Having Arnold Schwarzenegger in the leading role means that many violent things will be done to many people, and having Paul Verhoeven in the director’s chair means that those violent things are going to be extraordinarily well filmed. And, just as clearly, at least part of the apparent intelligence of Total Recall is a function of grading it on the curve compared to other Arnold movies; as ruthlessly enjoyable as Red Heat or Commando may be, they are certainly not untapped granaries of food for thought.

But there’s enough substance to Total Recall, and executed with genuine elegance, that it is not good SF strictly because of that curve. It’s good SF because it manages to address massive existential questions—who am I? what is reality? what does it mean to be?—through cinematic language, and within the context of an exciting, masterfully wrought SF action movie.

After a rousing credit sequence propelled by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, the opening scene is of a moons-lit Martian nightscape, through which a space-suited couple (Arnold, Rachel Ticotin) take a romantic stroll. The stroll is interrupted by Arnold falling off a cliff and smashing his faceplate against a rock. Before he can die of asphyxiation and depressurization (and wonderfully grotesque Rob Bottin makeup effects), Arnold wakes up. So, at the very beginning of the story, we have dreams counterpointed against reality. Then, to blur that line, Arnold’s wife (Sharon Stone) questions him about his dream, gets mad at him (apparently) for dreaming about another woman, but then turns around and immediately has sex with Arnold after this exchange:

Arnold: C’mon baby, you know you’re the girl of my dreams?

Sharon Stone (in a tone of voice that can only be described as meek sexual awe): Do you mean it....?

Arnold: You know I do.

When I was a kid, I took that scene at face value: of course she’s that into Arnold. He’s Arnold. But after I’d been in a relationship for about five minutes I realized “waitaminnit....something’s up here.” Because she breaks the land speed wife/girlfriend record from pissed to un-pissed right there. But this isn’t a major red flag.

What is a red flag is Arnold’s all-consuming obsession with the red planet: he watches a news program about violent political unrest on Mars between the government and rebels, and in spite of watching several people get machine-gunned in the time it takes to eat breakfast, Arnold still turns to Sharon Stone and says, “[Let’s] move to Mars.” She, quite sensibly (based on the information we have at our disposal; who wants to move to some place that’s on the brink of civil war?) tries to talk Arnold out of it. As he leaves for work, the camera holds on her face, and the inscrutable expression on it.

Arnold heads to work. On the subway he sees a TV ad for a company that offers memories of a vacation (one destination explicitly mentioned in the ad is Mars) without having to physically go to the place. Once at work, a building site, where Arnold and co-worker Harry (Robert Constanzo) are so badass that they’re the only two jackhammer operators without goggles or helmets, Arnold asks Robert Costanzo if he’s heard of “dat place vere dey sell dose fake memories” and Robert Costanzo, after launching into a hilariously atonal recitation of the company’s commercial jingle, tells Arnold not to go, as a friend of his “tried one o’ their special offers? Nearly got himself lobotomized.” He further advises Arnold, in one of the more eloquent pieces of pragmatic (if conservative) advice ever given, “Don’t fuck with your brain, pal. It ain’t worth it.” This scene also ends with the camera holding on Robert Constanzo’s face.

Arnold’s fixation on Mars leads him to completely ignore this advice (and this suspicious preponderance of the camera lingering on the expressions of people after he finishes talking to them) and head to the offices of Rekall, Inc. immediately after work. Here he is sold a “vacation” to Mars by the beautifully smarmy Bob McClane (Ray Baker), with the bonus extra feature they like to call “the ego trip,” a vacation from one’s self. Arnold decides to take a break from being Doug Quaid, Earth-bound construction worker, and takes a flier at being a secret agent on Mars who, as McClane puts it, is “a top operative, under deep cover, on your most important mission, people are trying to kill you left and right, you meet this beautiful exotic woman....well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, Doug, but rest assured, by the time the trip is over, you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet” and caps it with the rhetorical question, “Now, you tell me, isn’t that worth a measly 300 credits?” Arnold says yes.

The lab technicians give Arnold a sedative and fine-tune the experience by asking Arnold a number of questions; he dozes off seeing the face of the woman from his dream that opened the movie on a video monitor... but then he has a “schizoid embolism,” which is, hands down, the greatest fake science term in the history of SF. The way the lab tech tells McClane “It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism” implies there have been other schizoid embolisms. Which is just lovely.

