Unpacking the Foreshadowing and Symbolism in Total Recall
Total Recall is a 1990 science fiction action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, directed by Paul Verhoeven. It is widely considered to be one of the most influential action films of the era, and has since become a cult classic. It is a thrilling, action-packed film that captivates viewers from start to finish, but beneath its thrilling exterior lies a web of intricate foreshadowing and symbolism. From the very beginning, Total Recall teases its audience with hints of the character arcs, plot twists, and ultimate resolution of the story. Through careful analysis, the symbolism and foreshadowing can be identified and the film’s layers can be peeled back to uncover the deeper meanings behind the characters and the events that unfold. The underlying themes of identity and morality are explored as the narrative progresses, and the audience is left to reflect on the implications of each. So, come along as we take a closer look at the foreshadowing and symbolism in Total Recall.
Let’s move to Mars
Total Recall follows constructor worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is haunted by dreams of Mars. Whishing to to literally chase his dreams, Quaid visits a Rekall store, who provide memory implants of holidays. But upon selecting their latest product, an Ego Trip, Quaid finds the walls of reality crumbling down as his life and identity are ripped apart by an adventure that will change everything. Is it all a dream, or is it reality. The only way to tell is by getting his arse to Mars.
Symbolism Behind the Opening Scene
The first scene of the film introduces the audience to the setting and tone of the story, and is also an important example of symbolism throughout the film. The first scene takes place in a desert-like landscape of Mars. This immediately suggests a lack of social order, danger, and a sense of isolation. We see two characters climbing a rocky outcrop. They are wearing spacesuits because Mars; much like a party at Kristen Stewart’s place, has no atmosphere, giving the audience a simple point plot very early on. We establish that these characters are Quaid and a mysterious woman called Melina (Rachel Ticotin).
Melina, at this point in the story, is just a figment of Quaid’s imagination. This makes this scene the single moment in the film that actually proves that events of the story are real, or at least throw enough ambiguity into the mix to cause discussion. Total Recall never explicitly tells the audience whether the films events are a dream or reality and so, this scene in particular, has caused the debate to rage on.
Foreshadowing of Events to Come
Some of the biggest foreshadowing happens inside the Rekall clinic, where Quaid is instantly drawn toward the idea of his dream becoming a James Bond film, where he is persuaded to take on an EGO trip. Rather than going on holiday to Mars, Quaid will visit as a secret agent. As Rekall agent Bob McClane puts it:
“you are a top operative, back under deep cover, on your most important mission. People are trying to kill you left and right. You meet the beautiful exotic woman… I don’t want to spoil it for your Doug, but your rest assured that by the time the trip is over, you get the girl, kill the bad guy and save the entire planet!”
McClane summarizes the entire film in this is one piece of dialogue. The most provocative sentence being that Doug will be “back” under deep cover, suggesting that the top operative has been to Mars before. This is exactly what pans out throughout the film.
Just before Quaid jumps into his all-expenses paid holiday, Dr. Lull and Ernie set up the specifics of his journey, Amy of which map out important plot points for the rest of the movie. Strapped into the Rekall “dentist’s chair”, Doug is asked if he wants to integrate some “alien stuff”, before a quick succession of graphics pop up on the computer screen. According to the original script, these represent “memory trip” cassette covers for different trips. One of the images looks identical to the Martian terraforming device, which Quaid discovers later.
Whilst watching the images flick across the screen, Doug Comments on “two headed monsters” that appear, hinting at the appearance of Kuato later in the film. Dr Lull replies:
“Don’t you keep up with the news? We’re doing alien artifacts now.”
The fact that Rekall are now integrating alien artifacts into their trips and the image of the terraformer both evidence the films ending being nothing more than part of his ego trip.
Blue Skies on Mars
One of the biggest hints towards Quaid being in a dream comes in a throw away line whilst Quid is strapped to the chair. Dr Lull passes the programme chip over to her assistant, who comments:
“That’s a new one, Blue Skies on Mars”
Whilst the wording is vague, it’s clearly a reference to the Ego trips ending. We can assume that no matter what planet Quaid had gone to with the Ego trip, it would have ended with him saving “the entire planet” by generating a breathable atmosphere, hence the “blue skies” created by such an atmosphere. Due to the barren nature of Mars, and the lack of interest for tourism, it would appear that the Doctor and her assistant had never encountered this combination of Ego trip and location, and this tiny little off-hand comment becomes very suggestive.
Shortly before starting his Trip at Rekall, Dr Lull asks about Quaid’s sexual preferences, as any good secret agent needs a lovely lady by their side. As Quaid picks out the characteristics of his perfect woman, the computer loads in one of it’s many female charcters into the system.Wouldn’t you know it, the machine picks out an identically looking female to the one in his dreams, Melina.
Now, does this explain Melina’s look and personality in a dream world, yes, completely. Does it explain why Quaid was dreaming about her before coming to Rekall? No it does not.
Some fans believe that the machine “picked” from Quaids imagination, that you only see her face as he is starting to sleep. In this instance, It’s his own imagination that filled in the blanks for the computer, using the mysterious woman in his dreams.
