How ‘Total Recall’ Beat ‘Inception’ by 20 Years
Inception set the internet alight with a brilliantly ambiguous ending, throwing the whole movie into a new light by asking “Is he awake or is he dreaming?” But Robocop and the Terminator teamed up to kick Leonardo diCaprio’s ass twenty years in the past, and if Hollywood is out there, you can have that idea for free. Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger filmed Total Recall based on a Philip K. Dick short story, and if you’ve never read any Dick, the closest he ever came to normal reality was selling his books to us.
The movie ends with Quaid (Arnie) and the Melinda staring over the blue skies of Mars. Quaid suddenly worries that his trip as a secret agent who gets the girl and saves Mars might be a dream, because he paid a company for a trip as a secret agent who gets that exact girl and saves Mars in a dream. This is brushed off as a joke for the final kiss and happy ending, despite the fact that Arnold is absolutely suffering from a schizoid embolism and lobotomized the instant the movie ends. No debate, no Inception-style overanalyzed spinning tops, just absolute proof that this is the first Schwarzenegger movie where the good guy loses. The evidence is all through the movie.
When he selects his dream date in Rekall he doesn’t just request a generic “brunette, athletic, sleazy, demure”, he chooses 41, the exact woman he ends up meeting.
The Rekall technician is tossed a chip called “Blue Sky on Mars”, the ending of the movie. When Arnie adds the alien artifacts option the computer flashes through a random sequence of alien imagery, finally choosing on the exact layout of the alien reactor at the movie’s climax.
This is before they’ve even connected him, so there’s no way they could have read it out of his mind, and even in the dream’s plot the Rekall company know nothing about this secret on Mars. One of the best scenes in the movie is when a scientist from the real world, Dr Edgemar, is injected to try to talk Arnie down.
Edgemar lays out the rest of the movie perfectly. If Arnie shoots him: “The walls of reality will come tumbling down. One minute you’ll be the savior of the rebel cause and the next thing you know you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy! You’ll even have fantasies about alien civilizations – as you requested! – but in the end, back on Earth, you’ll be lobotomized!”
Arnie, as Quaid, realizes it’s all a trap by the bad guys and shoots him. But the bad guys have no reason to trap him like that! In fact, this trap was the absolute worst thing they could have done. Cohaagen, the corporate executive big bad guy, doesn’t want Quaid caught until he finds the rebel leader Kuato.
Cohaagen’s entire plan was to create an innocent “Quaid” who knows nothing so that the psychics couldn’t detect him. Even if he attacked just to convince the rebels that Quaid is on the level, he’d never risk even mentioning that they were friends. It doesn’t help convince Quaid and absolutely risks blowing the whole scheme. Killer henchman Richter wants Quaid dead, but he didn’t know that Quaid was Cohaagen’s friend, and this scheme is far too subtle for his “Run in and shoot everything” strategy.
How does Quaid know it’s a trap? The Doctor looks nervous and sweats. Of course he’s sweating! Rekall already has a bad reputation for lobotomizing patients, and now some dumbass construction worker is going to wipe his own brain on company property and destroy the company forever! They’ll be closed down, probably prosecuted, Edgemar comes in to save his job and finds himself talking to a madman waving a fake gun around and insisting he’s really a Martian secret agent! That would make anyone nervous! From the second he kills the doctor it plays out exactly as Edgemar says. So exactly that the very next thing to happen is the walls literally coming tumbling down as the bad guys blast through them. Despite there being a perfectly good unlocked thin hotel door.
Quaid’s wife, who was sweet and caring while the connection was intact, immediately reverts to his delusion of violent betrayal when he kills the Doctor. Quaid becomes a hero to the rebels, is revealed to be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy, and his final act is to complete the program by causing blue skies on Mars. Towards the end even the villain reveals it isn’t real as his subconscious desperately tries to save itself. Cohaagen shouts “You’re a bad dream!” That’s a weird and telling choice of words – Cohaagen would call Quaid a fake, or a decoy, or a puppet, but from his point of view “dream” is nonsense.
In the final struggle Cohaagen desperately tries to stop Quaid from starting the reactor even as he’s about to be sucked out into an oxygen-free death, screaming “No! Don’t do it! We’ll all die! Everybody will die!” Cohaagen-the-evil-executive has been preventing the reaction to maintain control of the air supply, but now it’s his only chance for survival. Even if he really thought it would explode the planet he’s selfish enough to try anyway. But Cohaagen-Quaid’s-subconscious knows that as soon as the program finishes by creating blue skies on Mars, it’s all over and they’ll all be erased.
Then the movie’s ending makes Inception‘s spinning top look subtle. As Quaid kisses Girl 41, the sun shines brighter, and the camera moves so that they’re moving into the light, eventually washed away by total whiteout, before suddenly cutting to black. How many action movies do you know end like that? A sudden cut means “Now we leave their story.” Fade to black means “Here their story ends.” Moving into the light and sudden darkness means something else.
Total Recall was the greatest mindjob in the history of cinema. Inception engineered a brilliant “Is he awake or not?” cliffhanger, but it never let you forget how clever that was. You always knew it was going to be an issue. Total Recall pulled off the same thing, then turned it up to 11 by absolutely proving that he was in a dream. But no one ever realized that because Arnie was the hero! Of course it’s real, he’s the hero, he has to win — the exact same feelings Quaid has!
If we’d had the internet back then Total Recall would have been the movie with the big argument about the ending. Because we’d have been talking about that online, instead of asking our friends “Holy $#!+, did you see the girl with three breasts?”
Luke McKinney examines how NBC thinks every other country in the world is a joke, and looks at the most amazing things man has ever made. He also tumbles and has been dared to respond to every single tweet.