The middle entry in Paul Verhoeven’s loose science fiction triptych is largely cast as the poor relation: without ROBOCOP’s ferocious skewering of consumer culture and corporate greed or STARSHIP TROOPERS’ deadpan parody of the insidious ascent of fascism, TOTAL RECALL’s lack of satirical bite is read as Verhoeven indulging the gung-ho escapism of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, the film’s ambiguity between dream or reality being little more than a bow tying a cerebral accompaniment onto its visceral thrills.
The movie itself remains equivocal, rendering the clouds in Mars’ new blue skies the final image in a Rorschach test which ultimately has no thematic significance: this is not a philosophical treatise on the relative value of lived and imagined experience or questions of identity. However, the layers of plot and reality hide something genuinely subversive: TOTAL RECALL is a Marxist allegory.
This first becomes apparent when the protagonist Doug Quaid is presented as not just working class but with the iconography of the key figure of socialist realist art, the noble worker whose idealism in body and mind is reflected by both Schwarzenegger’s own pursuit of a physical ideal and Quaid’s suspicion he is meant for something more.
Reinforcing his social status, Quaid lives in the kind of futuristic Brutalist complex synonymous with deprived public housing, complete with bare salt-streaked concrete, grimy floors and a distinct smell of urine. There’s no view from the windows of his poky apartment other than the landscape displayed on the screen which also relays news from Mars, but otherwise Quaid is furnished with consumerism’s materialistic markers of an aspirational lifestyle: bottled water on the counter, a fancy knife block, designer appliances, and a blonde trophy wife whose days are spent perfecting her tennis stroke.
“When you travel with Rekall everything is perfect,” runs the sales pitch, but while Quaid imagines an implanted memory of a trip to Mars will eradicate the imperfection caused by his obsession with the red planet, it instead awakens him to the bad dream that is life on the bottom step. The forces trying to prevent his ascent are indiscriminately aggressive, treating even their own people as expendable commodities.
In the recorded message Quaid receives from Hauser he recognises his idealised self - slicker, better dressed and more confident. Hauser explains he also had an awakening to inequality but chose to take a step down the social order, rejecting his position in the ruling elite and formulating a plan to make amends by overthrowing the plutocrat Vilos Cohaagen.
Once he gets his ass to Mars disguised as a middle-class woman, Quaid follows Hauser’s instructions and is driven by cabbie Benny (no worker-displacing automated Johnnycabs here) to track down Melina in Venusville. Here he sees the plight of the mutants created by Cohaagen’s exploitation of early Mars settlers, an underclass born in the absence of clean air and light.
Back in his room at the Hilton, Quaid is asked if he truly believes he’s the victim of a conspiracy to make a lowly construction worker of him rather than something more: this is exactly what capitalism does, and in spitting out Dr. Edgemar’s red pill, Quaid explicitly renounces the status quo. The fight between blonde white housewife Lori and brunette Latina hooker Melina is its own localised outbreak of class warfare, in which Quaid finally seals his revolutionary credentials by rejecting Lori and everything for which she stands.
Now fully radicalised, Quaid retrieves the last piece of information he needs to smash the system with the help of the mutant revolutionary Kuato. Cohaagen’s empire is built on turbinium ore extracted from the mines and traded with Earth’s Northern Bloc to power its war against the numerically superior Southern Bloc, another conflict waged by the haves against the have-nots. Turbinium also fuels the vast reactor built by aliens inside the Pyramid Mountain which could convert Mars’ glaciers into breathable atmosphere, so dismantling Cohaagen’s monopoly over the colony’s air and domes which are his levers of power.
Cohaagen regards Quaid as a class traitor, his betrayal against his own interests mirroring the heel turn in which the mercenary instinct Benny exhibited on the cab rank extends to betraying Kuato and the rebellion. In Quaid’s case Cohaagen has a remedy, using the memory implant technology as a brainwashing device to restore Hauser, complete with promises of a big house, a fancy car and a compliant girl by his side: the reactionary consumerist dream.
Quaid prevails due to his belief in the cause, but Benny attacks before he can reach the reactor. Finding weapons useless, Quaid picks up a simple tool not unlike his construction worker’s jackhammer and dispatches this class traitor before disarming Richter, whose efforts to ascend the social order by clambering over the bodies of the lower classes ends in downfall.
Theme becomes text in the reactor control room as Cohaagen and Quaid assume opposite positions in a debate of the tragedy of the commons: Cohaagen sees the turbinium as a resource to be exploited by his elite while Quaid sees it as a common good to be redistributed so that everyone may benefit. Cinematographer Jost Vacano gives Schwarzenegger an edge-lit halo as Cohaagen makes a final appeal to Hauser and the freedom fighter his loyal friend has become replies, “I am Quaid.”
Cohaagen experiences the reality of life for those lower classes he exploited, lashed by radiation and asphyxiating in the thin Martian atmosphere. It’s too late for him, but when Quaid starts the reactor and the mountain erupts, the life-giving air cascading into the canyons levels all barriers. As the domes shatter, the privileged diners at the Hilton and the suffocating denizens of Venusville become equals. The hermetic seals between their worlds lie redundant, and Mars is free.
Quaid develops class consciousness, engages in class conflict and brings about a revolution. You’ve got to hand it to TOTAL RECALL: sneaking a Marxist parable into a Schwarzenegger action film is the best mindfuck yet.
Which leaves only that lingering question of whether Quaid truly brings blue skies to Mars or lies lobotomised at Rekall. The answer really doesn’t matter, because regardless of whether or not Doug Quaid’s whole life is one, simply having a dream is one way to make the world a better place.