Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1990s Movies, Film Criticism and Analysis, Mind Bender, Science Fiction

Why Total Recall (1990) Was All Just a Dream

If there were ever a question to kick off a raging, exhaustive debate, it’s whether Douglas Quaid from Total Recall (1990) had really gone to Mars or whether the last two thirds of the movie never, ever happened and he wound up a vegetable as the result of an embolism.

For me personally, the matter became settled years ago. After I carefully weighed both sides of the debate and re-watched the movie multiple times, my conclusion was this–Total Recall was neither embolism or reality.  It was all a dream.

Why do I feel this way? Let’s first look at the two major theories in the Total Recall debate:

  1. Theory One: Everything that happened in the movie was real.
    Quaid was really an agent named Hauser working for Cohaagen who was the victim of a false memory implant. The implant worked for awhile, but then his subconscious (as Hauser) prompted him to go to Rekall, which led him to discover the truth about his “true” identity and go to Mars to learn more about who he is.
  2. Theory Two: The Mars portion of the movie was all fantasy and never happened.
    Quaid was really some big, dumb lout who was obsessed with becoming an action hero and went to Rekall to go on a virtual reality vacation. Something went awry in the implantation process and he developed a “schizoid embolism”, which led him to fall down the rabbit hole of insanity.

For proponents of the It Really Happened Theory, the scene that convinces them that Quaid’s escapades on Mars were all real is the one with Dr. Edgemar. Dr. Edgemar, who works at Rekall, shows up at some point to tell Quaid that nothing that he is experiencing is real and that he’s having a “schizoid embolism.” It all sounds very convincing until Quaid notices that Dr. Edgemar is sweating profusely. This signals to him that the doctor must be real and is an agent of Cohaagen trying to kill him, since a character in a simulation wouldn’t be frightened for its safety.


So far, so good, right? But there’s a major problem.

Ironically, the scene with Dr. Edgemar that seems to make a convincing case for so many people that Mars is real also suggests that it is all fantasy. The reason why is that the doctor also manages to predict with pinpoint accuracy what will happen to Quaid from that moment on till the very end of the film. If everything that is happening on Mars is real, how was Dr. Edgemar able to know exactly how the events after Quaid kills him would unfold?

This little clue that Mars never happened doesn’t seem like much to go on until we look at the first part of the film, where there seems to be iron clad evidence that the last two thirds of the movie was part of the Rekall vacation package. For people who believe in the Schizoid Embolism Theory, the smoking gun is that scene at Rekall when Quaid is undergoing consultation. A technician is asking him to describe the perfect woman and from just a few simple traits, is able to pull up a computer-generated character who looks identical to Melina.

This also happens: when the technician pulls up a preview of images for the Mars vacation package, all of the locations from the Martian sequence are shown on the screen, including the large hall that contains the alien-built generator that Quaid eventually turns on in the last act of the film.

So far so good. We now have three seemingly airtight pieces of evidence that support the Schizoid Embolism Theory. We have 1) Dr. Edgemar accurately predicting the last third of the Rekall vacation to a tee. We have 2) Melina showing up as a computer-generated character who was clearly part of the Rekall program. We see 3) conceptual drawings of Martian locations on the computer screen that are renderings of the exact locations that Quaid visits later.

But now there is a new wrinkle. If the entire sequence on Mars was fantasy (because it was part of the Rekall program), that means that the first third of the movie was real. That means that there was a Real Life Quaid who woke up one morning, decided to walk into Rekall and go on a virtual vacation. The vacation included meeting a computer-generated dark-haired woman named Melina and having a series of misadventures on Mars.

But if the first third of the movie was real, how was Real Life Quaid able to dream Melina up before he went to Rekall? Or dream a scene that was more or less identical to what happened to the both of them when they were sucked out into Mars’ atmosphere? How, in other words, could Real Life Quaid have dreamed a character and scenes from a virtual vacation before it had been implanted in his brain, before he had even considered going to Rekall?

Then there’s this other thorny issue. If the entire last two thirds of the movie was part of the Rekall program, how did Quaid’s wife, Lori, become an integral part of the vacation itself? How did Quaid’s apartment and friends become part of the program?

You could make the argument that somehow Rekall can incorporate a person’s real life into a vacation. However, would it make sense that it would create an adventure in which his loved ones and friends turned out to be evil villains out to kill him? Or that, as part of the vacation, he was required to blow his beloved spouse’s brains out and fall in love with another woman? Even if it were technically possible, it’s highly unlikely that a company would create a program that would include scenarios like this that would cause an undue amount of emotional and mental distress to their clients.