But I digress. The embolism in Arnold’s mind turns out to be a memory erasure, of a level of sophistication available only to “the Agency.” The Rekall people panic, erase Arnold’s file, refund his money, and dump him in a robot cab. Upon arrival back in his neighborhood, Arnold encounters Robert Costanzo... which is when Arnold’s entire world turns upside down.

It’s earlier, though, when the shift happens. On the DVD commentary, director Verhoeven pinpoints the exact moment when the “dream” and “reality” diverge: when Arnold drifts off to sleep in the implant chair. From that point on, based strictly on the movie itself, despite a bit more evidence pointing to it being all a dream, either interpretation is possible. This is in spite of Verhoeven saying his personal interpretation is that it’s a dream; that he would leave this up to the audience to decide and not simply take his word for it is a degree of trust in one’s audience few filmmakers display these days. Whether one thinks of it as a dream or reality (and for the record, I now favor the former interpretation, after years of the latter, after realizing that every single thing everyone tells Arnold at Rekall comes to pass later in the story) the result is an intricately constructed, massively entertaining SF espionage story.

Visually, Total Recall is in stark contrast to the average modern special-effects movie, coming as it did in the very last days of practical visual effects (simply, effects and elements that are literally physically present in front of a camera), before computer-generated effects became absolutely de rigueur (a major watershed leading to the movie Arnold was able to make as a result of Total Recall’s success: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which continued innovations made by director James Cameron in The Abyss on a much larger scale). More than the fact that Total Recall’s effects — with the exception of the x-ray machine fight scene — were nearly all practical, it also stands out from modern SF and action cinema for the way Paul Verhoeven meticulously composed his shots and camera moves, leading to a clarity of motion and action that seems positively Hitchcockian when compared to the jittery, arbitrary camera that so frequently shoots today’s cinema. Total Recall moves with a feverish energy, but with a visual clarity that allows the audience to catch everything.

Admittedly, some of what the audience catches is extremely graphic violence, and the level of visual clarity allows every last bit of gore to be seen. Arnold movies are always pretty violent, but Paul Verhoeven movies are a step beyond the normal. Total Recall marked his second picture in a row (Robocop being the first) that Verhoeven had to submit—multiple times—to the MPAA to get its rating downgraded from an X to an R. It is virtually impossible to get an X (and, now, an NC-17) for violence. PG-13 movies are allowed to be disturbingly violent. Verhoeven constantly being in X/NC-17 territory should thus say all that is needed about how violent they are, though I would argue that the reason Verhoeven so often finds himself in this situation is precisely because of the visual clarity of his movies. There’s no mistake about what’s going on onscreen, for better or worse.

This is also what makes Total Recall such satisfying science fiction as well. It manages to be intelligent without plodding, ambiguous without being confusing, and picks its suspension of disbelief battles wisely (this is a common theme for Verhoeven, explicitly discussed in a humorous exchange between Sharon Stone and George Dzundza in Basic Instinct). Whenever problematic elements like the core of Mars being made of ice (a “lolwut” point if there ever was one from anyone who ever passed a science class) arise, the movie can be like, “Hey, it could just be a dream” without it feeling like a cop out. This is, after all, a movie that mostly takes place on another planet featuring mind erasure, psychic mutants, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Speaking of Arnold, he gives a legitimately good performance in the lead. There’s a lot of excellent work in the supporting cast (Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox are both tremendous), but Arnold really stands out. The worst anyone can hang on him here is a couple of flat line readings, but give him a good script (and Total Recall’s, despite being stitched together over the course of 15 years, dozens of drafts, and multiple writing teams, ends up miraculously being rather excellent) and his commitment to craft and naturally solid timing make Arnold quite good. Not to mention, one of the requirements of the role is that he kill a lot of people, and no one is better at killing a lot of people than Arnold.

The remake, coming out this August, made the wise decision to depart fairly radically from the original, because there is nothing quite like the Verhoeven-Arnold Total Recall. Quite possibly the best movie Arnold ever made (though arguments are welcome for the first two Terminator movies, as well as Predator and a handful of others), as well as a very strong contender in the “best action movie of all time” discussion, Total Recall is a singular and singularly entertaining movie. I love it dearly.


Danny Bowes is a filmmaker and writer, whose work has appeared on and He writes a weekly column each Wednesday at Hudak on Hollywood and reviews Asian cinema for Next Projection.

