Mars, Memory, and Metaphor: Unpacking the Themes of 'Total Recall' 1990

07 September 2023
"Total Recall" is a science fiction film released in 1990, directed by Paul Verhoeven (Robocop). The movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who becomes embroiled in a complex conspiracy involving his identity and the colonization of Mars. The film is a rollercoaster of action, espionage, and psychological drama, leaving viewers questioning the nature of reality and identity.

Enduring Relevance and Impact on Science Fiction Cinema

The film has had a lasting impact on the genre, not only for its groundbreaking special effects but also for its intricate storytelling and thematic depth. It was one of the earliest films to successfully blend big scale action and science fiction while also incorporating elements of psychological thriller. This blend has influenced a range of films that followed, from "The Matrix" to "Inception," where the lines between reality and illusion are similarly blurred.

"Total Recall" delves into several key themes:

  • Identity and Self-Discovery: Who is Douglas Quaid, and how do his multiple identities shape his understanding of himself?
  • Reality and Illusion: Is Quaid's adventure real, or is it a memory implant from Rekall?
  • Political Subtext: What does the film say about totalitarian regimes and the exploitation of resources?
  • Technological Ethics: What are the moral implications of altering one's memories or identity?

total recall film post


The film is loosely based on the short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick, a writer known for his explorations into altered states of reality and identity (refer Bladerunner). While the short story is more limited in scope, focusing mainly on the concept of false memories, the film expands these ideas into a broader narrative that includes political and ethical dimensions. Dick's influence is evident in the film's constant questioning of what is real and what is fabricated.

Paul Verhoeven has a knack for blending visceral action with intellectual depth, as seen in his other works like "RoboCop" and "Starship Troopers." "Total Recall" fits neatly into this oeuvre, offering both a thrilling ride and a cerebral experience. The film also came at a time when science fiction was beginning to be taken more seriously as a genre, moving away from the campy space operas of earlier decades. It capitalized on advancements in special effects technology, allowing for a more immersive and visually stunning portrayal of futuristic concepts.

In summary, "Total Recall" is not just an action-packed sci-fi thriller; it's a complex narrative that challenges our perceptions of reality, identity, and morality. It stands as a testament to the genre's potential for intellectual and philosophical exploration.


Identity and Self-Discovery

Douglas Quaid starts as an ordinary construction worker, dissatisfied with his life and dreaming of Mars. His journey to self-discovery is triggered by his visit to Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories. As the story unfolds, Quaid finds himself in the middle of a rebellion on Mars, grappling with the realization that he might have been someone else entirely—a rebel agent named Hauser.

One of the most iconic scenes that encapsulate this theme is when Quaid discovers a recorded message from his former self, Hauser. In this moment, he's essentially meeting "himself," albeit a version that he doesn't remember. This scene is a powerful representation of the internal struggle between his two identities. 

It raises questions about the essence of self. Is he Quaid, the construction worker, or Hauser, the rebel agent? Or is he a blend of both?

Reality and Illusion - Blurred Lines

The film masterfully blurs the lines between reality and illusion, leaving viewers to ponder what's real and what's not. This is most evident in the sequences following Quaid's visit to Rekall. The events are so fantastical—filled with spies, rebels, and alien artifacts—that they fit the description of the "secret agent" fantasy package that Rekall offers.

The ambiguity starts with the Rekall experience itself. As the procedure begins, something goes wrong, or so it seems. The technicians claim that Quaid's memories are already implanted, suggesting that his life as Quaid might be the real fabrication. 

This sets the stage for the entire film, where every event could either be a genuine experience or a byproduct of the botched Rekall implant.

Commentary on Totalitarian Regimes and Class Struggle

The film doesn't shy away from political themes. The Martian colony is under the authoritarian rule of Vilos Cohaagen, who controls the supply of air—a basic necessity. This mirrors real-world totalitarian regimes that maintain power by controlling resources.

The struggle for control over the Martian air supply serves as a powerful metaphor for natural resources and the exploitation of marginalized communities. The rebels, many mutants affected by the poor living conditions, are fighting for equitable access to air, highlighting the class struggle inherent in the system.

Moral Implications

The film delves into the ethical implications of memory manipulation. Rekall's services aren't just recreational; they have the power to alter one's perception of reality and, by extension, their identity.

Rekall itself is a morally ambiguous entity. On the surface, it offers a form of escapism, but the potential for misuse is enormous. The film raises ethical questions about the right to alter one's memories or even create new identities. 

Is it ethical to offer such a service, especially when the line between reality and illusion becomes so indistinct?

What is Real?

