On Total Recall

A remake of the 1990 film of the same name, Total Recall features Kate Beckinsale (Selene in the Underworld film series), Jessica Biel (Abigail Whistler in Blade: Trinity), and Bill Nighy (Vampire Elder Viktor in the Underworld film series, Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End). According to the ScreenRant article, “Total Recall: 2012 vs 1990 vs… 1966“:

Even before the film was released in theaters, Len Wiseman’s Total Recall created loads of confusion among fans of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 action film as well as Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” For months the “remake” filmmakers attempted to distance Total Recall 2012 from the prior movie, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Douglas Quaid, asserting that the new film would be truer to the short story source material.

Ultimately, “truer” seems to mean more grounded – considering the new film swaps out Mars, mutants, and aliens, for a more terrestrial conflict featuring a post-apocalyptic Earth landscape, robots, and corrupt politicians. As a result, how does Total Recall (2012) compare to Total Recall (199o) as well as the “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” storyline? We’ve taken the time to breakdown various elements of the three plots – to help fans distinguish between Dick’s original idea and Verhoeven as well as Wiseman’s creative liberties.

It goes without saying that the following comparison contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both Total Recall films as well as Philip K. Dick’s original narrative. If you do not want to be spoiled, look away now – and catch Total Recall (read our review) in theaters, pick up the 1990 version, and read “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”



  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Earth with “dreams” of Mars – including aliens.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Earth with an actual mission to Mars – including mutants and aliens.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Earth – no mutants or aliens.

Larger Conflict:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – An assassination plot on Mars.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Mars Governor, Vilos Cohaagen, discovers an alien artifact that could threaten his control over exportation of Martian resources as well as Mars residents (who work and spend money under his administration). Resistance forces seek to activate the artifact and give control of Mars back to the working people.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Following World War III, which leaves much of Earth uninhabitable, there are only two hospitable locations left on the planet: the wealthy United Federation of Britain and the impoverished Colony. Colony inhabitants travel to the UFB daily for work – via a massive transit vehicle, “The Fall.” Terrorist acts by alleged resistance fighters threaten a tenuous peace between the two nations – as the UFB considers military action against The Colony in order to stamp out potential future threats.


  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Douglas Quail (That’s not a typo): Clerk at the West Coast Immigration Bureau who lives on Earth.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Douglas “Doug” Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger): Construction worker who lives on Earth.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Douglas “Doug” Quaid (Colin Farrell): Factory worker in the UFB who lives in The Colony.

Primary Antagonist:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Interplan: A covert government agency.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox): Corrupt Governor of Mars.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston): War veteran turned UFB Leader.



  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Kirsten Quail: A stand-in that was hired by Interplan.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Lori Quaid (Sharon Stone): A Cohaagen Operative.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Lori Quaid (Kate Beckinsale): A United Federation of Britain Operative.


“Resistance” Leader:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – N/A
  • Total Recall (1990) – Kuato: A baby-sized, clairvoyant, mutant attached to the belly of his brother, George, (Marshall Bell) who seeks to free Mars from Cohaagen’s control.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Matthias Lair (Bill Nighy) – Innocent, but branded by Cohaagen as a terrorist, Lair hides in the European wasteland while attempting to prevent Cohaagen’s invasion of The Colony.

“True” Love

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – N/A
  • Total Recall (1990) – Melina (Rachel Ticotin): A Mars resistance fighter.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Melina (Jessica Biel): A Colony resistance fighter.

Rekall “Reality” Advocate:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – N/A
  • Total Recall (1990) – Dr. Edgemar, Rekall, Incorporated President, who attempts to convince Quaid that he’s dreaming, still strapped in a chair at Rekall, and that he must take a “red pill” (likely a sedative) as proof that he wants out of the dream.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), Quaid’s best friend and co-worker at the factory, who claims that Quaid is stuck in his fantasy at Rekall and on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. Harry asserts that Quaid must execute Melina in order to prepare his mind for extraction.

“True” Identity:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Douglas Quail: An Interplan assassin.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Hauser: Cohaagen’s friend and gun for hire.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Hauser: A UFB Agent turned resistance fighter.


Three-Breasted Woman

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – N/A
  • Total Recall (1990) – Check: Mary (Played by Lycia Naff) – a mutant.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Check: The Seductive Woman (Played by Kaitlyn Leeb) – a woman that, presumably, augmented her body through futuristic plastic surgery.


Quaid’s “True” Mission:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Successfully killed an assassination target on Mars (already achieved).
  • Total Recall (1990) – A multi-step infiltration of the resistance in order to kill Kuato. Agent Hauser lays ground work on Mars (romancing Melina, planting clues) before volunteering to have his mind erased – believing that the less-informed version of himself, Quaid, will lead Cohaagen to the infamous resistance leader.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Infiltrate the resistance and kill Matthias Lair. Hauser successfully “joins” the resistance but, upon meeting Melina, decides he’s on the wrong side of the conflict. Furious, Cohaagen captures Hauser, plants false memories, and then follows Quaid as he, unknowingly, leads UFB troops to Lair.

