Is Total Recall a dream or reality?

Quaid getting brain zapped

It is one of the greatest debates of modern times and one that has plagued the thoughts and discussions of the world’s most brilliant minds for 20 years. In the classic 1990 film Total Recall, was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character Quaid actually a spy or was it all a dream? Did he really ‘Get his ass to Mars’?

The movie is genius and I have written about it and the upcoming remake in this gripping post. If you are reading this, it is probably safe to assume that you have seen it. It is also safe to assume you have debated whether it was real or if it was all a dream. Unless you are braindead or boring or something. Well here is the answer. You’re welcome.

It is all a dream. Definitely. Here is the proof.

The crucial evidence all comes from the scene where he is put under at Rekall.

1/ The spy option is brand new and he just goes for it on a whim. At first he specifically states ‘No options’ but the guy convinces him to go as a spy. And lo and behold, he actually is a spy. A bit of a coincidence. Especially if he was supposed to be a sleeper agent designed to meet the rebels and expose their leader Kuato. What if Rekall had never decided to do the spy option at all? What if Quaid had never gone to Rekall? It’s a bit of a flimsy plan if he really is a spy.

Brunette and athletic. Only parameters given. Just saying.

2/ When Quaid is choosing the love interest for his spy adventure he chooses simply: Brunette, athletic, sleazy, and demure. (Good choices!) Given the level of technology, it is likely they have 1000s of virtual women on their books. Physically, he only asks for a brunette that’s athletic. Even Warcraft has tons of avatars that would fit that description. But the picture you see before he goes under is of Melina. Are we supposed to believe that with just those two physical parameters the virtual lady is coincidentally the exact doppelganger of a real resistance fighter on Mars? Way too big a coincidence.

3/ The big one. Before Quaid goes under, one of the assistants who is inputting data for the dream says: ‘Oh this is a new one, blue skies on Mars.’ Now either he is talking about the dream and final bit of the adventure or it is just yet another mad coincidence of epic proportions.  Here is how the dream was supposed to pan out according to the guy at Rekall: ‘You are a top operative under deep cover, on your most important mission. People are trying to kill you. You meet this beautiful, exotic woman…’ then: ‘by the time the trip is over you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet.’ This is exactly what happens. Not only that but the exotic girl’s photo is on their records as in point 2 above. AND he saves the whole planet by accessing Martian technology, whose purpose is actually unknown, that coincidentally turns the sky blue on Mars.

So there you go. Like a lot of people I wanted it to be real because it makes the narrative all the more exciting, but the evidence really is against it. I know it is just a film but it was a thoughtful one and the guys writing it wanted it to be ambiguous but possibly left some clues. Also, if you listen to the voice overs by Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven on the DVD, it seems pretty likely it was a dream.

Sorry but there you go! It will be interesting to pedantic nerds like myself how they will deal with this in the new one. Or maybe it won’t.

Blue sky on Mars. That's a new one.

20 thoughts on “Is Total Recall a dream or reality?

  1. Pingback: Total Recall | ScifiWard

  2. Martin Cozens

    Great post, Jase. It might be my favourite film of all time.

    However, what if he is a spy but a sleeper. It is set up for him to go to Rekall and they plant images and ideas in his brain to spark the ‘recall’ of sensitive spy information only he has in his brain to carry out the mission.

    1. ward Post author

      Yeah but that doesn’t explain why Rekall has the picture of Melina. There is also the fact that no-one could have predicted that they would find working Martian technology that would turn the sky blue. Yet the guy at Rekall says ‘blue sky on Mars’. Glad you liked it though!

      1. Martin Cozens

        Can you add a setting to you blog to email when comments are made on blogs we comment on?

        1. ward Post author

          Um…. probably… I will look into it. It’s probably better if you just check in hourly but I will look for the setting.

  3. rollo

    While I TOTALLY agree (no pun intended…wait…YES, pun intended…) with your argument, there has always been one piece for me that has pushed towards the “this is real” scenario, and that’s the cab ride home and when he meets his co-worker. He has no memory of having gone to Rekall…so, at that moment, he’s just back to good ole’ Quaid. If it WERE a dream, he’d be what? dreaming that he DID think he was an agent but now has no memory of it? He can’t dream that! If he DID dream that he WAS but now has no memory, he’d be having a memory of the WAS part!

  4. Pingback: New Total Recall Trailer | ScifiWard

  5. Buster Taylor

    The ego trip would have had to have a safety block . when Quaid wakes up & goes home, his mind has to understand it was like a real video game- or he could never go back to real life (see Desert Storm Vets)-also, a friend works in the post production house (I live in Los Angeles and work in film and music for film) he said to check out the original print (vhs-dvd special editions, etc) and it’s FADE TO WHITE- like Vanilla Sky (It was all a dream-you got damaged and came to us we implanted what you wanted-now leave and go to the real world-A dream within a dream) Fade to black is real-fade to white is dream in post. He said when they started post the powers that be were VERY adamant that it was fade to white, he asked them- death or dream? They told him both- it was all a dream and he died9or went ga ga) in the chair-at moment of injection (live forever in a dream)-There is a episode of one of the anthology shows when everyone is forced labor and only breaks are in machines titled “Picnic”-etc. In this episode this woman gets in one and it’s her and her made up family having a picnic, the machine malfunctions, and she is seen carted off to the scrap heap of humans, forever by the river with her family.-I believe this is what happened to Quaid, his brain started the ego program at the point they said they had not implanted it yet- that was part of the dream the- I AM SOMEONE ELSE WITH A MEMORY CAP!WE never know when things really happened at Rekall The sweat on the REKALL man’s face was a projection image, programmed to respond to everything, (Everything at Rekall is real-remember the pitch) It’s a great mind mess- but even Quaid could not have turned on the power to the atmosphere machine-you can’t substitute two human fingers for one alien one- like a fingerprint scan. That’s another clue. all the 3rd party action is to keep us in the loop ahead of Quaid and to keep us thinking this is real time and not a dream. But in a dream if you are a spy-someone is having meetings to kill you. And his wife-clue again. She HAD to be involved in the dream, or his dream would have to had her killed due to him-something you can not deal with. clean conscience she is against him and he can be with Melina And with no atmosphere- you die in an instant-Quaid and Melina didn’t have scarring the psych’s had due to “cheap domes”. Sorry if typing is off, I’m disabled and my keyboard likes to jump. I’m not saying I’m the proof- just something to chew on. Let’s see what they do with the new version.

