I decided to DVR Total Recall
, which I haven't seen in many years. I came to find the violence distasteful for a while, but it's been long enough that I decided to take a fresh look. It actually holds up better than I remembered; gratuitous violence aside, it's an effective thriller that gives you some things to think about, and its visual effects were really cutting-edge stuff for the day, just before CGI started taking over everything. They had extensive computer assistance with the motion-control cameras and animatronics, but what we saw onscreen was all real physical models and puppets and conventional animation, except for the CGI "x-ray" skeletons at the subway checkpoint. And the FX really hold up extremely well; they did things with miniatures and animatronics that were on a par with a lot of modern CG.
Although I can't say the designs hold up as well. It's hilarious to me how people in the '90s assumed that telephones would get bigger
in the future. In this movie, Back to the Future Part II
, and "Lisa's Wedding" on The Simpsons
, futuristic phones were these massive wall- or table-mounted units with screens and elaborate controls. And the playback unit for Hauser's message to Quaid was this big briefcase. And this is supposed to be 71 years from now, IIRC.
Of course, the big question in this film is, are Quaid's experiences real or hallucinated? Here are my thoughts, spoiler-boxed for length:
I prefer to think it's all a delusion. For one thing, the depiction of Mars is completely absurd, as is much of the storyline. The whole ice-core/instant-atmosphere thing is totally insane. Also, everything is foreshadowed. Not only does everything happen exactly as the Rekall personnel predict, but we see Melina's face and the alien reactor on Rekall's screens as they're programming the simulation.
The main argument against this position is that we see scenes that aren't from Quaid's POV, and thus couldn't be part of a memory-implant illusion. But to me, the key is what Roy Brocksmith's character tells Quaid in the hotel room: that what he's experiencing isn't the programmed vacation package, but a free-form delusion his mind is manufacturing based on that implant. So if he's suffering a paranoid delusion, then the scenes that take place in Quaid's absence could represent what his paranoid mind believes is going on behind his back -- his wife betraying him, a murderous enemy pursuing him and being given marching orders by the dictator of Mars, etc.
The tricky part there is the scene in Rekall where McClane is alerted to the crisis and is told by his assistant that she hasn't begun the spy implant yet. If Quaid doesn't remember this afterward, how can it be part of his implant? It's possible that it only mostly happened, that what we saw was partly filtered through his psychosis, so the assistant didn't really say she hadn't implanted the spy program. Or maybe it was all part of his delusion. Dreams often contradict themselves, so experiencing something in a dream and then not remembering it, or acting as though one doesn't remember it, is something that could happen in a dream or delusion.
The remaining paradox is how he could've seen Melina's face in his dreams before selecting it at Rekall, if she wasn't real. But our memories of our dreams are imperfect, and we can edit them in retrospect. Maybe the face he saw in his dreams was just similar to the one he selected at Rekall and he convinced himself it was the same. Or maybe she was a live model whose face he'd seen in ads and who'd also licensed her likeness to Rekall.
Now, does the alternative interpretation work? Setting aside the inanity of the science and the absurdity of the action and plotting, is there any way this could all be real? The hangup there is what we saw at Rekall before the implant. How could they have an image of Melina and classified imagery of the Martian reactor? I wondered if maybe that was part of the plan to trigger Hauser's memories so he'd go after Kuato, but then I remembered Cohaagen saying that Quaid had screwed up the plan by going to Rekall and triggering his memories prematurely. So that doesn't work. As for the imagery, maybe someone smuggled out images of the reactor but they were discredited and publicly interpreted as a hoax, and Rekall just copied them off the internet. And maybe Melina did some modeling once upon a time?
Either way, it's a bit of a stretch, but I think it's less of a stretch all around to assume it was imaginary -- that this wasn't a story of a hero saving Mars, but just a tragedy of an ordinary(ish) construction worker suffering a Rekall-induced psychotic break from which he probably never recovered. Which is pretty dark, but it seems more likely to be the truth. Although it does leave the lingering question of why Quaid got so obsessed with Mars and this dream woman. But I guess he could've just been tired of his life and experiencing the seven-year itch a year late.
Granted, the whole point is that there is no obvious right answer to whether it's real or imagined, and either interpretation has its problems. But I have my preference, so there it is.