Film / Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall is a 1990 Sci-fi film loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Paul Verhoeven.

On its face it's a sci-fi take on a spy thriller, set in memories implanted into a bored construction worker of the future... or is it? Because of all the Alternate Character Interpretation, the film is often called "The thinking man's action movie."

Douglas Quaid (Arnold S.) is tired of life 20 Minutes into the Future. His literal life's dream is to get his ass to Mars as a way of escaping his humdrum existence. A commercial for the Rekall brand "Ego Trip" induces Quaid to try one of the trips, which are just implanted memories of a vacation that he'd never be able to take in person. Quaid elects for an enhanced set of fake memories that cast him in the role of a super spy—sort of a memory novella that he will remember living through. When something goes wrong with the procedure, he discovers that his entire life is a lie, and that in reality, he is a super spy working under deep cover. Or is he?

The viewer is constantly challenged to decide if Quaid's experiences are real or all just a result of his "ego trip." (Or are they?) The film is also well known for its special effects and over-the-top gore, like some other notable Verhoeven films. Highlights include tons of cool guns, three-breasted mutants, and a bizarre NES tie-in game.

A remake starring Colin Farrell was released in 2012. It's also a loose inspiration for the Total Recall 2070 series.

Total Recall provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Lori and Melina. Thumbelina qualifies due to how much ass she kicks during the brothel shootout.
  • Activation Sequence: When the alien device is activated there is a prolonged sequence of the long-dormant machinery turning on, interspersed with scenes of the characters being blown out onto the surface of Mars.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" only covers the first bit, set on Earth and dealing with REKAL. Despite being regular staples of Dick's work, the Mars setting, the sectarian conflict, the ancient aliens, and the mutants are all original to the film, as is the ambiguity of whether or not the film is a dream. In fact, it's not hyperbole to say the film is even more Dickesque than the short story.
    • The Piers Anthony novelization of the movie expands on things even further, giving a few glimpses into the alien race that created the reactors and adding a bit of gratuitous sex.
  • Affably Evil: Hauser, who in his last video diary continues to act friendly towards Quaid and apologizes that he needs his body back.
  • All There in the Manual: The aliens' motivations and a good deal of their culture are explored in the novelization.
  • All Your Base Are Belong to Us: The Mars Resistance base after Cohaagen's forces attack.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The day is saved, Mars is liberated from Cohaagen and terraformed to now be a breathable planet. But we're left unsure if the whole adventure was truly real or if it was all part of Quaid's implanted memory. Needless to say, the film leaves it up to the audience to decide. In the commentary, Verhoeven thinks the movie was all in Quaid's head while Schwarzenegger thinks that it all happened for real.
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: Quaid is shocked to find out that he was Hauser all along. He goes as far as calling Hauser an "asshole".
  • An Arm and a Leg: Richter gets both his arms ripped off in his death scene.
  • Artistic License – Physics
    • Mars is roughly under half an AU from Earth at closest approach, meaning it should take at least three minutes each way for the Video Phones to send messages.
    • The finale involves Mars' frozen water core being unfrozen and turning Mars into a green, Earthy paradise immediately.
    • In the fight scene in the memory implantation suite on Mars, one of the technicians attacks Quaid with a slender metal rod, but between the more than meter of metal and his own strength, he's not able to even raise a bruise on Quaid when he parries the rod with his bare forearm, but it's still strong enough for Quaid to drive it through his attacker's skull. Being able to drive the thick metal lug that had held one of the restraining cuffs to the chair (before Quaid simply lifts the restraint straight up out of the arm) into another technician's neck and create a rather neat, circular wound is similarly silly. (OK, it's an Arnold fight scene so the laws of physics tend to go out the window, but things really should make more sense than that.)
    • Or these are clues that these events are not real...
  • A-Team Firing
    • Richter's goons surround Hauser's hologram on all sides, firing from less than 10 feet away without ever hitting each other even though the bullets should be passing right through the hologram.
    • And then, in the same scene some other goons die because the bullets do go through the hologram. It's bad enough that the gunfire works silly, but much worse when it's inconsistently silly.
      • Actually, the hologram appears to absorb the bullets, which is why nobody dies in the first scene, and the goons die in the latter scene because Melina turns off the hologram while they're still firing at it.