What gives? Clearly, the movie couldn’t have been real because of what we said earlier about Dr. Edgemar accurately predicting what happens to Quaid in the third act. But then, it couldn’t have been an embolism, either, because of all of these other issues we mentioned regarding Lori being a part of the program and Quaid dreaming of Melina before the vacation was implanted into his brain.

There can only be only one explanation. Total Recall was neither real nor part of a schizoid embolism. It was something else entirely. What was that something else? A dream. Nothing more than a dream.

Clues that Total Recall was All One Dream

I know that some people will want to dismiss my conclusions as lazy. I remember how, when I posted this theory at the IMDB years ago, people accused me of just “defaulting” to that explanation because I couldn’t state definitively one way or the other whether the movie was real or an embolism. This theory of mine, they said, was just a cop out.

But this conclusion I drew wasn’t the result of me defaulting to this explanation. The movie itself gives several clues that it was all just a dream.

Clue number one:

The movie starts with a dream and ends with the screen fading to white, suggesting that Quaid is waking up. So, the film is literally book ended with Quaid being in a dream state or altered state of consciousness.

Clue number two:

Dr. Edgemar made it very clear to Quaid that whatever he was experiencing was medical, resulting from a malfunction of the vacation implant. He used very clinical and scientific terms, such as “schizoid embolism”, “neurochemical trauma” and “permanent psychosis.” Yes, he does mention “dream” in passing, but he only uses that in the context of trying to get Quaid to swallow a pill to help him jump back to reality. Outside of that one moment, it’s clear that he wants Quaid to understand that he’s experiencing some kind of neurological and psychological breakdown.

Yet note that in the end of the film, when Quaid finally begins to question whether what he’s experiencing is real, he doesn’t ask if he’s having a schizoid embolism or experiencing a permanent psychosis. He asks whether he’s having a dream. Why would he ask if he were in a dream if Dr. Edgemar told him point blank that his experiences weren’t real due to him having a mental breakdown from the Rekall implant?

Some might say, “Well, the writers made him ask that for creative reasons.” See, without that line about him asking if it was all a dream, there wouldn’t have been that cute response from Melina when she says, ‘Then kiss me quick before you wake up.'”

Fair enough. However, it just doesn’t make sense that after the movie made such a big emphasis of suggesting that Quaid’s experiences might have been the result of a medical condition that it would then have him end with the question of whether it was all a dream. It seems to me that the writers had Quaid say “dream” as a sly, subtle hint that everything was, in fact, a simple run of the mill dream.

Clue number three:

Quaid dreams more or less the same event that later happens to him and Melina on Mars when they get exposed to the Martian atmosphere. Some people might call it “premonition,” but that is unlikely because of how closely the level of detail in both scenes mirrored each other. You can try to come up ways to explain why they were so similar but it doesn’t work no matter how much you believe the movie was just a schizoid embolism or actually happened.

If you believe that Total Recall was an embolism, there is no way Real Life Quaid would’ve been able to foresee this part of the Rekall program so perfectly, right down to the gory details of eyes popping out of sockets and facial features becoming contorted.

If you believe that Total Recall was real, this means that Quaid would’ve had enough knowledge to imagine precisely exactly what happens to someone when they are, in fact, exposed to Mars’ atmosphere. Or perhaps have even seen in vivid detail someone else going through these effects. But what were the odds of him knowing this or having seen this firsthand?

Because Quaid couldn’t have foreseen with such detail and accuracy what this part of the Rekall program was going to be like or what it would be like in real life to be exposed to Martian atmosphere, we can only conclude that the scene of him and Melina towards the end of the movie is merely Quaid’s nightmare in the beginning of the movie repeating itself as part of the same dream.

But What About the Scenes That Don’t Include Quaid?

A common argument people make against the idea that Total Recall is a dream is that some of the scenes in the movie don’t include Quaid at all and are from the perspective of the other characters.

I have two thoughts on that. The first one is that those scenes were probably thrown in there as a ruse to keep audiences from really knowing for sure whether or not the events of the movie were real or not. After all, if every scene had included Quaid, then it would’ve been obvious that everything was a dream.

My second thought is that from a storytelling standpoint, it’s very difficult in general to have every scene include the protagonist, even if the story is technically supposed to be only seen or played out from his or her perspective. Because of this, sometimes movies that are supposed to be from a character’s point of view will break their own rules. Case in point, you will notice that even in found footage films in which all the footage was supposed to have been taken by the protagonist, there will be shots that seem as if they were shot by a third person. The reason why is that there are certain shots and scenes that are so essential to storytelling and must be included regardless, even if those shots are inconsistent with the film’s premise of being “found footage.”

