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Total Recall is a 1990 American science fiction action film. The film features Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, based on the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale". The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman. It won a Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects. The soundtrack composed by Jerry Goldsmith won the BMI Film Music Award.


The story is set in the year 2084. Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who has been experiencing dreams about exploring the planet Mars with a brunette woman. After seeing an ad from Rekall, a company that sells imaginary adventures by implanting false memories, he decides to buy a “vacation” on Mars from them, one in which he will take a vacation from himself by becoming a spy in a clichéd, "James Bond in space" scenario which promises lurid entertainment and thrills. Before buying the vacation, Quaid is cautioned by a co-worker that Rekall is risky, and failed memory implants can cause the recipients to suffer permanent brain damage. Quaid hesitates, but disregards this warning. After the procedure starts, Quaid has a violent outburst and tries to break free, yelling incoherently. At first, it seems as though he was merely acting out the “spy” portion of the memory implant, but the doctors claim they had not implanted the memories yet, and realize that the memories are already there, and someone else had previously erased his memory.

After being subdued Quaid is returned home with no memories of ever going to Rekall, but his old friends try to kill him, even his wife Lori (Stone). After crushing her down she tells him that everything he remembers, including their marriage, is a series of false memories implanted less than two months before. While evading assailants, Quaid receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a former friend of his agency from Mars who had been asked to deliver a briefcase if he ever disappeared. The briefcase contains fake IDs, money, weapons, and a video player with a video he left for himself. The "Quaid" on the video is named Hauser, a secret agent who worked for Mars administrator Vilos Cohaagen (Cox) as a secret agent. Pursued by a man working for Cohaagen, Richter (Ironside), Quaid travels to Mars to discover the truth. On Mars, Quaid finds out that Cohaagen rules an airtight city via his monopoly of air production on Mars, and that the poor workers in the city’s slums have been turned into mutants from cosmic rays, which the thin atmosphere of Mars cannot block. He makes allies, including a cabbie named Benny and the woman from his dreams, Melina (Rachel Ticotin) who works as a lady of the night on Mars. Quaid is confronted by Lori and Dr. Edgemar from Rekall, who attempt to convince him he is trapped within a hallucination brought on by a faulty memory implant at Rekall. Quaid sees how nervous the Dr. is and shoots Edgemar. When a group of hitmen storm the room and capture him. Melina arrives shortly after, and the two kill the hitmen and Lori.

Melina and Quaid flee and eventually meet resistance leader Kuato, who is revealed to be a mutant growing out of his own brother's abdomen. With Kuato's psychic help, Quaid sees a mysterious alien machine in the Martian mines, but then Cohaagen's forces storm the resistance hideout and kill Kuato. Quaid and Melina are betrayed by the mutant Benny and captured, and Cohaagen then reveals that Hauser willingly had his mind wiped in order to gain Kuato’s trust, the only way the mutant psychic could be fooled. The whole incident, with the exception of Richter’s maniacal pursuit of Quaid and Quaid’s activation at Rekall, was planned, and Cohaagen provides another video from Quaid’s alter ego, Hauser, who congratulates Quaid on his performance and confirms Cohaagen's words. Cohaagen decides to eliminate the rebels by cutting off the air supply to their section of the city, and orders Quaid’s mind to be restored to Hauser’s and Melina’s mind be altered to be subservient to Quaid/Hauser. However, Quaid and Melina escape and hurry to the alien machine, killing Benny and Richter on the way.

As they approach the machine, Quaid tells Melina that the device is a giant reactor meant to melt the frozen core of Mars, releasing oxygen from the ice and giving the planet an atmosphere. If Mars had oxygen, Cohaagen would lose his monopoly on Mars, which is why he has keep the machine's existence secret. Cohaagen arrives as Quaid activates the machine, and the force blows out the windows of the city. The vacuum draws Cohaagen onto the surface of Mars, where he dies a painful death of asphyxiation and decompression. Quaid and Melina nearly suffer the same fate, similar to the dream Quaid had in the opening scene of the movie, but the alien machine creates fast enough a breathable atmosphere that saves them and the mutants just in time, and a blue sky forms over Mars. Quaid wonders if the whole thing has been real or if he is dreaming. He and Melina kiss each other as a bright flash of white light illuminates the screen like an opening eye, and the credits roll.


Production and distribution

The original screenplay for Total Recall was written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the writers of Alien, who had bought the rights to Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" while Dick was still alive. They were unable to find a backer for the project and it drifted into development hell, passing from studio to studio. In the mid-1980s, producer Dino De Laurentiis took on the project with Richard Dreyfuss attached to star. Patrick Swayze, who had recently starred in Dirty Dancing, was also considered for the role. David Cronenberg was attached to direct but wanted to cast William Hurt in the lead role. Cronenberg described his work on the project and eventual falling out with Shusett: "I worked on it for a year and did about 12 drafts. Eventually we got to a point where Ron Shusett said, 'You know what you've done? You've done the Philip K. Dick version.' I said, 'Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?' He said, 'No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.'" When the adaptation of Dune flopped at the box office, De Laurentiis similarly lost enthusiasm for the project.