Anthony Pero
1. anthonypero
I'm rather disappointed to learn it was a dream. I had hand waved away the similarities between what Rekall was selling and what Arnold experienced by believing that Rekall had some how gotten ahold of the memories The Agency had removed.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Its one of my favorite movies, despite its over-the-top violence. I really jazzed to the "is it a dream? What IS real?" aspects of the movie. I completely agree with you.

"Hope you enjoyed the ride!"
3. a1ay
I would argue that the reason Verhoeven so often finds himself in this situation is precisely because of the visual clarity of his movies.

Because of where and when he grew up, Verhoeven is unlike other directors in that he has extensive first hand experience of what injuries actually look like. The "over-the-top gore" that he gets criticised for isn't over the top at all; that's what people really look like when they get blown up or shot. It's Spielberg and Scott and the others who get it wrong (either deliberately for rating reasons, or through ignorance).

(Exception: the completely bizarre decompression effects in Total Recall...)
4. Kirshy
Is it a dream or is it reality? One of the things I really enjoyed about the movie, and I think also made it so effective, is the fact that you really can't be 100% sure which it is. I haven't read the original story so I don't know what PKD was aiming at, but since this is a movie adaptation it likely doesn't matter.

This is still one of my favourite movies of all time. I really hope that the remake coming out this summer lives up to what can only be called a classic and timeless piece of film.
5. StrongDreams
Of the 3 possible interpretations (it was real, it was a dream gone bad and he is brain-damaged, it was a dream played out as designed and he woke up as Quaid), the third has the most interesting follow-up. Imagine the pillow talk that night between construction worker Quaid and his ridiculously hot wife Lori. "So, what did you do today, honey?"

If you've just spent two weeks as a secret agent, hooking up with your long-ago dream lover and brutally killing your wife, how exactly do you return to normal life?
Keith DeCandido
6. krad
The movie should've ended by cutting back to Rekall and we see a pimply-faced adolescent in the chair. The chair releases him and he gushes: "That was great! I had muscles and a cool accent! Can I go again?"

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Sol Foster
7. colomon
I'm with anthonypero -- "It was all a dream" is the least interesting explanation for the movie....
9. Dumana
Get your ass to Mars...Get your ass to Mars...Get your ass to Mars...
James Knevitt
10. jknevitt
I've always found that the ending of the film is the real tell with regard to whether it was a dream or it was real. The final scenes of the film show Mars' atmosphere being restored and turning the sky of the red planet blue. That's not something that happens on a vacation and suddenly reverts itself; he'd know it was a dream simply by checking if Mars' sky is still rose-pink. Conversely, if the rest of his life plays out in accordance with the story we're ostensibly told, then it's a fair bet that the story as we saw it was reality (either that, or his brain was fried like a runny egg and he's living in a comatose fantasyland).
11. StrongDreams
@10, huh?

He's either a real secret agent on a blue mars, or he's in a Rekall chair on Earth. How is the color of the sky diagnostic?

The one thing that does argue againt the dream interpretation is the ridiculously hot wife he has before his visit to Rekall, and how eager she is to stop him from thinking about mars.
Robert Evans
12. bobsandiego
The Blue sky proves nothing. While they were prepping the memory implant the male technician says "Blue Skies on Mars? That's different."
Robert Evans
13. bobsandiego
The Blue sky proves nothing. While they were prepping the memory implant the male technician says "Blue Skies on Mars? That's different."
James Knevitt
14. jknevitt
My point is that the events of the film posit an irreversible course of events that affect more than just Quaid. If it's meant to be implanted memories of a vacation (as per Rekall), then it's a pretty crappy one, because "oh, wait, I guess I really didn't save Mars after all because their sky is red, not blue like I remember". If you extrapolate events beyond the end of the film, either it was all real or Quaid should get his 300 credits back.
James Knevitt
15. jknevitt
Another thing that I just remembered (recalled, if you will) was that there's a moment in the film where Cohagen(?) explains to Quaid that everything prior to his sedation at Rekall was just an overlaid memory -- completely fabricated. If it's all a dream, we as viewers can't really trust anything after the Rekall visit. If it's all reality, the reverse is true.

Further, if everything we see in the beginning of the film is an elaborately staged involuntary cover for Hauser, it would explain (as #11 notes above) why everyone really seems to want to keep him away from Mars and Rekall. If everything beyond the sedation is a dream, keeping him away from Rekall really wouldn't be an issue.
16. StrongDreams
@14, again, huh?