In the case of Total Recall, many of the scenes that don’t include Quaid were needed for the sake of storytelling and tension. Take, for example, the classic “two weeks” scene in which Quaid dresses up as a middle-aged female tourist. The reason why that scene starts out from the perspective of the other characters is that we, the audience, aren’t supposed to know the female tourist is really Quaid until he reveals himself. In other words, it’s supposed to be a surprise. If that entire sequence had been shot entirely from Quaid’s perspective, we would’ve been in on the ruse. The movie could’ve, of course, shot that scene from his point of view, but then the jig would’ve been up right from the beginning and the moment he unveils himself at Mars Customs wouldn’t have been as entertaining or shocking to us and the rest of the audience.

Ditto the scenes of Cohaagen having private conversations deciding what to do without Quaid. So many of the thrilling moments in Total Recall depended on Quaid being caught unawares by Cohaagen. If he had been privy to all of their conversations, he would’ve always been a step ahead of the bad guys throughout the entire movie, and there wouldn’t have been any suspenseful moments of Quaid unwittingly walking into an ambush or failing to anticipate Cohaagen’s next move.

Because these types of scenes that didn’t include Quaid were so important to the story, I don’t put much stock in them proving that the movie couldn’t have been a dream. They had to be included regardless, for the sake of story line.

So What Really Happened?

If Total Recall was neither embolism or reality and just a dream, what was the real story? Here is my theory of what really happened:

The movie starts out with Quaid dreaming that he and Melina (who is most likely his real life girlfriend or maybe even wife) are exploring the Martian landscape in environmental suits. But then there is an accident and they become exposed to Mars’ atmosphere. They are about to be killed when Quaid “wakes up” from this nightmare. However, he hasn’t really woken up. The dream has only given the illusion that he has woken up. It then shifts gears to create a new story line–of Quaid being a disenchanted construction worker who feels a “calling.” The calling prompts him to go to Rekall, which then develops into a whole other story line about him being an agent working for an evil magnate named Cohaagen.

At some point, Quaid’s subconscious begins to realize that something is not right, that he might be dreaming the whole thing. So what happens? His subconscious conjures up Dr. Edgemar, who tries to prod him into realizing that nothing he’s experiencing is real. He then produces a pill for Quaid to swallow, which is really a symbolic gesture meant to get him to wake up from the dream.

However, dreams being what they are, Quaid’s dream comes up with a clever way to reassert itself and get him to stay asleep. It has Dr. Edgemar sweat. This beautifully plays to the dream’s internal logic that if everything Quaid is experiencing is not real, it wouldn’t make sense that a fictional character would worry about getting killed. He then assumes that Edgemar is a double agent, refuses to take the pill that he was given and “kills” the doctor.

After he “kills” Dr. Edgemar, Quaid continues to dream the events that he predicted. Later, the dream loops back onto itself and repeats the exact same scene that started it, the scene of Melina and Quaid being exposed to the Martian atmosphere. However, this time it’s now within the context of this new narrative the dream created when it shifted gears from Earth to Mars. In the very last scene of the movie, Quaid begins to wonder if he hadn’t been dreaming after all. When Melina kisses him, he realizes he has been dreaming. The dream ends, and he wakes up.

Does it Really Matter in the End?

Not surprisingly, there’s always push back if you suggest that Total Recall was just one wild and crazy dream Schwarzenegger’s character had. I don’t know why. In my opinion, the fact that it might have been a dream doesn’t ruin the magic of the film one bit. The reason why is that there are so many other more interesting things going on in the film that go beyond the Embolism vs Reality debate that it shouldn’t really affect one’s enjoyment in the least. Besides, the story, characters and iconic sequences are so much fun in and of themselves, so why not just enjoy the ride regardless?


  1. Richard Carlton

    I believe it’s all a coma dream but a loop type dream where he is dreaming of actual events that happened at the start of the film and then blended the embolism event into something real.
    That’s how he supposedly knew those things beforehand because it’s not the first loop through the dream.

  2. Bob

    I watched the original on tape and after the credits roll Quaid wakes up on a bus

    • Peter Murphy

      I just wanted to write you from the deep recesses of the internet to tell you that I appreciate this comment. You may never read this, but I wanted you to know that someone cared. Thank you.

    • Ladieu

      I’ve always thought that he’s already HAD the schizoid embolism at the start of the movie and the implant is all the memories he has left so it reboots over and over, so the beginning is not a dream, it’s just the end of the previous loop of the implanted memory

  3. Paddy

    For me, the entire movie is a dream even to the point that the protagonist dreams he’s a former Mr Universe. The complete movie as a dream makes far more sense with Arnie as lead. My personal opinion is that the person who has actually gone to Rekall and implanted the “Secret Agent” story is the fat lad from the construction site who dreams of having an Arnie body.

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