  • Bad Boss: Compared to his established friendship with his other right hand man, Hauser, Cohaagen not only lambasts and insults his mercenary Richter at every opportunity, but uses his wife Lori in Hauser's mole operation, and is thoroughly apathetic to her death caused by it. Richter makes sure to give at least a small fuck you to Cohaagen when it's obvious the plan has gone to shit.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: Cohaagen has Quaid at gunpoint in the underground mine and is about to shoot him. Shots are fired and Cohaagen is Melina, Quaid's Action Girl companion.
  • Berserk Button: Johnny Cab doesn't take kindly to anyone refusing to pay the fare. When Quaid escapes using a Johnny Cab, he refuses to pay the fare, which prompts Johnny Cab into trying to run him over.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Vilos Cohaagen and Hauser, who formulated the plan to take down the Mars Resistance together.
  • Blasting It out of Their Hands: As Lori is about to stab Melina to death, Quaid shoots the knife out of her hand.
  • Body Horror: Mutants, especially Kuato, who is basically a deformed baby sticking out of the abdomen of a grown man.
  • Bond One-Liner: Expected, for a Ahnold film.
    • "Considah dat a divorce."
    • "See you ad da pardy, Richta!"
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Cohaagen leaves Quaid and Melina unguarded with scientists for their forcible memory overwrites, and both Quaid and Melina are kept awake and cognizant during the procedure; Rekall at least had the good sense to knock Quaid out before implanting.
  • Bookends: Quaid's opening dream and the final scene are close matches.
  • Boom, Headshot: Quaid kills both Dr. Edgemar and Lori this way.
  • Breaking the Bonds: Quaid breaks metal shackles twice.
  • Broken Record
    20 GOTO 10
    • "Two weeks. Two weeks...two weeks, twoweekstwotweekstwoweeks..."
  • Brainwash Residue: After Quaid breaks Melina out of the constraints one of the Recall machines, it seems just a bit of the Housewife programming made it though, but not by much.
    Quaid: Are you all right? Are you still you?
    Melina: I'm not sure, dear.
    • Though it appears she's simply trolling Quaid.
  • Bulletproof Human Shield: Played painfully, painfully straight. Quaid uses a dead bystander this way in the subway scene and by the time Quaid and his meat shield get to the top of the escalator the corpse is basically Swiss cheese, but still no bullets go through to strike Quaid.
  • Butt Monkey: Absolutely no one Quaid talks to has a good opinion of Rekall, with dismissive insults of being "brain butchers" and stories of lobotomies abounding. Whether the reputation is deserved depends on if you think most of the movie is in Quaid's head or not.
  • Catapult Nightmare: At the beginning, Douglas Quaid wakes up with a jolt from a nightmare of dying of suffocation on Mars.
  • Cat Fight: Between Lori and Melina.
    "That's your wife? What a bitch...."
  • Cathartic Scream: Richter, The Dragon, does this at least once after Quaid has gotten away from him.
  • Chase Fight: Between Quaid and Richter as Benny drives Quaid to the Last Resort.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The hologram wrist device and the drilling machine.
  • Climactic Elevator Ride: Quaid takes an elevator ride up to his final showdown with Cohaagen over the fate of Mars.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Technically, the looping "Get your ass to Mars" may count.
  • Colonized Solar System: Mars has been settled by human colonists. The mutant descendants of the first colonists are fighting a guerilla war against the colonial administration, which is only interested in mining turbinium ore for Earth.
  • Cool Guns: Look for street sweepers whenever Richter is really pissed off. Also the cool magazine-on-the-back Calico weapons.
  • Dark is Not Evil / Light is Not Good: Ironically, the script makes lovable blonde girl-next-door Lori a villain, while the dark-skinned, slutty ("sleazy," to use Quaid's term), and rude Melina is the sympathetic one.
  • Death by Irony: Cohaagen, who controls all the air on Mars, dies in the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.
  • Disguised in Drag: Quaid in the "fat woman" suit.
  • Disney Villain Death: Richter. Although unlike most Disney villain deaths, its purpose was definitely not to avoid gore - it's quite gory, except in the M-rated version.
  • Divorce Requires Death: *gunshot* "Consider that a divorce."
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Richter nearly screws up Cohaagen's plans several times, because Cohaagen wants Quaid alive for whatever his plans are, and Richter is constantly trying to kill him to avenge his wife Lori, whom Quaid killed (and the fact that Lori was Quaid's 'wife' for a while and was constantly in bed with him can't have helped either). He is naturally quite pleased when Cohaagen finally gives up and gives the order to take him out.
