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Were the events in the movie a part of the Recall holiday package, or did the Recall procedure cause Quaid to suffer total recall and remember memories which had been supposedly erased?

An answer from either the original short story, the novel or from the 1990 movie adaptation would be accepted.

I'm wondering if any of them give us an unambiguous ending. I've only seen the 1990 movie and unless I missed something, they leave it open ended, although we do see Melina's face on a monitor in the Recall lab before Quaid goes under.

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  • Are you referring to the 1990 movie or the 2012 movie?
    – Omegacron
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 20:48
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    It was more of a short story. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 20:52
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    Piers Anthony wrote the novelization off of an early script and indeed has a definite ending. scifi.stackexchange.com/a/1326/23243
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 21:04
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    @hindmost - I think you misunderstand the ambiguity in the movie--although we see the memory implanting process interrupted, it's quite possible that this interruption was itself a fantasy, either intentionally planted to make it seem more "real", or something dreamed up by his own mind due to the "schizoid embolism" that the man who claimed to be from Rekall mentioned. If you listen to the commentary by Verhoeven, he makes it clear that the story was meant to be at least potentially consistent with the interpretation it was all a fantasy.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 21:48
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    Either way, I think the 1990 movie did a great job. Otherwise, we wouldn't still be debating about it 25 years later.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 13:12

3 Answers 3

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In the original story "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale", the ending was wholly unambiguous. Rekal never implanted the false memory because Quail began to remember his actual time on Mars, and when they try to erase that memory and give Quail a memory of an apparent fantasy he had as a child of saving the Earth from alien invaders, they discover this fantasy was actually a real memory as well:

'These should be taken to Quail's conapt,' he said to the police officer. 'So that when he gets home he'll find them. And it'll confirm his fantasy. SOP – standard operating procedure.' He chuckled apprehensively, wondering how matters were going with Lowe and Keeler.
The intercom buzzed. 'Mr McClane, I'm sorry to bother you.' It was Lowe's voice; he froze as he recognized it, froze and became mute. 'But something's come up. Maybe it would be better if you came in here and supervised. Like before, Quail reacted well to the narkidrine; he's unconscious, relaxed and receptive. But –' McClane sprinted for the work area.
On a hygienic bed Douglas Quail lay breathing slow and regularly, eyes half–shut, dimly conscious of those around him.
'We started interrogating him,' Lowe said, white–faced. 'To find out exactly when to place the fantasy-memory of him single-handedly having saved Earth. And strangely enough – ' 'They told me not to tell,' Douglas Quail mumbled in a dull drug–saturated voice. 'That was the agreement. I wasn't even supposed to remember. But how could I forget an event like that?'
I guess it would be hard, McClane reflected. But you did – until now.
'They even gave me a scroll,' Quail mumbled, 'of gratitude. I have it hidden in my conapt; I'll show it to you.'
To the Interplan officer who had followed after him, McClane said, 'Well, I offer the suggestion that you better not kill him. If you do they'll return.'
'They also gave me a magic invisible destroying rod,' Quail mumbled, eyes totally shut now. 'That's how I killed that man on Mars you sent me to take out. It's in my drawer along with the box of Martian maw-worms and dried-up plant life.'
Wordlessly, the Interplan officer turned and stalked from the work area.
I might as well put those packets of proof–artifacts away, McClane said to himself resignedly. He walked, step by step, back to his office. Including the citation from the UN Secretary General. After all –

The real one probably would not be long in coming.

There was actually a novelisation of the 1990 film. The ending was unambiguous, but the other way. Mars is stated to be real.

She was teasing him, but her familiar words chilled him. "I had a terrible thought," he said. "What if this really is just a dream?"

"Then kiss me quick," she said seriously. "Before you wake up."

Quaid cast the specter away. He took Melina in his arms and kissed her robustly. He was through with dreaming; reality was much better.

The novel also mentions that Melina used to work as a model, neatly explaining how she could have appeared on the video monitor at Recall.

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  • 3
    "He was through with dreaming; reality was much better" sounds like a description of his own mental commentary, but he could still be an unreliable narrator. Like I said in another comment, my memory is that Paul Verhoeven had favorable things to say about the it-was-all-a-dream interpretation on the DVD/blu ray commentary; I'll go check on a few key scenes and report back.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 22:01
  • This is a great answer, especially the very final sentence, pretty much covers everything. Much appreciated!
    – Daft
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 6:38
  • Hey Richard, what do you mean "unambiguous, but the other way"? In both PKD's story and in the novelisation of the movie, Mars was real and Quail was truly a secret agent. BTW, I believe the movie itself (not the novelisation) was meant to be ambiguous, with no definitive answer within the movie.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 14:51
  • @AndresF. - I always assume that the novelisation is canon to the film unless otherwise stated or unless it contradicts the film.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 16:01
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My answer has two parts, one for the short story and one for the film.