Quaid walks into Rekall, and is offered the memories of a 2-week vacation on Mars. For an extra fee, he is offered the "ego trip" option, in which he gets to be not Quaid the tourist, but Quaid the secret agent. He chooses an adventure called "Blue Sky on Mars" and selects the body and personality type of his female companion.

From the moment he sits down in the chair, two interpretations are possible. Either everything is real, or everything is part of the dream -- the "schizoid embolism", his being knocked out and sent home, being chased around with a bug in his head, all ending with the kiss on the surface of Mars with blue skies.

The idea that he should get his money back is completely silly. He paid for an ego trip, the chance to be someone else for 2 weeks. Under the dream interpretation, he got exactly what he paid for. Of course it wasn't real, and now he has to go back to his ordinary life (unless, as is also possible, he is permanently brain damaged).

The movie is left deliberately open as to what happened, and there are some reasons to think that his adventure was real, but sorry, your reason isn't one of them.
Irene Gallo
17. Irene
16. StrongDreams,
We like to invite many opinions and debate but please refrain from putting down the people you don't agree with while doing so.
18. StrongDreams
I think this is the first time I have ever been called out for uncivil behavior on the internet. (And I'd be happy to share some of my history with you privately to back that up.) Do you really think that "your argument makes no sense" is a put-down? If so, I apologize, and will recalibrate my further comments accordingly. But I have to say it's a higher standard than I've ever been exposed to before.
19. GuruJ
@anthonypero @colomon:
Actually, I think the Blue Sky ending of the film makes "it was all a dream" beautifully bittersweet. Until that point, the film plays the events on Mars deliberately straight – everything is very plausible in matching the tropes of SF and action movies.

But the idea of the sky of Mars becoming blue so quickly really stretches our suspension of disbelief that Arnie's "secret agent life" is the real one. But we still wish it was "real" precisely because the idea of Arnie being a triumphant secret agent is so much more satisfying than him "just" waking up and going back to his normal life.

It's an encapsulation of the whole viewer experience at the movies, expressed within the movie.
20. Cain S. Latrani
On my second viewing of the moive, I caught the lab tech comment. From then on, it almost seemed like a totally different movie to me. The question of real verses dream always made me wonder what happened after the end credits. Always loved this movie for that.
21. RobinM
The movie could get even stranger and more confusing if the writers tried to explain the Mice....
I'm afraid of rodents and reading the short story didn't help my phobia one little bit.
22. Short Story
what a nice site
James Kopsian
24. FesterBestertester
I always assumed it had to be a dream because there's no way the atmosphere of a whole planet could have changed quickly enough to save Ahnold, or rather the Ahnold muppet from doing that Ren & Stimpy eye poppery thing. :]
25. Matt D
Seems like the reason some people like the movie is exactly the reason I hate it. If it's not a dream, then it's stupidly unrealistic how quickly everything is fixed, how close to death Arnold is before suddenly he's absolutely fine.. But if its a dream, then it's like watching a holodeck episode of Trek, but one where the characters didn't learn anything new about themselves to apply in their real lives... Contrast with Inception, which ends equally ambiguously but the point is that the main character has changed in a fundemental way.

Mind you, it's been many years since I saw Total Recall so I might think differently if I saw it now, but I have no desire to see it again.
26. petec
This is also what makes Total Recall such satisfying science fiction as well. It manages to be intelligent without plodding

Are you insane? There is no intelligence in this movie. Special effects? Yes. Intelligence? No.

I have no trouble with the speculative part of sci-fi, but FFS you still have to get the science right. People who were dying from anoxia magically stopped a few moments after the "ice" was melted? Might as well have people dodging laserbeams.

Oh wait, it was all a dream? So then it is fantasy and not sci-fi, and it is ok that we broke all the rules of physics, chemistry, biology and logic.

27. memyselfi
petec, there is another way to think of films that don't make sense or don't match scientific fact, even speculatively. That they are best-effort representations of a consistent other imagined world, possibly with different laws of physics, etc, than our own. There is also potential in the idea that the characters are misinformed: whoever spoke about the core of Mars being ice may have misunderstood that there were frozen underground lakes, for instance. The degree of anoxia shown may have been exagerated, represented the sensation of it or time may not have been represented literally (not exactly uncommon in films). And so on. Finding errors in fiction is, in a way, trivial. Working out what "really happened" is much more fun.

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