The collapse of De Laurentiis's company provided an opening for Schwarzenegger, who had unsuccessfully approached the producer about starring in the film. He persuaded Carolco to buy the rights to the film for a comparatively cheap $3 million and negotiated a salary of $10–11 million (plus 15 percent of the profits) to star, with an unusually broad degree of control over the production. He obtained veto power over the producer, director, screenplay, co-stars and promotion. The first thing Schwarzenegger did was personally recruit Paul Verhoeven to direct the film, having been impressed by the Dutch director's Robocop (for which Schwarzenegger was considered for the title role). By this time the script had been through forty-two drafts but it still lacked a third act. Gary Goldman was therefore brought in by Paul Verhoeven to work with Ronald Shusett to develop the final draft of the screenplay. The director also brought in many of his collaborators on Robocop, including casting actor Ronny Cox as the main villain, cinematographer Jost Vacano, production designer William Sandell, and special effects designer Rob Bottin.

Much of the filming took place in Mexico Citymarker. The futuristic subway station and vehicles are actually part of the Mexican public transportation system, with the subway cars painted gray and television monitors added.

In an interview with Starlog magazine, Schwarzenegger stressed the challenge of acting in the film, “Because you’re not coming in with the same character that you’re going out with. Hauser’s an interesting character, but Quaid’s just this big program...”

The film was initially given an X rating. Violence was trimmed and different camera angles were used in the over-the-top scenes for an R rating. It was one of the last major Hollywood blockbusters to make large-scale use of miniature effects rather than computer generated imagery. Five different companies were brought in to handle Total Recall's effects. The only CGI sequence in the entire film was a 42-second sequence, produced by MetroLight Studios, showing the X-rayed skeletons of commuters and their concealed weapons. Only a year later, Schwarzenegger's Terminator 2: Judgment Day prompted a revolution in special effects with its extensive use of CGI.

Total Recall” was translated as “El Vengador del Futuro” /"O Vingador do Futuro" (Spanish/Portuguese for “The Avenger of the Future”), in Latin America. In Spain and Portugal it was called “Desafío Total” and “Desafio Total” respectively, which means “Total Challenge”. In Turkey it was called “Gerçeğe Çağrı,” which means “The Call for Reality.” In Italy it was called “Atto di Forza,” which means “Forceful Action.”. In Poland it was called “Pamięć absolutna,” which means “Absolute Memory.” In Israel it was called “זיכרון גורלי,” which means “Fatal Memory.” In French Canada it was called “Voyage au centre de la mémoire,” which means “Journey to the Center of the Memory”, a play on the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth” In USSR it was called “Вспомнить всё,” which means “To Recall Everything.” In Hungary, it was called “Emlékmás,” which means “A Counterpart of Remembrance." In Germany it was called “Total Recall: Die totale Erinnerung,” which is a literal translation and also means "(the) total recall" ("Erinnerung" can also mean 'memory' as in "a memory that I have").” In Serbia, it was called “Totalni Opoziv” which literally translates to “Total Recall”. In Greece, it was called “Ολική Επαναφορά“, which is a literal translation. In Denmark, the movie is known as "Sidste Udkald," translating to "Last Call-out". In Finland, the movie is known as "Unohda tai kuole", translating to "Forget or die".


The score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and 40 minutes of it were released by the Varese Sarabande label in 1990. Ten years later, the same label released a "Deluxe Edition," with additional cues that were left out, totaling 71 minutes.

The Main Title features a metal percussion pattern that was inspired by the similar drum pattern from Anvil of Crom. The score has been hailed as one of Goldsmith's best, especially the deluxe edition, and commended for its blend of electronic and orchestral elements.


The film grossed $261,299,840 worldwide, a box office success. Critical reaction to Total Recall has been mostly positive. It currently holds a 79% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 39 reviews. Metacritic reported, based on 17 reviews, an average rating of 57 out of 100.

Roger Ebert awarded the film three and a half stars (out of four), calling it "one of the most complex and visually interesting science fiction movies in a long time." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly praised the film, giving it a score of "B+" and said that it "starts out as mind-bending futuristic satire and then turns relentless [and] becomes a violent, post-punk version of an Indiana Jones cliff-hanger."

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said the film is not a classic, "but it's still solid and entertaining." James Berardinelli gave the film two and a half stars (out of four), saying that "neither Schwarzenegger nor Verhoeven have stretched their talents here," but added, "with a script that's occasionally as smart as it is energetic, Total Recall offers a little more than wholesale carnage."

Some critics, such as Janet Maslin of the New York Times, considered the film excessively violent. Rita Kempley of the Washington Post gave the film a negative review, saying that director Paul Verhoeven "disappoints with this appalling onslaught of blood and boredom."

Due to the success of the movie, a sequel was written with the script title Total Recall 2, and with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character still Douglas Quaid, now working as a reformed law enforcer. The sequel was based on another Philip K. Dick short story, “The Minority Report” which postulates about a future where a crime can be solved before it’s committed—in the movie, the clairvoyants would be Martian mutants. The sequel was not filmed, but the script survived and it was changed drastically and contained greater elements from the original short story. The film was eventually directed as a sci-fi thriller as Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and opened in 2002 to box-office success and critical acclaim.


