ByEric Hanson, writer at Creators.co
Eric Hanson holds a Bachelor's in Film Studies. Some of his favorite films include To Kill a Mockingbird, 2001, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Eric Hanson

Of all the hits in action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger's film library, few promote as much discussion as 1990's Total Recall. Many still wonder if the events of Total Recall really happened, or if they're all an implanted illusion in the mind of the hero. Did Quaid really save the people of Mars, or did he meet his demise under a scalpel?

The Life Of Douglas Quaid

is a 1990 film directed by . It was one of the most expensive movies made at the time, but proved it had legs at the box office, becoming a massive success not only with ticket sales, but also with critics.

Total Recall tells the story of Douglas Quaid, a construction worker plagued by strange dreams of planet Mars. Seeking to get away from his mundane life, he goes to Rekall, a company that provides fake memories in place of real vacations. Quaid requests a vacation to Mars, but with a twist. He wants to be a secret agent. During the procedure however, Quaid reveals suppressed memories of actually being a secret agent. This leads to assassins chasing him all the way so Mars in an action-packed and blood-soaked adventure to free its people from an oppressive governor.

Douglas Quaid becomes an action hero. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Douglas Quaid becomes an action hero. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Total Recall has since gone on to be regarded as a classic, aided by its imaginative premise, stunning visuals, spectacular world building, and nail-bitingly intense action. Its central premise though is that Quaid goes to have fake memories implanted. Is that all we really see?

The Dream Theory

The dream theory goes that after Quaid's visit to Rekall, all the events we witness are nothing more than memory implants. The plot of Quaid having his memories erased and duped into believing he's but a construction worker is needlessly convoluted, something pointed out by certain characters in the film. What other evidence is there to support this theory?

An image resembling the alien reactor Quaid later has to activate. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
An image resembling the alien reactor Quaid later has to activate. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Though not as fun as Quaid going to Mars and killing people, the dream theory does have a few points in its favor. The biggest of course is the setup itself. When Quaid is at the Rekall office, he listens to dialogue from the staff where they talk about the implants they're about to make, directly mentioning some of the things that later occur in the film, such as alien artifacts and a blue sky on Mars.

Quaid's love interest appears on the computer monitor at Rekall. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Quaid's love interest appears on the computer monitor at Rekall. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Another is leading lady Melina, played by Rachel Ticotin. Before drifting off to sleep, Quaid makes specific requests of the kind of romantic interest he'll run into on his journey. The requests he makes generate an exact likeness of the character Melina, whom he later meets and falls in love with on Mars. Why is Melina in the computer? Did she lend out her likeness to make some extra money, or is she really just a computer simulation?

Another point brought up by proponents of the dream theory is the character of Dr. Edgemar, the spokesperson for Rekall. In the film he confronts Quaid on Mars and tells him he's suffering from delusions and will be lobotomized if he doesn't come out of his dream. While trying to convince Quaid, he delivers a speech that predicts several key events that happen later in the film.

His description is vague, but it is close enough that it casts some doubt on the reality of what Quaid is experiencing. Quaid doesn't take the offer, leaving us to wonder if he is heading towards the operating table.

Waking Up

The Pyramid Mine in the background is something Quaid dreams about before Rekall. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
The Pyramid Mine in the background is something Quaid dreams about before Rekall. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

While the dream theory isn't one you can easily dismiss, neither is the more obvious answer — that Quaid actually does "get his ass to Mars." Quaid encounters several key elements of his adventure in dreams before his visit to Rekall. Melina, for example, he has already dreamed about, which is why he makes those requests for his memory implant. He even has visions of the Pyramid Mine containing the alien artifacts. That Quaid sees both these things prior do suggest he's experiencing repressed memories of being a secret agent.

Edgemar sweats in fear as Quaid contemplates taking the pill. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Edgemar sweats in fear as Quaid contemplates taking the pill. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Another point against the dream theory is one detail that occurs during the scene with Dr. Edgemar. Before he takes the read pill, Quaid notices Dr. Edgemar is sweating. Edgemar claims he has been implanted as part of a security measure to snap Quaid out of his dream. If this is the case, there would be no need for his avatar to display fear.

Lori and Richter set a trap for Quaid that he's unaware of. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Lori and Richter set a trap for Quaid that he's unaware of. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

However, some of the biggest points against the dream theory is something many otherwise wouldn't notice. Douglas Quaid isn't in every scene. The film regularly drifts away from Quaid to show the other characters having discussions and setting traps the protagonist is unaware of. The biggest example is Quaid's fake wife Lori and her real husband, the mad assassin Richter. Never once in the film is Quaid made aware of the feelings these two have for each other — all of their moments taking place while he's absent. They're even shown setting a trap for Quaid before he's aware Lori is working for the Agency.

The villainous Cohagen's office, a setting never observed by Quaid. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
The villainous Cohagen's office, a setting never observed by Quaid. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

There are even places that Quaid never sees, such as the villainous Cohagen's office. Why are these events and places significant? It shows these things can and do exist without Quaid, something that wouldn't occur if he was merely dreaming. If he was in a dream, these characters and places would simply cease to exist in his absence, and places like Cohagen's office wouldn't need to be constructed for a memory implant since Quaid never enters the room. These details cast some pretty significant doubt on the dream theory, potentially saving Quaid from a nasty fate on an operating table.

We Hope You Enjoyed The Ride!

Quaid gets ready to deliver a surprise. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Quaid gets ready to deliver a surprise. 'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Director Paul Verhoven gives conflicting reports as to whether Total Recall is a dream. He has said he believes the events are going on inside Quaid's head, but also says that casting Schwarzenegger grounds the film in reality. So, what is true and what isn't? In the end it may not matter, because regardless of whether or not this pulse-pounding thrill ride filled with memorable dialogue, fun performances and spectacular action is all a dream, it hasn't thrilled moviegoers any less.

Did Quaid go to Mars or was he lobotomized? Cast your vote and let us know in the comments below!

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