Review: Total Recall asks us to “Return to Reality”

Total Recall Poster Homage
My homage to the original Total Recall poster, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger

I had no idea there was a sub-genre of films called “mindfuck” movies. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a movie that plays with your mind, confuses you, and leads you on until you’re left asking the question: “What the fuck just happened here?!” as the closing credits roll.

These aren’t just movies with a twist ending (like M. Night Shyamalan’s fantastic The Sixth Sense). Mindfucks are often incoherent, feel a bit like dreams, and are surreal. They make you wonder if what’s happening is really happening, or if they’re manifestations of the protagonist’s mind.

Many famous movies fit this sub-genre including Fight Club, The Game, Eyes Wide Shut, Abre Los Ojos (and Vanilla Sky), Memento, Mulholland Drive, Inception, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Total-Recall-1990-PosterThis week’s Basilique Film Festival 2015 movie is Total Recall, which aims to screw with your mind on several fronts whilst frequently raising the question what is real, what is memory, and what is fantasy? Total Recall, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale” was released in 1990, and instantly became a massive hit. The movie was an weight-bearing column in the temple to action that is the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was rumoured to be the most expensive movie made up until that time.

The film – science-fiction interplanetary action romp – also explores notions of simulated reality, amnesia and installed memories. While the pre-CGI effects, ’80s fashions, token female and racial minority characters, (sometimes prescient) futuristic ideas, and cheesy one-liners do help to date the movie; today’s reviewers regard the film as generally very good (Rotten Tomatoes awarding it 84% on the tomatometer).

Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who lives an idyllic working-class life set sometime in the 21st century, where he lives in a comfortable apartment with his sexy bombshell-wife Sharon Stone. We’ve since colonised Mars, and Quaid is mysteriously obsessed with travelling to the inhospitable red planet. He decides that the only way he’s going to visit Mars is to travel to it virtually, courtesy of a company that offers packaged memories, Rekall. As if travelling to Mars wasn’t easily worth the price, Quaid is offered and purchases an extra where he can assume the identity of a secret agent, complete with a female companion that is configured by Quaid as “athletic, sleazy and demure”.

From the beginning of Quaid’s mind-trip, the movie makes us question – is what we’re watching real, or are we watching the packaged memory Quaid has purchased? As the action ensues, there is a stand-out scene that highlights the question in our minds – and for a while, makes us think that what we’re seeing is Quaid’s fantasy, and all happening in his head. The scene takes place after Quaid has already arrived on Mars, and the dialogue takes place between Quaid, and Dr. Edgemar (the doctor from the packaged memory company Rekall sent to bring him back to reality). It’s worth quoting in it’s entirety:

Dr. Edgemar: [At Quaid’s hotel door] Mr. Quaid?
Douglas Quaid: [Gets up from bed quickly and draws his gun] What?
Dr. Edgemar: I need to talk to you. It’s about Mr. Hauser.
Douglas Quaid: Who are you?
Dr. Edgemar: Dr. Edgemar from Rekall.
Douglas Quaid: How did you find me?
Dr. Edgemar: That’s a little hard to explain, but could you open the door? [Quaid opens the door and points his gun at Edgemar]
Dr. Edgemar: I’m not armed.
[Quaid looks behind Edgemar]
Dr. Edgemar: Dont’ worry, I’m alone. May I come in… [Quaid takes Edgemar into his room]
Douglas Quaid: What do you want?
Dr. Edgemar: This might be difficult for you to accept, Mr. Quaid.
Douglas Quaid: I’m listening.
Dr. Edgemar: I’m afraid that you are not really standing here right now.
Douglas Quaid: You know doc, you could’ve fooled me.
Dr. Edgemar: Quite so. You’re not here, and neither am I.
Douglas Quaid: Wow, that’s amazing. Where are we? [sarcastic]
Dr. Edgemar: At Rekall. You were strapped to an implant chair, and we’re monitoring you from a psychic probe console.
Douglas Quaid: Oh, I get it. I’m dreaming, and this is a part of the delightful vacation package your company had sold me. [sarcastic]
Dr. Edgemar: Not exactly. You have this dream sequence in your natural memory banks, and you’re making this up as you go along.
Douglas Quaid: If this is my dream, then who the hell invited you?
Dr. Edgemar: I was sent in as a security measure. I’m afraid to tell you this Mr. Quaid, but you have suffered a schizoed embelism, we can’t snap you out of your fantasy. I was sent here to try to talk you down.
Douglas Quaid: How much is Cohaagan paying you for this?
Dr. Edgemar: Think about it. Your dream began in the middle of the implant procedure, and everything that followed. The chases, the trip to Mars, the suite at the Hilton, was all a part of your holiday and ego trip, you paid to be a secret agent.
Douglas Quaid: Bullshit. It’s coincidence.
Dr. Edgemar: What about the girl? Brunette, athletic, sleazy and demure just as you specified, is that a coincidence?
Douglas Quaid: No she’s real. I dreamt about her before I even went to Rekall.
Dr. Edgemar: Mr. Quaid, can you hear yourself? She’s real because you dreamt her.
Douglas Quaid: That’s right.