    1. ward Post author

      Good points well made. There is quite a lot of proof that this was a dream. I always thought the two fingers for a Martian one was pretty bad. If it was just meant to work whatever, why not have a button? Looking forward to the new one. Hopefully they won’t feel the need to actually say whether it was a dream or not.

  6. James C

    I am so amazed that no one has commented or noticed the HUGE proof that this is all a dream. I cannot be the only one that saw this: When he is about to be put under, yes the tech says, ‘Oh this is a new one, blue skies on Mars.’ Don’t listen but look. In the top right corner of the screen on a TV you will see the scenarios flipping through – the options available for him to select for his “vacation.” It then stops for a split second before the camera moves. It is the scene from the interior of the Mars alien “machine.” Now, how would a “travel agent” have a exact shot of a secret and never-seen-by-the-public alien machine? The whole things is a dream, how else would you explain that the COMPANY, not the character, would know about the machine? Hope this helps the controversy.

    1. ward Post author

      Wow. Well spotted. I will have to watch it yet again now. I thought the mere fact you could see Melina’s face was a huge clue, now this.

  7. Brad B

    I had assumed that the image of Melina on the screen at Rekall was created in part by scanning his mind, since he does have dreams about her in the beginning.

    The blue skies on Mars as part of the dream could be chalked up to coincidence, but the image of the alien machine on the screen at Rekall, pointed out by a previous comment, is more difficult to explain as reality.

  8. Jeta

    I think it is a dream too: blue skies on Mars, fate to white, etc, but… I can’t fit a piece: Why Quaid dreams frequently about Melina BEFORE the fake memories are implanted?

  9. Austin

    All you’re doing is hand-picking evidence that supports the dream theory while ignoring all the evidence that supports reality. Pretty weak-minded. Why would Arnold constantly have vivid dreams about one specific woman unless he has met her before? And the doctor that tries to convince him that he is still at recall. Why was he so nervous as to sweat if it were just a dream? So, there is evidence to support both and we’re not supposed to know whether or not it was a dream. That’s the whole point of the movie, which you appear to be missing.

    1. jason

      Consider inception. The architect (Rekall) creates the world and guides the user in his dream, while the dreamer (Quaid) fills the dream with his unconscious, the woman in his dreams was just a fabrication of him mind. dreams don’t just mean what they mean, people don’t really dream of memories, they’re dreams are complex that a person is usually a symbol. The woman could mean anything. His desire to be more, to have more, his unhappiness in his relationship. Having this information only leads to one final conclusion. He is dreaming. Why would his co-workers all be spies? All of them? really? that seems absurd. His mind brought in all these people he already knew, because your mind cannot just fabricate a person into existence, everybody you’ve ever seen in your mind, you’ve first seen before in real life.

  10. Peter Auerbach NYC

    You are right on the money. Here is some more ammo for your cause.
    The ego trip (spy) is a bonus, but the basic package is ALSO fulfilled.
    Two weeks on mars. (twoooo weeeeeks).
    The sites (ride on train when the woman says kohagen wants to charge more for air).
    Suite at the Hilton.
    These were all the basic features of the standard trip.

    Now for the ego trip in the lab. The alien reactor shown is the SAME as he activates at the end “we are even doing alien artifacts now”. “blue sky on mars”. No brainier

    Now for talk at the Hilton.

    Savior of rebel cause to blossom buddies. Happens
    Alien artifacts – happens
    Screen goes wit instead of black at end, does that mean good?

    Some say lobotomies. Others say, good product at recall!!! Either way, definitely the dream package.

    The bead f sweat was arnie’s subconscious fighting or part of the package he bought!

  11. Deidra Thornton

    Here’s my hitch:

    If it were all just a dream, then how come every single person that goes to Recall KNOWS that it was a dream and they can disconnect the dream from the reality. In the new and old one people have stated that Recall provides the “best memories” but, they all know that they’re just fake. Why isn’t Quaid making that distinction?

    1. ward Post author

      Sadly I haven’t a day off in about a year and haven’t seen the new one yet. However in the old one, he is supposed to be practically lobotomized and can’t separate the dream from reality. That is why the Doctor guy tries to get him to swallow the pill to make a psychological leap of faith. The bead of sweat is either Qauid mentally sabotaging himself because he wants to stay in the fantasy or proof it is not a dream.

  12. nick

    about the sweat,they bleed in whole movie ,but one guy can’t sweat in one scene?I believe they shoot it as a reality and then thought to make it a dream,all those examples (blue skies ,melina,alien reactor) they put it in the end.


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