Hard data:

1990 science fiction/action film.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside.
Based on the short story We'll Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick.


It's the near-distant future. Humans have colonized Mars, Venus and Saturn. The political situation on Earth is still tense, and Earth is dependant on the sale of vital metals from Mars. Enter Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger). Quaid is a decent sort of guy. He has a construction job, a beautiful wife (if you like Sharon Stone; I never could stand her), and a suspiciously nice apartment. The really odd thing about him, though, is his strange fascination with the planet Mars. He has a strange subconscious urge to go there, but he can't convince his wife to come along, so he decides to do the next best thing and go to a company called Rekall, which will artificially implant the memories of a trip to Mars in his mind for him.

This doesn't work out very well. Quaid ends up having a psychotic episode while the memories are being implanted, and is eventually dumped by the nervous doctors at Rekall not too far from his home. Through various strange events, Quaid learns that he is in fact a secret agent for the oppressive Martian government, who has decided to go over to the Resistance. A number of Matrix-esque mindfucks ensue, leading to a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

A sequel was in the works, due out in 2001 and directed by Jonathan Frakes (William Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation), but it never materialized.

The movie Total Recall was based, very loosely, on a Philip K. Dick short story, rather unfortunately titled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Give the man his due, but thinking up titles was not normally his strong point. The story was, to my opinion, much cooler than the rather mediocre Paul Verhoeven movie, but there weren't nearly as many explosions.

Standard Philip K. Dick tropes of confusion over the nature memory and subjectivity of reality, apply, in what Kesper North termed a series of "Matrix-esque mindfucks". Let me get something off my chest: Phillip K. Dick almost singlehandedly perfected the fine art of the mindfuck while Keanu Reaves was still smirking with his baby teeth. Every story and movie which noodles around with the "Oh my God, what if everything I know is actually a clever illusion?" school of mindfuckery owes a great debt to Dick, and most of them don't pull it off nearly as well as he did.

All of writeups belows that talk about the philosophical origins of uncertainty of identity are substantially correct - I was talking about the idea more as a literary trope than a philosophical one, though I think the story of Chuang Tzu/Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly blurs the lines a good deal.

Actually, it was Plato's Republic that first put forth the notion of an illusory reality. Plato's "cave" suggested that all human life and experience is a projection of events occuring outside the realm of our perception.

If you stop to think about it, you will realize that we humans, as all living creatures, are always several steps removed from reality... We only "see" objects because photons of light bounce off the objects around us. These photons travel at finite speed, and are thus temporally delayed when they reach our eyes. Our retinas convert a narrow spectra of that light into electrochemical impulses, which then travel the optic nerve to the visual cortex, where the image is finally "mapped" onto our brains to be perceived by our consciousness. Likewise, we only "hear" vibration which is transmitted through the air, rattling the tympanum of our ears, in turn shaking various tuned oscillators called cilia. Finally, the brain reassembles this abstraction of "sound" back into a rough simulacrum of what is happening around us.

Similar cases can be made for taste, touch, smell, et cetera - the simple truth is, we have no direct means of ascertaining the true nature of the "reality" in which we exist. All is processed, all is abstraction.

Actually, it was Hinduism that first put forth the notion of an illusory reality. Their word for it is maya, the unreal world which our senses describe to us. Learning to see beyond maya to the true "non-reality" of the universe is essential to achieving nirvana.

In the third century B.C., the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou said he dreamed he was a butterfly, and upon waking could no longer be certain he was not a butterfly dreaming it was a man. This idea is more in the spirit of the movie Total Recall than any other, the concept that reality is only what we remember and perceive, and that it's impossible to "know" which perception is real if more than one exists.

The twentieth-century tweak on this is solipsism, but the idea itself is as old as philosophy and religion itself, in all its shapes and forms. Science fiction gives us the chance to explore this idea using technology instead of dreams and religion, but the idea is nothing new. There are no new stories.

Total recall is what someone with a photographic memory has. At any given moment they can recall in total anything committed to their memory.

Edited 15th September 2017 to add: This old little write-up of mine is so very short without a lot of expanded information. This is generally considered bad form, and the current downvote total is therefore well-deserved. This edit is to highlight that I have written a much more expansive write-up over at photographic memory, and to urge you to visit there for more information. The intention for this extremely short write-up is for those looking up "total recall" and thinking of memory to therefore find the other node instead. Thanks!

This w/u will contain spoilers.

Total Recall also brings forth many of the ideas of John Locke, namely that it is our memories and experiences that give us our identity. One of the big revelations near the end of Total Recall is that Doug Quaid’s previous identity of Hauser was not a freedom fighter, but was actually working for Cohagen. Quaid is only a pawn in their plan to crush the resistance. This film makes the case that Quaid and Hauser are two different people and that Locke is right in saying that Quaid should not be held responsible. Just as Quaid would never have helped to control the people of Mars, Hauser would never have helped the resistance. These men commit two completely different kinds of actions and both have completely different sets of memories; they are essentially two different people. It is just as when Locke says it would not be right to punish a twin for what his brother did.

One of the main identifying characteristics of a character is how other people and the audience sees them. After initially finding out that he used to be a bad guy when he was Hauser, Melina rejects Quaid and is angry with him. But after she sees that he is not trying to fool her and is a different person, she accepts him as Quaid and trusts him again. I don’t think that the audience of the film feels betrayed that Quaid is not who he thinks he is, they still see Quaid as the same man as he was at the beginning of the film.

This film can be seen as a contrast to Memento, where Leonard Shelby cannot remember what has happened since the murder of his wife, but his experiences in that time have shaped him nonetheless. I think that overall Total Recall makes the stronger case. It is obvious through their actions that Quaid and Hauser are two different people, even though they are physically identical. The only difference is the content of their minds.

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