  • Drill Tank: Coincidentally, defeated with a drill.
  • Eye Scream: The eyes of characters exposed to the near-vacuum atmosphere of Mars. Even if they recover from suffocation, they should be blind after their eyes have taken that kind of abuse. But then, the entire movie seems to be a case of Eyes Are Unbreakable.
  • Fade to White
    • This was done to suggest the possibility that Quaid was being lobotomised as suggested earlier by Dr. Edgemar.
    • Or, you know, that's just his vacation ending.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Quaid seems unaware of Kuato's resistance movement, despite it being featured on the news at the beginning of the film. Apparently, he simply tuned out the words "terrorist attack" and focussed solely on the Mars part.
  • Faux Action Girl: Subverted by Quaid's "wife" Lori. At one point, she seems to be becoming one, then proceeds to start kicking ass all over again.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Benny, who continues to keeps up his Plucky Comic Relief act when he tries to drill Quaid and Melina to death.
  • Fake Static: Richter (blaming sunspots), when Cohaagen is trying to give him orders.
  • Gambit Roulette: Cohaagen's plan, with Lampshade Hanging:
    Vilos Cohaagen: Richter goes hog-wild screwing up everything that I spent a year planning. Frankly... I'm amazed it worked!
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Quaid's memory implantation at Rekall. Supposedly.
  • Graffiti of the Resistance: The phrase "Kuato Lives" graffitied around Mars, as a sign that the mysterious leader of La Résistance is still alive despite Cohaagen's attempts to kill him.
  • Grand Theft Me: Quaid not being the original personality, technically he is the bodyjacker in the entire situation. Quaid was only supposed to temporarily take over to lead Cohaagen and Hauser to the resistance. Quaid didn't want to give it back.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Richter's enthusiasm to kill Quaid appears to be based primarily around the fact that Richter's wife was the agent assigned to pose as Quaid's wife Lori. And that she clearly enjoyed several aspects of that particular mission. At least until Lori gets killed, at which point his motives centre on good old-fashioned revenge. There are also added implications from his original alias, Hauser, being best friends with his Bad Boss, Cohaagen.
  • Groin Attack
    • Lori does this to Quaid twice the first time she fights him: once with her fist, once with a kick.
    • Later in the film she stomps on them after capturing him. This one is rather awesome. Quaid was in the middle of a fight with some mooks until Lori enters and kicks his face, seemingly knocks him out in the process. But she doesn't buy it for a moment, so she stomps on his crotch just to make sure that he's indeed still conscious, before kicking his face again and knocking him out for real this time.
    • Richter does it to a patron of the Last Resort during the assault on the place.
    • The little person prostitute does it to Richter's partner with a knife. Ouch.
  • Handy Cuffs: Quaid, after he's captured by the bad guys on Mars.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: "I never wanted this. I wanted Hauser back. But no. You had to be Quaid!"
  • Hologram: Lori's tennis teaching simulation and a wrist device that creates a false image of its wearer.
  • Hologram Projection Imperfection: Almost every time a hologram appears in the movie it has static.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: When Melina isn't fighting to liberate Mars, she works as a prostitute.
  • Human Shield: The poor bastard on the escalator with the backpack. Quaid discovers he's being attacked when the first volley of gunfire hits the guy he uses as a human shield and causes him a severe case of death. Multiple gunshot wounds to the upper chest, neck, and head will do that to a fella.
  • I Don't Pay You to Think: Cohaagen gives a version of this as he berates a subordinate:
    Cohaagen: First you try to kill Quaid, then he escapes!
    Richter: He had help from our side, sir.
    Cohaagen: I know that.
    Richter: But I thought...
    Cohaagen: Who told you to think? I don't give you enough information to think. You do what you're told. That's what you do.
  • I Have a Family: Benny the cab driver has four kids to feed, and likes to bring it up to potential fares. Or was it five?
  • Imminent Danger Clue: Quaid realizes Lori and the doctor are lying when he sees a drop of nervous sweat on the doctor's brow. If it was all a simulation and the doctor was never in any danger, why is he so scared? Quaid kills him.
    • Or was the sweat just part of the naturalistic projection of a human being in a stressful situation? For that matter, could the doctor simply be nervous about getting sued by the customer's wife if he can't get Quaid out of the simulation?