I just love Dr. Edgemar’s last line “She’s real because you dreamt her.” It’s so glaringly preposterous, yet Quaid is clearly buying the story – fictitious or otherwise. In this pivotal scene that I unfortunately could not find a clip of on YouTube, director Verhoeven does a terrific job of briefly pausing the nearly-non-stop-action to ask the viewer to seriously question their perception… is what we’re seeing Quaid do real, or isn’t it?

This is what I love about mindfuck entertainment – its twists and turns compel you to interpret it, instead of having it served on a easy-picking platter, the director answering every mystery lest they make the viewer do an ounce of work. To me, this is the difference between passive and interactive motion-picture entertainment, and I’ll take the latter over the former any day of the week.

At the mid-point of the movie, one is pretty convinced: “what we’re seeing is real, Quaid really is a secret agent on Mars”. But, Dr. Edgemar’s logic is so compelling, it begins to make us wonder. We can actually see Quaid’s face express tells of self-doubt (a testament to Schwarzenegger’s often-underrated and sometimes subtle acting skills – he’s got more depth than his guns, ok?!)

Arnie on Mars
My version of Quaid on Mars in Total Recall

Dr. Edgemar notices he’s getting closer to cracking Quaid, so he brings in his trump-card: Quaid’s “fake” wife, Lori played by Sharon Stone in a classic 80s-shoulder-padded grey power-suit, who is apparently also at Rekall, trying to revive Quaid from his delusional trance.

Dr. Edgemar: Well, maybe this will convince you. Would you mind opening the door?
Douglas Quaid: [Holds his gun to Edgemar’s chin] You open it.
Dr. Edgemar: No need to be rude, I’ll open it. [Goes to the door and opens it, revealing Lori]
Douglas Quaid: [Shocked] Oh, guessing that you’re not here either.
Lori: I’m here, at Rekall. I love you.
Douglas Quaid: Right, that’s why you tried to kill me.
Lori: No. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. I want you to come back to me.
Douglas Quaid: Bullshit.
Dr. Edgemar: What’s bullshit Mr. Quaid? Afraid to admit that you’re having a schizo paranoid episode, or are you really an invincible secret agent from Mars, who is in the middle of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think that he’s a lonley construction worker. Stop punishing yourself Doug, you’re a fine upstanding man you have a beautiful wife who loves you, you have a whole life ahead of you. But you gotta want to return to reality.
Douglas Quaid: If I wanted to return, then what?
Dr. Edgemar: [Takes out a pill] Swallow this.
Douglas Quaid: What is it?
Dr. Edgemar: It’s a symbol for your desire to return to reality. In your dreams you’ll fall asleep. [Quaid takes the pill]
Douglas Quaid: Okay. Let’s say you’re telling the truth and this is all a dream. [Puts his gun against Edgemar’s head]
Douglas Quaid: But I could pull this trigger and it won’t matter.
Lori: Don’t, Doug.
Dr. Edgemar: Oh it wouldn’t make the slighteat difference to me Doug. But the consequences to you will be devestating, because in your mind I’ll be dead, and with no one to guide you out you’ll be stuck in permenant psychosis.
Lori: Let Dr. Edgemar help you.
Dr. Edgemar: The walls of reality will come crashing down. One minutie, you’ll be the savior of the rebel cause, and the nest thing you know you’ll be Cohaagan’s Bosom Buddy, you’ll also have fantasies about alien civilizations as you requested. But in the end back on Earth, you’ll be lobotomized. So get a grip on yourself Doug and put down that gun.
[Quaid lowers his gun]
Dr. Edgemar: Take the pill and put it in your mouth.
[Quaid puts the pill in his mouth]
Dr. Edgemar: Swallow it. [Quaid pans around batween Edgemar and Lori, then as a sweat drop runs down Edgemar’s face Quaid shoots Edgemar in the head, and spits the pill out]
Lori: Now you’ve done it, now you’ve done it.

