The most believable representation of the future in film or TV doesn’t lie in the uber-nihilistic whims of “Black Mirror” or in the relentlessly hopeful yarns of any of the “Star Trek” incarnations. Rather, it rests within “Total Recall,” a movie full of suicidal self-driving cars, reckless, Uzi-toting government agents, and grotesquely deformed lower class citizens who weren’t able to get one of the basic, fundamental sources of life: Oxygen.
Based off of an immortal short story from Philip K. Dick, “Total Recall” roots itself in a sturdy reality because it focuses on the economic implications of being able to travel across the stars. Not everyone will have the money to skydive on Saturn or go waterskiing off glistening Mercury lakes. More than that, some people will be devastated by that by the ability of space travel, more economic opportunity meaning of course that more lower class citizens get ignored. But “Total Recall’s” most profound prophecy is when we have the ability to generate fake memories, even entire fake lives, humans will still just use this technology for nothing useful exception going on “vacation.”
We follow Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger), a blue collar construction worker ached by the urge to travel to Mars. He spots adverts from a company called Rekall, offering to implant fake vacation memories from distant planets for a low, low price. But when Quaid goes to Rekall, their mind-jamming device unleashes something buried deep within Quaid’s brain: That he was in fact a secret agent, and the keys he keeps hidden in his cranium could change the fate of Mars’ future as we know it.
Quaid ends up traveling to Mars and stumbles onto Venusville, a Skid Row swamp of hookers and gypsy mutants that most Mars travelers would pay extra to avoid. When Quaid stumbles upon Melina (Rachel Ticotin), she greets Quaid with hostility, thinking he has turned for the other side. But the two embark with the rebels to uncover the secrets that could be Mars’ salvation.
Released in 1990, “Total Recall” feels like a last hurrah to the dynamo action movies of the 80s, where swole, undefeatable protagonists fired infinite bullets at second-rate villains who’d never match their strength or charm. The one-liners are a-plenty, with Quaid always offering a quick-witted comeback even as enemies are barreling down his throat. While we might never believe it’ll be possible to have breathable air on Mars, let alone people actually living there, it’s a sure bet that if there was a means of achieving a livable atmosphere, government higher-ups with anti-environmental agendas would find a way to thwart a much needed change. It’s a B-level movie with A-level insight, with glimpses of the future that aren’t 100% accurate but still sturdy blueprints for the way things will probably be.