  • Indy Hat Roll: Quaid, right after arriving on Mars, to escape enemy pursuit.
  • In Working Order: The switch that activates the alien device.
  • Ironic Echo: Richter gives Quaid a mocking "See you at the party". Quaid later repeats it after killing him.
  • Irony: Quaid is given the idea to visit Rekall by seeing a commercial about their services, saying it's a safe, economical alternative to interstellar travel. After he's deposited in a Johnny Cab after the procedure gone awry, he takes a tram back home, and there he sees a commercial touting how experimental memory tampering is and asking the viewer to choose space flight as the reliable alternative.
  • It's a Small World After All: Mars has one red light district (Venusville), and is arranged into sectors that number enough to be designated letters of the alphabet. Since we don't know how much of Mars was colonized, it's possible that the human population there all lives in the same city.
  • I Warned You: After being constantly browbeaten by Cohaagen for trying to kill Quaid rather than following the plan through, Richter very smugly demands his boss' next approach when it fails and Quaid escapes, leaving him on the brink of losing power.
    Richter: You're going to have to make a decision, sir.
    Cohaagen: (reluctant) Kill him.
    Richter: About goddamn time.
  • La Résistance: Kuato's mutant Martian rebels.
  • Large Ham: Benny, especially after he reveals himself to be a villain. "Hey Quaid! You remember me?! BENNY! BENNY'S THE NAME!"
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Cohaagen turns off the air supply for Venusville and later kicks over a fishbowl, callously leaving both to die from suffocation. He later dies himself the same way, suffocating in the thin atmosphere of Mars.
  • Leave No Survivors: When Richter and his men pursue Quaid and Melina into the mutant district, they escape and Richter shoots the first person who refuses to answer him. When they retaliate, he orders the soldiers to kill everyone and barely escapes from the ensuing slaughter himself.
  • Lobotomy: Quaid is told by one of his co-workers it is what nearly happened to a friend of his when he went to Rekall. Later in the movie, Quaid is told that he is hallucinating the adventure in his brain and that if he doesn't exit it, he will be lobotomised. It's left ambiguous as to whether the man who told Quaid was lying or whether Quaid was indeed lobotomised. note 
  • Memory Gambit: Hauser wiped his memories and rebuilt his personality as Quaid, in order to make it easier to infiltrate the resistance. Unfortunately for Hauser and Cohaagen, Quaid experiences severe Amnesiac Dissonance upon finding out the truth, and decides that he will rather remain Quaid and do whatever he can to derail Cohaagen plan.
  • Mind Screw: Quaid's entire adventure follows the plot of the super spy vacation he orders, as described by the Rekall salesman. Coincidence?!? Or was it?
  • Moment Killer: While Quaid and Melina are kissing in the catacombs.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Everett, the chief guard on Mars, and Helm, Richter's lead goon who accompanies him for half of the film before meeting a rather gruesome end during the bar shoot-out.
  • Multiboobage: The triple-breasted hooker
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Richter, about Lori.
    Helm: I'd be upset too if a guy like Quaid was porking my old lady.
    Ritcher: Are you saying she liked it?
  • Neck Snap: In Quaid's first fight against Cohaagen's goons, two of them check out this way in a rather gratuitous fashion.
  • No Ontological Inertia
    • Quaid and Melina, who somehow instantly recover from decompression fairly quickly, despite it being previously shown to turn people into jelly.
    • It seems that the alien reactor also managed to bring the air pressure to Earth-Norm, but it still shouldn't have been that fast.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Rather than kicking in automatically, the emergency pressure doors in the Mars spaceport terminal have to be manually activated while potentially (as happens in the film) fighting against being sucked into a near-vacuum.
  • Note to Self: The video messages Hauser leaves for Quaid.
  • Obvious Stunt Double: Arnold also changes appearance when he jumps into a subway car to escape the bad guys.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: The ending is intentionally ambiguous about the nature of Quaid's fantasy. If it was a dream, has it Gone Horribly Wrong, or not? Does the film end with him being lobotomized, or is that just the end of his vacation?? It all comes down to whether the the scene between when they start the implantation process and when Quaid wakes up in the Johnny Cab is a part of the hallucination or if it really happened. And there's absolutely nothing that says one way or the other.