In this scene, one can clearly see the inspiration behind the blue and red pills used in The Matrix, as a symbol of consciously choosing the reality one chooses to see – the dreamworld, or the (often much duller) truth.

So what are we seeing here? Is it real, or isn’t it? Getting past the fact that this is a fictionalised movie where nothing is really real, if you trust Quaid (and actually believe that people in simulated realities don’t sweat – huh?) then you have to assume that what we’re seeing is real. But is it? I honestly don’t know, what I will say is that there is a lot in the movie that makes the case for both arguments. One such instance is how Total Recall makes great use of holograms that imitate the characters during fight scenes, which is yet another instance where we – and the characters in the movie – are led to believe something is real when it is not.

Arnie in the Rekall Machine
Quaid about to get his memory erased… again!

This question of what is real? is further complicated by the fact that everything we perceive is conceptualised in our minds. Wait… what? It’s true, everything you perceive sends an electrical signal to your brain that conceptualises what it is. This perceptual-conceptual progression is true for every sensory input, be it sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and what we see in our mind’s eye, making everything subject to our conceptual filters.

If you don’t believe that Quaid is actually a secret agent on Mars instead of one-shock away from a lobotomy at Rekall, then we must see Total Recall as a film set in a simulated reality. Very different from our current version of virtual reality, simulated reality is a hypothesis that a reality could be simulated – possibly via very powerful computing – to a degree indistinguishable from “true” reality. This is the world of The Matrix, where the conscious mind may or may not be aware that it is living inside a simulation.

The closest we now get to simulated reality is created by the wetware of very own brains. Dreaming is a type of simulation that is capable of fooling us into believing that we are experiencing real events whilst asleep. Follow this argument to its final conclusion, it is in fact possible that we ourselves are living in a dream, although it’s unlikely (but who knows for sure?)

Right through to the end, the movie never really tips its hand by revealing the a conclusive answer to decide if what we’re seeing is real, or is actually a vividly portrayed delusion of Quaid’s imagination interacting with an extremely convincing simulated reality. The science and coincidence alone in this movie asks us to suspend our disbelief again and again, which is another way of making us question if any of this is real at all.

The last lines of the movie only serve to keep us guessing. At the end, Melina (Quaid’s main squeeze on Mars and his partner in its salvation from Cohaagan, the movie’s primary antagonist) and Quaid are tossed out into the inhospitable surface of Mars, where they nearly suffocate. They don’t, because they’ve managed to restore Mars’ life-supporting atmosphere and kill off Cohaagan in one fell swoop, thereby freeing everyone on Mars from his tyranny:

Melina: I can’t believe it, it’s like a dream. [she turns to see Quaid’s face turn serious] What’s wrong?
Douglas Quaid: I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?
Melina: Well, then, kiss me quick before you wake up!

The screen fades to white. As I asked myself the question… “What the fuck did I just see there?”, I didn’t stop to give the absence of colour in the final fade a second thought. It was only after hearing about the director’s commentary, where Verhoeven suggests the fade-to-white might symbolise that Quaid has indeed been lobotomised in his recliner at Rekall. In this way, even the director might be asking us to “get back to reality”. True or not, I’m sure that most of us would prefer to imagine that our hero is now the saviour of Mars, bringing the movie to its happy conclusion.

I suppose we’ll never truly know what’s real, and what is not.

Next week, I’ll invite you to watch, and I’ll review the 1995 film based on William Gibson science-fiction classic, Johnny Mnemonic, staring Keanu Reeves.

4 thoughts on “Review: Total Recall asks us to “Return to Reality”

  1. I’d like to add another slightly older film to your list called Jacob’s Ladder (Tim Robbins). It truly blows you away and leaves you wondering what was real and what wasn’t- and at the same time a deeply spiritual film!!


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