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Bored with his humdrum life, seeming everyman Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger, not exactly the paragon of “everyman,” but hey, that’s Hollywood) conceives of an idea to spice things up: memory implantation! In the world of Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall,” as inspired by the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” paying for vivid, fake memories has become a mainstream pastime. It’s so normalized that Quaid’s idea to get some memories of a trip to Mars implanted is partially inspired by the most mundane of advertisements, a quick hit that plays on a subway screen.
But while memory implantation is just one facet of Verhoeven’s film, 30 years since its release, the concept remains the most prescient aspect of the entire film. It might seem reductive to say that the literary works of sci-fi master Dick have been predictive of the future (let this very basic Google search lead you down a rabbit hole of discovery), but this particular story’s insights into the possibilities of memory implantation become more chilling each day.
When Quaid opts to get some new memories — something easy enough to accomplish as an after-work errand — that decision sets into motion a complex chain of events. As it turns out, Quaid already had his memories manipulated, and probing deeper into his brain only stirs up those recollections with shocking results. It’s not just that Quaid’s memories are so easily manipulated (that’s creepy enough), it’s that said manipulation comes at the hands of a nefarious corporation intent on pulling the strings on everything from individual people to entire planets. With memories under their control, anything is possible — including, of course, mostly very bad things.
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In the world of “Total Recall,” corporations want to own your memories, and they’re relying on people to fork over such precious currency willingly. In social media spaces, that’s basically the business model, with millions of people happily sharing every aspect of their lives (hell, memories are just one part of that) and multi-billion dollar corporations doing whatever they like with them. In the real world, that manifests itself in many ways, not just in the ads you see (and where you see them), but the seemingly personal information that governments and other companies can gather about you without your overt permission.
No, using social media isn’t quite as intimate as letting someone poke around your brain, but it’s even more widespread and normalized than anything we see in “Total Recall.” You don’t have to go to an office and under the knife to offer up your memories to faceless entities who want nothing more to manipulate them (and you), you just need to log on to your computer or smartphone or tablet. Unlike Quaid, no one is even paying for that privilege — it’s all given away for free.
With his brain all but blown open, Quaid suddenly realizes that his desire to take a mental trip to Mars (a colony also ruled by a sinister corporation pretending to be a government, naturally) where he can play special agent stems from something very real: his actual life, pre-memory futzing (well, maybe?). Verhoeven’s film is often billed as ultra-violent and just kind of gross satire (its early incarnations as a David Cronenberg project are well-represented in everything from the iconic three-breasted sex worker to the film’s highly unexpected folk hero).
However, “Total Recall” is also an entertaining deconstruction of what gives people their identities — and how technology can take that from them. It’s not body horror; it’s brain horror. (And, yes, it’s worth noting that Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake, starring Colin Farrell, has little interest in exploring such heady themes, instead leaning far into the cheap pleasures of blowing stuff up.)
Ultimately, unlocking his memories and freeing them from the control of a tyrannical corporation built around its ability to snuff out insurrection allows Quaid (aka Hauser, whose own name isn’t even revealed to him until after all that memory meddling) to explore himself in honest terms. The results aren’t necessarily happy ones — Quaid/Hauser is revealed as an agent of the state in the worst of ways; it’s even his own likeness that tells him so — but it charts a path for a better future, one without corporate control, where memories belong only to the people who made them (the usual way, not the computer way). Thirty years later, that message seems timelier than ever.