THE SHORT STORY: Rekal never got the chance to implant any memories in Quail during the story, and all his memories of being an agent for Interplan on Mars (the Rekal package he had initially requested) are entirely real, and re-emerged due to the sedative drug narkidrine, which the Rekal employees had given him in preparation for the memories they were planning to implant but never actually did (this is confirmed by a line in which they agree to "revive him without any false memory implantation"'). The only false memories implanted in him were the ones invented for his cover identity of being an ordinary clerk on Earth. Interplan doesn't like the fact that he remembers his time on Mars, so they want to hire Rekal to suppress his memories of Mars again, but this time to implant a false memory of a childhood fantasy they discovered in his subconscious. In the fantasy, he had saved the Earth from alien invaders as a child by showing them kindness and empathy, which they had never experienced before and which led them to call off the invasion in gratitude to him, but only as long as he remained alive, making him the most important person on the planet. The idea was that by making him believe the fantasy had really happened, they would satisfy whatever deep-seated psychological needs led him to be unsatisfied with the ordinary life as an unimportant clerk on Earth that was his false cover identity, and which had subconsciously driven him to visit Rekal when he still believed this identity. But the twist is that when they give him the narkidrine and ask him for some details on the fantasy, they discover that it's an actual suppressed memory as well, and it's mentioned that he actually had used a weapon he got from the aliens during his time as an agent on Mars. ("They also gave me a magic invisible destroying rod," Quail mumbled, eyes totally shut now. "That's how I killed that man on Mars you sent me to take out.")

THE FILM: There are some helpful comments in the DVD/blu-ray commentary by director Paul Verhoeven and star Arnold Schwarzenegger, which show that Verhoeven's intent for the movie was that everything in the movie be compatible either with the interpretation that everything after he first goes under at the Rekall office is a dream, or with the interpretation that it's real (though I got the impression Verhoeven was more enthusiastic about the dream interpretation).

In the scene where the Rekall salesman, McClane, is trying to sell Quaid on the Mars package, Quaid asks about the "secret agent" option and McClane says:

McClane: Ah, let me tantalize you. You are a top operative, back under deep cover, on your most important mission. People are trying to kill you, left and right--you meet this beautiful, exotic woman--

Quaid: Go on.

McClane: I don't want to spoil it for you, Doug. But you rest assured, by the time the trip is over, you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet.

During this scene, at 14:25 in the commentary Verhoeven comments:

Verhoeven: The interesting thing, of course, is here that the, let's say the memory implant, or let's say the dream trip that he wants, and that he basically, ultimately is going to choose, isn't it, by being a secret agent and all that stuff, if you look at the movie, at the end of this scene, McClane tells him everything that's going to happen in the movie.

When he's in chair about to get the implants, when he has to choose what woman he wanted in the dream, we briefly see the actress who actually plays Melina on the screen, and a little before Verhoeven says at 16:15 this could either be because he subconsciously remembers her and they recreate his memory, or because the Melina he later meets is just a fantasy created for him by Rekall:

Verhoeven: Several clues are given inside the scene, of course, for the rest of the movie. In fact, the woman that he wants to be implanted in his dream--because he can make a choice, she proposes him several possibilities, and so he can choose a woman that would be part of his dream--of course, the woman that he describes is the woman he might remember, so he gets her, really. Or you could say he has a kind of a fantasy image that he dreams about, which is this girl Melina, and he describes her as good as possible, and he gets it.

Then at 16:46 there's an image of some giant tubes on the screen that look similar to the giant columns in the alien reactor he'll later find on Mars (though not quite identical, comparing with the shot of the reactor at 1:43:33), and Verhoeven notes:

Verhoeven: All the images of the tubes that you just saw are of course the tubes that you see at the end of the movie when the nuclear reactor starts.

Then as Quaid is falling asleep, one of the technicians says "that's a new one, blue sky on Mars" and Verhoven says at 18:07 "Blue sky on Mars, another clue, isn't it, for later." A little before that, at 17:56 he says:

Verhoeven: And also be aware that if everything that happens in the movie from now on is going to be a dream, if there is no reality to anything ... realize that the dream really starts at the moment that he falls asleep. So the next scene, which seems to be a fuck-up of the machine, is part of the dream. So this is the last moment of his reality. Goes into the unconsciousness, and basically from now on..."

Then the movie cuts to the salesman (McClane) talking to another potential client, and being interrupted by an urgent message that something has gone wrong with the procedure--at the moment of this cut to the new scene, continuing the same train of thought above (which keep in mind was prefaced by "if everything that happens in the movie from now on is going to be a dream"), Verhoeven says at 18:32

Verhoeven: ...boom! The dream starts. This is part of the dream. The elements, basically, that are shown to him are again McClane because he just saw him, so his dream--so the people that made the dream built this all in to make it look, for Quaid, as if it's completely true. The schizoid embolism is part of the dream. It's to seduce him to think that the reality has never stopped. That's the trick of the company, that they make a dream that's so convincing that it seamlessly goes from the first reality into the second one.