Final Outcome:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – Quail voluntarily agrees to have his recollection of Mars replaced again (so that Interplan will stop chasing him) but, this time, with a more satisfying set of memories (so that he won’t have a desire to return to Rekal again). The company designs a quintessential fantasy for Quaid – specifically, that he thwarted an alien invasion when he was younger and his very existence prevents the invaders from returning. However, when Rekal once again attempts to implant the memory, they discover that Quaid did, in fact, thwart an alien invasion when he was nine years old. Fearing that the aliens will return if Interplan kills him, Quaid is left with his memories and life intact.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Quaid kills Cohaagen and successfully activates the alien reactor, essentially a terraformer, that spreads breathable, oxygenated, air across the Martian landscape – ending the governor’s strangle hold on Mars citizens.
  • Total Recall (2012) – Quaid kills Cohaagen and destroys the invading robot forces – along with “The Fall” which has long been viewed as a symbolism of the Colony’s oppression at the hand of the UFB.

Was it All a Dream?:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) – No, though it’s possible the entire story is a dream. However, the story concludes with the assertion that Quail is just a bad-ass – a man who has actually lived his wildest dreams.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Unclear, especially consider Quaid himself asks a similar question in the film’s closing shot, “I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?” Events in the film do follow Quaid’s planned Rekal fantasy (down to the shape and disposition of his lover, Melina); though, it’s certainly possible that the events on Mars actually happened (especially considering Hauser’s double-crossing).
  • Total Recall (2012) – Unclear, though the film’s post-climax resolution would seem to indicate that Quaid’s experience is real. After hazily returning to consciousness, he comes face to face with Lori, his “wife,” who once again attempts to kill him. After dispatching her once and for all, Quaid is reunited with Melina – and there’s no mention of the “what if this is a dream?” question. That said, skeptics could point to the moment before Quaid awakens as possible evidence that he’s still dreaming – when, for a brief moment, he hears previously spoken Rekall operator dialogue. As a result, it could be argued that all of the memories “happened” in a split second or that being unconscious in his dream made him more aware of his surroundings while unconscious in Rekall.


Hopefully the piece helped clear-up some of the Total Recall confusion.

According to the ScreenRant review:

When the Total Recall “remake” was first announced in 2009, the producers were clear on one thing: in spite of the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this movie would offer a different (albeit still loose) interpretation of iconic sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Nevertheless, the collective moviegoing community exploded in a near-universal chorus of outrage, and in the coming months, as director Len Wiseman began sharing his vision for the project, more and more fans continued to rail against the idea on principle alone – calling it an “unnecessary cash grab” and decrying the idea of an alternate Total Recall story interpretation, one that didn’t feature Mars, mutants, aliens, or Schwarzenegger.

As a result, it’s safe to say that anyone who is fundamentally against this film based solely on the fact that it’s a remake, isn’t likely to be impressed by what Wiseman has put together. However, does Total Recall (2012) – despite similarities to its namesake – offer an interesting and action-packed reinterpretation of the core concept – an everyday man wrestling with his grip on reality and sense of self?

Fortunately, the answer is yes.

While Wiseman’s Total Recall includes a number of familiar story beats and fun nods to its predecessor, it also presents plenty of fresh material that should deliver an enjoyable (although somewhat thin) experience for fans who aren’t too bogged down in comparing/contrasting the film with Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 treatment. Anyone who has been following the movie’s trailers (or seen the original) will already be privy to a number of the film’s biggest “reveals,” but there are still plenty of explosive set pieces and tongue-in-cheek one-liners to make the moment-to-moment onscreen action immersive and enjoyable. Without question, Total Recall is skewed heavily in favor of style over substance – but that shouldn’t dissuade cinemagoers from taking a trip to Rekall with leading man Colin Farrell.

As mentioned, the story differs in a number of ways from both the original film and Dick’s short story source material. The “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” narrative still serves as the film’s outline, though, and unlike the 1990 version, Wiseman’s story remains grounded entirely on Earth. This round Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in a post-World War III society where tensions flare between the last two habitable places on the planet: The rich United Federation of Britain and the impoverished Colony (Australia). Quaid is a blue-collar factory worker who commutes (via a massive transit system called “The Fall”) from The Colony to the UFB, where he assembles synthetic Police robots before making the return trip home each night to his lovely wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). Ultimately, Quaid isn’t content with this mundane existence, and is haunted by dreams of a mysterious woman (played by Jessica Biel), as well as a life with actual purpose. In an effort to scratch his itch for excitement, he visits Rekall to have artificial memories implanted in his mind – only to discover that, unbeknownst to him, he’s already an instrumental player in a much larger threat.

While some fans will most likely miss the campy (and, at times, visually arresting) aesthetic of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, Wiseman’s interpretation plays all of the sci-fi plot material with a very straight face. Despite a number of witty remarks, the film takes itself extremely seriously, and with the exception of select hat tips to the first film, works hard to ground events in a believable vision of 2084. Certain elements still offer eye-popping visuals (such as The Colony skyline and “hover car” effects) but this Total Recall puts most of its effort into nonstop action – which should easily be apparent after the third multifaceted chase sequence. Similarly, the film provides several slick hand-to-hand combat scenes and loads of stylish sci-fi gadgetry (get ready to trade in your iPhone) that should keep genre fans happy.

Certain moviegoers will argue that Total Recall was an entirely unnecessary remake (i.e., a ‘cash-grab’) – but there are enough differences to justify Wiseman’s effort. While not all of these ideas are successful, the director’s attempt at re-imagining Philip K. Dick’s story will present action/sci-fi lovers with a compelling (albeit thin) sci-fi world to explore, intriguing (albeit thin) characters to follow, and enough visual spectacle to make viewers wish they had three eyeballs.

3 thoughts on “On Total Recall

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