One thing is for sure, Melina is an enigma in this twisted puzzle, and certainly one that has no simple answers.
Partway through his adventure, Quaid encounters Dr. Edgemar, a character we previously saw advertising Recall on the TV. He approaches Quaid with a stark revelation, that he has suffered a “schizoid embolism” and that he is still strapped into the chair at Rekall, and is unable to wake up. Edgemar summarises the story, suggesting that the Ego Trip started when he went to Rekall.
“Think about it. Your dream started in the middle of the implant procedure. Everything after that–the chases, the trip to Mars, your suite here at the Hilton–these are all elements of your Rekall Holiday. And Ego Trip: You paid to be a secret agent.”
The events at Rekall predicted much of the films plot, Doctor Edgemar manages to fill in even more with his desperate rant aimed at getting Quaid under control.
“One minute you’ll be the savior of the rebel cause, then, next thing you know, you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy. You’ll even have ridiculous fantasies about alien civilizations—as you requested. But in the end, back on Earth…You’ll be lobotomized.”
These events indeed happen. Quaid discovers that he has hidden memories that will help the Rebels to free Mars from the grips of corporate dictator Vilos Cohaagen. Also, Quaid was Cohaagen “bosom buddy” before he had his mind wiped, meaning that all of Dr. Edgemar’s predications were correct. Probably because they are part of the Secret Agent Ego Trip.
Exploring the Character Arc
The character arcs explored in Total Recall are primarily the arc of Quaid. Quaid’s arc explores the transition from a man obsessed with a dream, fantasizing of and wishing for a better life, to a man who is able to let go of the past and accept his new situation, whether that be real or fictional. The films conclusion, in which Quaid saves Mars, ends with our hero wondering if the events were real.
“I just has a terrible thought…What is this is all a dream?”
The last scene closes with the screen fading to white. Some fans have concluded that this is Quaid waking up, whilst others suggest that this is the point in which he is lobotomized, a form of neurosurgical treatment for psychiatric disorder or neurological disorder that involves severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. There is no compelling evidence for either.
Themes of Identity and Morality
The themes of identity and morality are explored throughout the narrative of Total Recall. Identity is explored in the sense that Quaid has forgotten who he is, and must find a way to remember his past and correct his identity. In essence, he gets to choose from three different realities, a married construction worker, a corporate agent or the saviour of Mars. Morality is explored in the sense that Quaid must choose to take the morally right action despite the challenges that lie ahead, and in spite of being encouraged to take the easy way out. Does he go home to his “real” life, with a wife and job, or continue this “fictional” life as a double agent. Any sense of morality is deeply effected by the Ego Trip. Even if the entire thing is part of Rekall’s trip, life is going to pretty tough for Quaid when he wakes up.
There is compelling argument that a lot of the screen time is taken up with other peoples point of view. We have the Rekall agents arguing about what to do with Quaid, Richter tracking down Quaid across Earth and Mars and many scenes with Vilos Cohaagen scheming. Would a dream include third party conversation? It’s very unlikely.
Total Recall is a hugely influential film, both in terms of its cultural impact and its place in cinematic history. The film boasts a star-studded cast and an exciting story full of action, adventure, and intrigue. While the film is incredibly fun and captivating to watch, it is also layered with symbolism and foreshadowing that makes the film uniquely intriguing. Are the events of the film real or a fiction created for the entertainment of Quaid? Director Paul Verhoeven explains that both viewpoints are valid. Much like Schrodinger’s cat, Quaid is both a Secret Agent and a Construction Worker.
“Total Recall doesn’t say whether it’s reality or it is a dream, you know? It’s really saying there’s this reality and there’s that reality, and both exist at the same time…”
“I wanted it to be that way… Because I felt that it was; if you want to use a very big word, post-modern. I felt that basically I should not say ‘This is true, and this not true.’ I wanted – and we worked with Gary Goldman on that, not the original writers , and we worked very hard to make both consistent, and that both would be true. And I think we succeeded very well. So I think of course there is no solution. Hey, it’s both true. So I thought, two realities; that it was innovative in movie language at least, to a certain degree, that there would be two realities and there is no choice.”
However, being consistent with the films flimsy conclusion on reality, on the DVD commentary of an earlier release, Paul Verhoeven concludes that the film is most probably “ a dream”.
I guess we all choose our own reality, and here in the world of secret agents, mutants and ancient alien artefacts, we once again have a choice to believe in which ever version we wish it to be. Total Recall was created to be an intriguing mystery of the mind, and even after 33 years, fans are still examining the film in hope of finding indisputable proof of the films narrative. However, it’s clear that movie was never meant to be unraveled, instead the film begs of us to stop overthinking things and to enjoy the film, and indeed our own reality, in what ever way we wish.
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“Howdy Horror Fans – Get your ARSE to Mars!!! I do love a film that makes me question my very own reality. Am I really here, are you really here? Does anybody care? Let us know in the comments below…