Total Recall is a very paranoid movie, one that stacks conspiracy on top of conspiracy. It has a schizophrenic view of reality, since its characters can change identities at the drop of a hat, and there is no knowing who is an enemy and who is a friend. Its constantly unstable reality forces its viewers to ask themselves some very deep questions like "how do we know that we can trust our own memories?" And: "How would I react if I discovered that my entire existence was a lie?" And even: "If Arnold Schwarzenegger's eyes bug three inches out of his face and then he sucks them back into place would they still work?"
Those are all good questions - but they are also the wrong questions.
Before I drop a truth bomb on you, I need to explain a bit about this movie's backstory. Total Recall is the story of "Quaid", a mild mannered construction worker who has always wanted to go to Mars but who has never quite summoned up the courage to actually board a space ship. However, one day when "Quaid" is on the train home from work he sees a commercial for a company called Recall that claims to be able to implant fake memories in people's minds. He begins to wonder if going to the red planet mentally is just as good as going there physically...
Before long "Quaid" has scheduled an appointment with Recall to see if they are a legit service that can help him scratch his Martian itch. His consultation is going smoothly until the salesman throws him a curveball: why should he settle for remembering a boring tourist trip when he could have a more exotic memory implanted? They could make him think that he had visited Mars as a billionaire playboy, or a sports star, or a spy...
Quaid jumps at the chance to be a spy. But this quickly turns out to be a mistake, because halfway through the implanting procedure he realizes that Recall's "doctors" are actually enemy agents who are trying to brainwash him, and he violently lashes out at them before trying to make a break for it. Thus begins his descent into madness and uncertainty: from this point on "Quaid" will never be sure if he is a normal man who is living out a fantasy of being a spy or if he is a spy who is waking up from his fake "construction worker" cover story. He doesn't know if he a jackhammer jockey who has gone insane or if he is he a secret agent who needs to stop a madman from suffocating an entire planet and neither do we.
All of Total Recall's existential worries, all of its twisty turny mindfucks - they are all very captivating. It is fun to try and unravel whether "Quaid" is really an undercover member of the Martian resistance, or if he is actually a double-agent named "Hauser" who was planted in the Martian resistance by the planet's despotic ruler Cohaagen, or if he is merely a mild mannered dude having a brain meltdown in the middle of a risky medical procedure. But underneath all the flashy stuff there is a more captivating question, one that "Quaid"/"Hauser" never stops to ask himself:
What would have happened if he had picked either of the playboy or the sports star scenarios?
Total Recall's version of Mars is dirty and scuzzy. It is full of three breasted prostitutes, psychic mutants, and armed militiamen. It is, in other words, an ideal place for an espionage story, because it is overflowing with untrustworthy types. But how in the hell would a fancy lad entertain himself in such a wretched hive of scum and villainy? Would a spoiled scion be repulsed by all the neon squalor, or would they get a kick out of slumming it?
Let us simply assume that "Quaid" has no problems with upgrading from his bluer collar existence to his new wealthy industrialist identity; we don't need weird existential implications to make this new what-if interesting. On Earth aristocrats can go from their mansions to their country club without ever encountering a non-millionaire. How would a person like that adapt to an exotic hellhole that is chockablock with melty-eyed freaks with grabby hands? Exactly how much pearl-clutching would the rich "Quaid" would end up doing in this alternate version of his altered reality?
The sports star scenario is also fascinating to consider. How does it work? Is he an Earthly football player who is taking a few days off to visit a far away planet, or is he a normal Joe on an everyday vacation who somehow ends up getting drafted as Mars' number one quarterback? How in the hell would you play football on a desolate planet with no atmosphere? Would the lesser gravity affect his game? And "Quaid" would have to be a football player, right? After all, he has Arnold Schwarzenegger's body so he isn't really built for basketball. Then again, a movie about Martian basketball could have been fun and very original. I'm 90% sure that no one has ever tried to Jam in Space before.
Of course, we'll never know what those other fantasies would have looked like because there's only one version of Total Recall, and it's the one where "Quaid" chose to become a spy. (I REPEAT: THERE IS ONLY ONE VERSION OF TOTAL RECALL.) Unless, of course, Recall becomes a real corporation, at which point they could cook up some implants that would make everyone think that we'd already seen Arnold Schwarzenegger act like a spoiled playboy or spend years posing as a champion athlete.
Nah, that shit's too far fetched.