  • Overly Nervous Flop Sweat: when Rekall's President Dr. Edgemar meets Quaid to convince him that he is caught in his memories and should take a pill as a symbol of his desire to break out of it, Quaid puts the pill in his mouth and pretends to swallow it while watching Dr. Edgemar's reaction. When he sees a drop of sweat running down the doctor's face, he knows it's a trap and kills him.
  • Planetville: Even the presence of other tropes reinforce this. For example, the atmospheric pressurization is so fast that if it was interpreted as accurate, it not only shrinks the colony to appreciable city-size, but the whole damn planet.
  • Platonic Cave: The entire setting following the Rekall implant, if one prescribes to the notion that everything following it is all taking place in Quaid's head.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Benny provides much of the comedic lines. He loses it when he reveals himself to be The Mole for Cohaagen, but still retains the hamminess.
  • Precision F-Strike: After asked by subordinates how to deal with the welfare of Venusville with their oxygen deprived, Cohaagen gives a nonchalant "Fuck 'em".
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner:
    • From the bomb itself: "Get ready for a surpriiiise!"
  • Pretty Little Headshots: When Lori gets shot in the head by Quaid, the wound is nothing more than a small hole with a trickle of blood leaking out.
  • Product Placement: Fuji Film, Jack in the Box, Pepsi, and more.
  • Prosthetic Limb Reveal: Benny seems like a perfectly normal taxi driver, until he helps Quaid/Hauser get into the resistance base by taking off his prosthetic hand, opening his sleeve, and showing his mutated lower arm, revealing himself to be a mutant.
  • Punch Clock Villain: Lori claims that she was just hired to do a job when Doug finds out that his 'wife' was there to spy on him. However, later in the film this is deconstructed and eventually subverted when she brutally beats Doug for simply following him to Mars which she despises, tries to slash Melina's throat in a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown and then tries to distract with her sweet housewife facade once more to gun him down before Quaid took the upper hand. In short, she is as much of a Psycho for Hire as her real husband Richter.
  • Put Their Heads Together: Quaid to two of the mooks who attacked him after he left Rekall.
  • Rare Guns: The Pankor Jackhammer, though it is actually a Cobray Sweet Streeper made to look like one. It's not very convincing, but damn if it doesn't look cool.
  • Red Herring Shirt: Quaid masquerading as a woman.
  • The Stinger: Not in the movie itself, but on the Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack album, the final track ("A New Life") is followed after a brief pause by the music from the Rekall commercial Quaid watches ("For the memory of a lifetime - Rekall, Rekall, Rekall...").
  • Super Window Jump: Richter jumps through the front window of The Last Resort brothel to escape the firefight going on inside.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Cohaagen, after a snide Richter finally gets him to call for Quaid's death, pauses solemnly for a moment...and then smashes a nearby fish tank.
  • Tap on the Head: On Earth, Quaid knocks Lori unconscious with a single punch. On Mars she returns the favor with a kick to the face.
  • These Hands Have Killed: Quaid does this right after he slaughters the five agents (one of them being his best friend/co-worker, supposedly) trying to kill him on Earth, before he goes back to his "wife" Lori. He actually has their blood on his hands at the time.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: Hauser leaves instructions to Quaid, anticipates how Quaid is going to react at various points, and seems to know roughly how long it'll take him to remove the tracking device, before continuing.
  • Video Phone: Used on both Earth and Mars. Talking to someone on Mars was as easy as phoning them up on Earth. In fact, Cohaagen (when on Mars) uses his vid phone to call Richter (on Earth) without any technical difficulties or time delay.
  • Villainous Breakdown
    • Richter has a brief one after Lori's death, but pulls himself together quite quickly after nearly killing himself and his head goon.
    • After Quaid rejects his mind reformatting and threatens to turn on the machine, Cohaagen is despondent when finally giving the order to execute him, even ignoring Richter sassing him a little. After a short moment of silence, he suddenly snaps and shoves his ornamental fishbowl onto the ground.
  • Villainous Friendship: Cohaagen and Hauser (Quaid's former identity). Cohaagen acknowledges their friendship when Quaid calls the guy an asshole and makes sure he is given an obedient, mindwiped wife to "enjoy", goes into a rage when he is forced to order the death of his friend, and goes on a tirade against Quaid for making sure he's not coming back.

"Don't fuck with your brain, pal! It ain't worth it!"

Alternative Title(s): Total Recall