The Two-World Theory

One of the most compelling interpretations of "Total Recall" is the Two-World Theory, which posits that there are two distinct realities in the film: the pre-Rekall world and the post-Rekall world. In the pre-Rekall world, Quaid is a construction worker, dissatisfied with his life and yearning for adventure. Post-Rekall, he finds himself in a high-stakes, action-packed scenario involving espionage, rebellion, and a struggle for freedom on Mars.

Quaid's life undergoes a dramatic shift after his visit to Rekall. Before, he's stuck in a mundane routine, working a blue-collar job and watching news about Mars with a sense of longing. After the Rekall experience, he's dodging bullets, fighting off assassins, and leading a Martian rebellion. This stark contrast lends credence to the idea that there are two separate realities, each with its own set of rules and stakes.

The "Schizoid Embolism" Argument

Another interpretation is that everything post-Rekall is a figment of Quaid's imagination, a result of a "schizoid embolism" that the Rekall technicians warn him about. According to this theory, the entire Martian adventure is a dream or hallucination, and Quaid is still strapped to the Rekall chair, experiencing a memory implant gone awry.

A pivotal scene supporting this theory is when Dr. Edgemar, a character who appears in the Martian reality, tries to convince Quaid that he's living a fantasy. He offers Quaid a pill, claiming it will wake him up from his dream. This scene is a meta-commentary on the film itself, asking the audience, just as it asks Quaid, to question the nature of reality.

The film is filled with moments that can either support or refute these theories. For instance, characters like Lori, Quaid's "wife," exist in both realities, complicating the idea of a clean break between the two worlds.

One of the most subtle yet powerful pieces of evidence is the moment when Dr. Edgemar sweats while trying to convince Quaid that he's in a dream. Quaid notices this and kills Edgemar, interpreting the sweat as a sign of fear and, therefore, evidence that the situation is real. However, one could argue that even in dreams, characters can exhibit signs of life-like behavior, leaving the question of reality still open.

sharon stone
Consider it a divorce...

The Ending of "Total Recall"

The ending of "Total Recall" is one of the most debated and analyzed conclusions in science fiction cinema (It's up there with Blade Runner). As Quaid and Melina stand on the Martian surface, watching as the alien reactor releases oxygen into the atmosphere, Quaid wonders aloud if they are living a dream. The screen fades to white, leaving the audience with an ambiguous ending that has fueled discussions for decades.

The fade-to-white ending is a masterstroke by director Paul Verhoeven. It leaves the film's central question—what is real?—unanswered, allowing for multiple interpretations. On one hand, the ending could signify a new beginning for Mars and its inhabitants, validating the entire adventure as real. On the other hand, the fade to white could symbolize Quaid's awakening from a Rekall-induced dream, making the entire story a figment of his imagination.

The elements that support the dream theory are numerous. For instance, the Rekall technician mentions that the "Blue Sky on Mars" is a new memory implant package, and that's precisely what we see at the end. Additionally, many of the events that unfold are eerily similar to the "secret agent" fantasy that Quaid opts for at Rekall. The ending could very well be the culmination of that fantasy, fulfilling Quaid's deepest desires but not necessarily reflecting any objective reality.

Conversely, there are elements that suggest the events are real. The level of detail, the physical pain, and the moral choices Quaid faces all lend a sense of authenticity to his experiences. If it were all a dream, would he question the nature of his reality so intensely? The fade-to-white could be a poetic representation of a new dawn for Mars, symbolizing hope and renewal, both for the planet and for Quaid himself.

The ending also serves as a meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling and cinema. Just as Quaid questions his reality, the audience is prompted to question the nature of the film they've just watched.

Are we, like Quaid, participants in a constructed narrative, or is there a deeper truth to be gleaned?


"Total Recall" is a cinematic masterpiece that transcends the boundaries of typical action or science fiction films. Its thematic richness lies in its ability to engage the audience in a multi-layered narrative that explores identity, reality, political tyranny, and the ethics of technology. The film's open-ended questions about reality—embodied in its ambiguous ending—elevate it from mere entertainment to a subject of philosophical inquiry.

The film provides compelling arguments for both the "dream" and "reality" interpretations. The meticulous crafting of the narrative leaves enough evidence to support either viewpoint, making the ambiguity one of the film's strongest assets. 

If one were to lean towards the "reality" argument, the intricate details and moral complexities that Quaid faces could be cited as elements that lend authenticity to his experiences. On the other hand, the "dream" theory gains traction through the fulfillment of Quaid's Rekall fantasy and the uncanny alignment of events with the "secret agent" package he chooses. 

Ultimately, the film's genius lies in its refusal to provide easy answers, leaving the question of what is "real" tantalizingly open for interpretation.

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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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