And at 20:08 there is this exchange between Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven:

Schwarzenegger: Well that's what actually makes it work, makes it so interesting, because in the end you ask yourself, "was this all a dream or was it the reality?" So you walk away with a really interesting question.

Verhoeven: And I think as much as possible we kept these two realities always alive, isn't it, because of Arnold, you being a superhero of course, people would always hope and think that it's real, isn't it?

Schwarzenegger: Right.

Verhoeven: But there are strong doubts about that, of course, if you look at the movie for the second time.

In the scene with Quaid riding in the cab with the "Johnny Cab" robot, at 21:30 Verhoeven says "We tried to make this one a bit funny, perhaps giving you a clue that it is still a dream."

Then jumping ahead to the scene where the man who claims to be from Rekall, Dr. Edgemar, (who had been seen in a Rekall advertisement in the subway at the start of the movie), tries to tell Quaid it's all a dream, Quaid holds a gun to his head and Edgemar tells him what'll happen if he shoots:

It won't make the slightest difference to me Doug, but the consequences to you will be devastating. In your mind, I'll be dead, and with no one to guide you out, you'll be stuck here in permanent psychosis. The walls of reality will come crashing down around you. One minute, you're the savior of the rebel cause; next thing you know, you'll be Cohaagen's bosom buddy. You'll even have fantasies about alien civilizations as you requested; but in the end, back on Earth, you'll be lobotomized!

During this scene, at 1:04:42 Verhoeven says:

Verhoeven: And it's interesting that Edgemar here, when you listen to him, seems not to be, A, afraid of the gun, because for him it's not a real gun of course, it's a dream gun, but he tells you the whole story again, as it's going to develop now. The walls of reality will break apart, because the walls of the room will basically be blown out in the next ten seconds. And all these things he's saying--alien civilization, will happen of course. Also the fact that he is Cohaagen's--that he is a friend of the guerillas, I mean that he is helping the guerillas, but the next moment he will be a buddy of Cohaagen. It all will happen in the next 15, 20 minutes. So again, like in the beginning of the story, we tell you the whole narrative of the third act, in fact.

Schwarzenegger: And here is the great moment of the sweat running down, which gives it away ... it gives it away that he is afraid.

Verheoven: That it's acting, what he's doing ... Or you could argue that in his dream, because he wants to stay within his dream, he cannot get out of his dream anymore, the one they sent in to help him, basically, that you invented yourself this transpiration [perspiration?] on the head, isn't it? To convince yourself that you had to kill him.

So again this scene can be taken as compatible with either interpretation, although in these ambiguous scenes Verhoeven always seems to have a lot more to say about the dream interpretation, and about all the clues that were put in the script to fit with that interpretation.

At the very end, when Quaid and Melina kiss, the musical theme plays again and sun shines directly into the camera, whiting out the screen before the credits. Commenting on this scene, at 1:49:30 Verhoeven says:

Verhoeven: And we get to the music, we go back to the, let's say, "is [?] reality shot", isn't it? Because everything, at the end, I have suggested that that's really where his brains are--he's lobotomized at the end, isn't it, if you follow the dream story. Edgemar told him at the end, Dr. Edgmar played by Roy Brocksmith, told him at the end of the story you will be lobotomized, that might be the end of the movie, isn't it? Because that's why we faded to white instead of going to black, because his brains are blown out. And so the whole story might be a dream, and ultimately nothing of all this happened, he all invented it, and because they couldn't bring him back to reality anymore, they decided to lobotomize him.

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Assume that the recall technology really works as advertised.

A construction worker remembers having been on Mars (or whereever) as a sports star or artist. Then he sues his former agent for missing royalty payments. He really, honestly believes that he must be owed something. Oops.

To make recall viable, the implanted memories would have to explain that away. The celebrity would have to understand and accept that the days of fame (and any missing money) are over. Spent in a glorious party on Mars. Priceless memories, indeed. Anonymously donated to charity. Makes you feel good.

So what does that mean for a spy scenario? An implanted memory would have to end with "Thanks, Agent A, now you'll have to go back to your cover identity. Never talk about the details of the mission. Don't call us, we'll call you."

The memories would have to be compatible with observed history.

A good example are the early Jack Ryan books by Tom Clancy. They mostly describe intelligence operations. The reader could believe that they happen in our world. Perhaps the ship movements from The Hunt for Red October would have made the news, but who would remember a few years later? Clear and Present Danger had some explosions in Southern America, but there were many of those in reality. In the later books from The Sum of All Fears onwards, the events of the books should visibly change the world as we know it.

The early stories would be suitable for implanted memories, the later ones not so much.

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  • My understanding is that the memories should 'feel' real but there will be a level of cognitive dissonance where you do recognise it as false.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 7:17
  • The problem is when you kill your coworker as a spy monitoring you in the implant memory and then he's fine when you go back to work. AWKWARD Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 1:44
  • @lucasbachmann, which could be considered evidence that it was not just an artificial memory.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 5:18

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