Award Category Winner/Nominee Result
Academy Awards
Best Sound Nelson Stoll, Michael J. Kohut, Carlos Delarios & Aaron Rochin
Best Sound Editing Stephen Hunter Flick
Best Visual Effects (Special Achievement Award) Eric Brevig, Rob Bottin, Tim McGovern & Alex Funke
Saturn Awards
Best Science Fiction Film
Best Costume Erica Edell Phillips
Best Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Best Direction Paul Verhoeven
Best Make-up Rob Bottin, Jeff Dawn, Craig Berkeley & Robin Weiss
Best Music Jerry Goldsmith
Best Special Effects Thomas L. Fisher, Eric Brevig & Rob Bottin
Best Supporting Actress Rachel Ticotin
Best Writing Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon & Gary Goldman
Japan Academy Prize Outstanding Foreign Language Film
BAFTA Best Special Visual Effects Whole Special Visual Effects Production team
Hugo Award Best Dramatic Presentation


The film explores the question of reality versus delusion, a recurrent topic in Philip K. Dick’s works. The plot calls for the lead character and the audience to question whether the character’s experience is real or being fed directly to his mind. There are several visual and informational clues which point in both directions. Verhoeven plays up the intentional ambiguity to the very end and no definitive answer is ever given. However the beginning title of the movie soundtrack is called "the dream" and the ending title "end of a dream". On the DVD commentary Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger come to opposite conclusions regarding how real the post-Rekall events of the film actually were. Thus, the viewer is left wondering whether or not the events actually happened, if the entire story is simply the memory purchased at Rekall gone terribly awry, or if in fact Rekall had simply delivered on its original promise of “action” and “adventure.” This theme has been revisited since in similarly-themed films such as The Matrix, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and Vanilla Sky.

A consistent motif throughout the film is the presentation of striking opposites: Earth/Mars; Quaid/Hauser; the mutants Kuato and his brother George; the use of holographic doubles by Quaid and Melina; reflections of Quaid, Lori and Dr. Edgemar in mirrors in Quaid's hotel room; Melina/Lori. The latter example subverts a standard film noir convention, the saintly blonde versus the devilish brunette; in Total Recall, the blonde turns out to be the villain and the brunette the heroine.


The film was novelized (ISBN 0-380-70874-4) by Piers Anthony. The novel and film correspond fairly well, although Anthony was evidently working from an earlier script than the one used for the film, and was criticized for the ending of his book which removed the ambiguity whether the events of Total Recall are real or a dream. In addition, the novel had a subplot wherein the aliens planted a failsafe device within their Mars technology, so that if it were misused or destroyed, the local star would go nova and therefore prevent the species from entering the galactic community. It coincided with a comment earlier in the novel that astronomers were noticing an abnormal number of recent supernovae, giving an indication that the aliens seeded their tech as part of a galactic experiment in technological maturity. Instead of mentioning that he dreamt of her earlier in the film, Melina mentions she was once a model, explaining how Quaid could have seen her on the screen at Rekall.

A video game was made based on the movie, featuring 2D action, platformer scenes and top-down racing scenes; a version was released for popular 8-bit home computers (Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC), and the popular 16-bit home computers (Amiga and Atari ST). The game was developed and released by Ocean Software. There was also a much-maligned NES version which was notably different from the others, being developed by a different team (Interplay). Interplay defended the changes, however, claiming that their alteration stuck closer to the spirit of the original short story, which they said "read more like a platformer."

In 1999, there was a television series named Total Recall 2070 which was meant to be a prequel; however, the show had far more similarities with the Blade Runner movie (also inspired by a Philip K. Dick story) than Verhoeven's film. The two-hour series pilot, released in VHS and DVD for the North American market, borrowed footage from the film, such as the space cruiser arriving on Mars.


In February 2009, The Hollywood Reporter stated that Neal H. Moritz and Original Films were in negotiations for developing a contemporary version of Total Recall for Columbia. In June, 2009, it was announced that Columbia Pictures have hired Kurt Wimmer to write the script for the remake.


Schwarzenegger's participation in the California gubernatorial recall election, 2003, led political commentators to pun about "total recall".

See also


  1. Leamer, Laurence. Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger, pp. 259-262. Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0312933010
  2. Review at, 2005
  3. Lichtenfeld, Eric. Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. ISBN 0819568015
  4. Total Recall listing on
  5. Total Recall’s Spanish entry at
  6. Total Recall’s entry at Cinema PTGate
  7. Total Recall’s Turkish entry at
  8. Total Recall’s Italian entry at FilmUP
  9. Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 1 June 1990
  10. Review by Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
  11. Review by James Berardinelli, ReelViews
  12. Review by Janet Maslin of the NY Times, 1 June 1990
  13. Review by Rita Kempley, Washington Post
  14. Overview of Total Recall DVD audio commentary at
  15. Total Recall, Weekly Standard, 14 February 2003.

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