“He awoke — and wanted Mars. The valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them? Great and greater yet: the dream grew as he became fully conscious, the dream and the yearning. He could almost feel the enveloping presence of another word…” So opens Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” one of the most famous efforts from the prolific, and much-adapted, science fiction writer. The story of a man who contracts an agency to implant false memories of Mars only to uncover real memories he didn’t know he had, Dick’s version begins similarly to the Paul Verhoeven-directed Total Recall, then diverges significantly. But both the source material and the film it inspired stay true to a theme that runs throughout Dick’s work: If our only way to determine reality is our minds and our mind can’t be trusted how to we define what’s real?
For Douglas Quaid, that question takes on special urgency after he visits Rekall, an organization he turns to to give him memories of the trip to Mars his wife Lori (played by Sharon Stone) will never let him take. Suddenly he remembers he’s a special agent, a buddy at work is trying to kill him, he encounters a recording of himself instructing him how to remove a bug that’s been implanted in his brain, and he’s taking off for Mars in a desperate attempt to save his life and the lives of the rebels fighting for control of the planet.
Unless, as a visitor to the fancy Mars hotel in which he’s staying, tells him, he’s still unconscious back at Rekall and all this is an implanted memory gone wrong.
Total Recall was many years in the making and could have taken a much different form. Writer Ronald Shusett acquired the option to Dick’s story in 1974, before anyone thought much of turning his stories into movies. He co-wrote a script with Dan O’Bannon, with whom he’d also write Alien, and from that script many drafts would flower, including a version that might have been directed by David Cronenberg and a Patrick Swayze-starring Bruce Beresford-helmed version that was this close to happening before producer Dino De Laurentis ran out of money. That opened the door for Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d already formed a mutual admiration society based on Schwarzenegger’s fondness of Robocop and, presumably, Verhoeven’s recognition that Schwarzenegger could be a valuable tool in his quest to create as many subversive blockbusters as he could while in Hollywood.
Total Recall advanced that goal. Like Robocop, it’s in love with extremes: Graphic violence, unnerving imagery, and bigger-than-life heroes —Schwarzenegger doesn’t even need a robot suit to look like a comic book character. Here he throws in hints of the graphic sexuality that would define his next film, Basic Instinct, and with it some of the misogyny that film either celebrates or undermines, depending on how you look at it. And, like Robocop, Total Recall also satisfies all the needs of a blockbuster audience, particularly of the late-’80s/early-’90s era when an R-rated action film could still be a box office success.
But it unsettles while it satisfies. Just as every version of reality seems a little unreal to Quaid, something about the film always seems off — starting with the protagonist. Any film that asks us to buy Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ordinary guy is asking a lot, and both Total Recall and its star know this and play it as yet another reality-warping element. He seems more out of place as a working joe than as a secret agent. But is he? That’s the big question looming over the film. Which is real: Quaid or McClane, the identity in which he operated as an interplanetary man of mystery? Who is the real love of his life: Lori or Melina, the woman he believes he left behind on Mars? And where does he belong: on the red sands of Mars or in the low-key dystopia world of 2084 Earth? Which is the dream and who is the dreamer. Can we know? Does it even matter? We’ll talk it over after the break.