It is ironic that Douglas Quaid spends so much time in Total Recall trying to figure out who he is, because the film itself does not know what it wants him to be. Ostensibly a science-fiction adaptation inspired by—at least they had the decency not to say "based on"—Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," Total Recall actually spends more time alluding to its 1990 namesake directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Both films center around a worker who decides to use the services of a mysterious agency named Rekall, which purports to be able to implant memories of experiences you cannot (or cannot afford to) have. Quaid purchases a "package" in which he is a spy/secret agent, but the imprinting of the fantasy is interrupted when it is discovered that Quaid actually is a spy who has had his memory erased and whose current existence is itself a fabrication. Or is it? Perhaps everything that follows the trip to Rekall could be the fantasy he has just purchased rather than the interruption of that transaction. Is Quaid a factory worker fantasizing about being caught up in the war on terror the government is waging against the mysterious "Matthias" and his followers, or has he been brainwashed by the government into forgetting what he has already done? While Dick's short story is a dark, cautionary tale about a man who has been wiped and imprinted so many times he can no longer decipher what is real and what is made up, the film versions are mostly interested in playing an "is he dreaming or isn't he?" shell game with the audience.
That's a shame, because the "keep the audience guessing" game is much less interesting than the questions raised intelligently by the subjectivity ...1
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