The 1990s Total Recall is one of the great action movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. However, it's also one of the smarter movies that the actor was ever involved in. To this day, it's not clear to many people exactly how the movie ended. Was Douglas Quaid actually a secret agent who had false memories of his life implanted? Or is most of what we see throughout the film just the playing out of the false memory that was implanted?
Total Recall was based on a Philip K. Dick story entitled We Can Remember it for You Wholesale and as such it has some fairly mind-bending aspects to it. The film takes significant liberties with the story of course, it is a film adaptation after all, but what the movie ends up doing is asking a question the original story never does. Can we trust the events we're seeing on screen? Are the events of the film the "real" story or are they just the fake memory that the main character paid for? Let's see if we can answer:
Before we can get into the specifics of what the film gives us regarding the reality of the situation, we need to start with a basic rundown of the film's story. Arnold Schwartzenegger plays Douglas Quaid. The year is 2084 and Quaid is a fairly ordinary guy, with, one assumes, an ordinary job, breaking rocks with a jackhammer. It's really not clear what he does beyond that. The guy does have one thing going for him, which is that his wife looks like Sharon Stone.
Doug's wife suggests they go on vacation and Doug is really obsessed with visiting Mars. His wife, for some reason, is really not interested in Mars. This causes tension between the two, and Quaid eventually decides that if he can't go to Mars, he'll have a memory of going there implanted in his brain. A company called Rekall sells fake memories as a way for people to take vacations without having to spend as much money or worry about things going wrong. However, in addition to simply getting a standard memory, he also decides to add an option which would make him a secret agent during his memory.
It's at this point that things get weird. In the middle of the implantation procedure, Quaid starts to go nuts. You see, apparently, Douglas Quaid is actually a secret agent, and in trying to implant this vacation memory, the Rekall techs inadvertently uncovered the fact that the life he's living now is actually false. Quaid has his memory wiped, but upon returning home, both Doug's best friend and wife try to murder him. Apparently "Douglas Quaid" has only existed for a few weeks and his entire life was a setup in order to keep Carl Hauser, his real name, under wraps. Hauser used to work for the guy who runs Mars, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and Hauser learned things he shouldn't know, but now that those memories are coming out, Quaid needs to "get your ass to Mars" and finish the job.
Upon arriving on Mars, Quaid meets several people who know Hauser, and they work together to figure out what Cohaagen is hiding. As it turns out, Cohaagen is hiding an alien artifact that would make the Martian atmosphere breathable. Quaid and his friends successfully activate the artifact and the movie ends with a free Mars. However, it also ends with a question. Was any of this real or was it all an implanted memory?
Now that we have the basics laid out, let's look at each of the key moments and try to figure out the answer to this question.