There are some debates that movie lovers will never give up on. What does the spinning top in Inception mean? Was it really impossible to fit Jack on the floating wreckage of the Titanic? Does the ending of Back to the Future make any sense whatsoever? And of course, one of the big ones: did Total Recall really happen, or was it all just a dream?
That last one is a real head scratcher. Based on the Philip K. Dick story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall tells the story of a blue-collar guy who buys fake memories of a trip to Mars, in which he’s a superspy. The implant goes wrong, it seems, when it turns out he really IS a superspy and has to go back to Mars to save the planet. But then a man shows up and tells the hero, Quaid, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, that it’s not a coincidence. Quaid is actually still on the operating table, and is suffering from a psychotic episode, trapped inside a delusion forever.
Total Recall never explicitly tells the audience it’s a dream, or that it’s a reality, and so the debate has raged on for years. Some folks think it’s real, others think it’s a dream, and in an interview with filmmaker Paul Verhoeven about his new movie Elle we talked to the filmmaker about the issue and found out the truth. And it may not be satisfying.
In short: Total Recall doesn’t tell you whether it’s real or it’s a dream because it’s literally supposed to be both simultaneously, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat.
“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,” Paul Verhoeven explained in a Canadian hotel room, the day after the film screened at TIFF. “Because you look at Total Recall there is never a preference, let’s say, taken by me or the scriptwriter, to say this is really what he dreams about and this is the truth.”
“I wanted it to be that way,” Verhoeven clarifies. “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.”
So if you’ve been thinking that Total Recall was just a dream, you’re right. And if you’ve been thinking that it was all really happening, you’re right too. It’s not that the film doesn’t tell you whether it’s a dream or not, it’s that the film works both ways simultaneously, to give you two experiences at the same time.
That may or may not be satisfying, but at least it’s an answer. And Paul Verhoeven is right, in that it really is post-modern as hell.