Total Recall: Dream or Not A Dream? Let’s Settle This Once And For All

Let’s settle this once and for all. Did Quaid get his ass to Mars, or didn’t he?


Our Paul Verhoeven Theme Week continues with the ultimate “Total Recall” debate.


In case you needed a reminder, this man was once the Governor of California.

MELINA (overwhelmed): Quaid, I can’t believe it…It’s like a dream.

On hearing her words, Quaid’s expression turns grim and confused.

MELINA (CONT’D): What’s wrong?


I just has a terrible thought…What is this is all a dream?


Then kiss me quick…before you wake up.

Those are the last lines from “Total Recall.” Since those words were uttered and the final credits rolled, fans have been debating their meaning: was the whole thing after Quaid sits down for his Rekall session just a dream?

I repeat. He is the Governor of California.

Not Quaid, Arnold. Though I would pay to hear him tell himself to “Get your ass to Sacramento!”

In the DVD commentary, both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven seem to come down on the side of “all a dream.”* The outlandish twisting nature of the plot does support that interpretation; the only way all of this could make sense is if this was all the product of Quaid’s fantasy and the Rekall-manufactured vacation gone wrong.

But that may just be a crutch that the filmmakers are using to excuse the parts of the movie that don’t make sense. Aliens on Mars? Oxygenating the atmosphere in 10 minutes? Cohaagen’s plan to turn Hauser into unwitting double-agent Quaid? Maybe Verhoeven and the screenwriters had wanted all of it to be passable as reality during the production process, but in retrospect saw that it all didn’t add up and have been trying to excuse any weaknesses in the plot by calling it “all a dream.”

I could go on with different points of argument from both sides of the argument, and you could find plenty of them yourself on various other websites, but none of those websites are us. Call me vain, but I think our site’s writers and commenters represent the internet’s best and brightest (and most entertaining) pop culture analysts, and as such, no one else is as qualified to settle this argument as us, the Overthinking It Community.

Settle down in a comfy chair. Review the script or rewatch the movie if you have to. Once you’ve made your decision, cast your vote and help us decide: In “Total Recall,” did the events depicted after Quaid’s Rekall procedure actually happen?

  • Yes! Quaid actually got his ass to Mars!
  • No! Quaid never got his ass to Mars!

Notice there are only two choices in the poll. Now, I know that this movie was made with ambiguity in mind, but I don’t want anyone to have the cop-out option. Quaid either got his ass to Mars, or he didn’t. This isn’t Schrödinger‘s Ass on Mars we’re talking about here.

So do your analysis, cast your vote, and make your case in the comments! Remember, we’re solving this on behalf of the entire Internet and settling this debate for all time, so choose wisely!

In "Total Recall," did the events depicted after Quaid's Rekall procedure actually happen?

View Results

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P.S. While you’re doing your analysis, you may want some appropriate dream-related music to listen to. Enjoy:

Updated February 14, 2016: When I originally published this article in 2009, I hadn’t really thought about an end date for the poll. Since then, it’s racked up over 15,000 votes, and over the past few years, the results have stabilized at around 60% “No, never got his ass to Mars.” When you step back and think objectively about the evidence for and against, I understand why the majority of votes land in the “no” column, but ultimately, the greatness of the film lies in its ambiguous ending and the possibility that either outcome could be possible.

I’ll keep the poll open for now and will update this post if the results shift significantly one way or the other. Until then, check out more of our in-depth Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger analyses.

*Can someone confirm this in the comments? One Internet message board commenter insists that both Arnold and Verhoeven agree with “dream,” but Wikipedia claims that they are of differing opinions.

31 Comments on “Total Recall: Dream or Not A Dream? Let’s Settle This Once And For All”

  1. Robert #

    In determining whether Quaid’s experience was a dream or the reality in this film, we need to look not at the end, but at the beginning.

    The fact that Quaid knew before his Rekall experience that he wanted to go to Mars and kept having vivid dreams about the experience makes it known that Mars is colonized and that he has enough familiarity with the experience to have these repetitious dreams over and over again with the same details played out every time.

    The plot holes are not big enough in this film to justify completely throwing out the reality hypothesis. An example would be that we do not know how big the reactor is on this film, but obviously it is massive enough to justify colonization and mining operations. A large percentage of Mars under the surface could be affected by this reactor, or the reactor shown could have been a master control for many reactors throughout the planet; think of the gas generators in SimEarth.

    • Richard Bernardo #

      It’s a dream. When his work buddy Harry tries to kill Quaid, he says “you blabbed about Mars”. The only 4 people presepresent when Quaid says this are the Rekall salesman, two scientists, and receptionist. One of them would have to be planted by Cohagen for Harry to actually find this out in reality. The first 3 seem genuinely surprised by the freakout. I doubt the nail changing receptionist is in on the conspiracy.

  2. lee OTI Staff #

    Wow, I’m actually surprised that “Yes, Quaid got his ass to Mars” is ahead in the poll. One good piece of evidence for “dream” is the scene where the Rekall guy appears on Mars to tell Quaid all of the terrible things that will happen to him if he doesn’t take the pill and exit the dream.

    But I want to believe that Quaid did get his ass to Mars. It makes the film much more satisfying of an experience. Endings where it’s revealed to be all a dream tend to leave viewers feeling betrayed and dissatisfied. “St. Elsewhere” is an obvious example:

    But then again, this is Paul Verhoeven we’re talking about. Pleasing his audience is probably not his number one priority.

    Anyway, I say, Reality! Quaid got his ass to Mars!

  3. bob #

    When Quaid was in the chair and they were asking him to describe what type of woman he is attracted to, you saw a picture of Melina on the screen. That is too large a coincidence to get past and the best proof that it was all a dream.

  4. gerant #

    When Quaid is locked into the chair preparing for his Rekall you can overhear one of the employee’s say “Wow, a blue sky on Mars. I’ve never seen that before.”

    This has always lead me to believe that it is all a dream. The employee blatantly points out the ending of the film before the ride has even begun!

    • Jeff Griffith #

      The “blue sky on Mars” comment plus the Rekall folks showing Quaid Melina’s picture before the vacation begins both cinched up the dream hypothesis for me.

  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Gerant –


    I totally had not considered that, and you’ve shaken me to the core.

    I’m changing my vote.

    – Matt

  6. Tom #



    One notable counter-example is “Newhart,” which turned the “it was all a dream” trope into the greatest sitcom ending of all time.

  7. lee OTI Staff #

    @Gerant: the Rekall scene is indeed pivotal. We see the employees sedate Quaid, then put him away in a taxi. Then Quaid comes to in the taxi, and he’s off on his adventure.

    In the “dream” interpretation, how are we supposed to interpret the time between his sedation and him waking up in the taxi? Is that “part of his dream,” or did that actually happen? Does his “dream” essentially start when he wakes up in the cab?

  8. gerant #


    The female Rekaller in charge of Quaid’s trip flicks her assistant the Rekall program which I assume holds all the fantasies Quaid would like to experience. He catches it and comments, “That’s a new one, blue sky on Mars.”

    After a little chit chat concerning Quaid’s relationship with his wife the assistant says “All systems are go.”

    The Rekaller now states and questions, “Then we’re set. Ready for dream land?”

    I believe that it is here that you will find the definitive pivot point. The moment we see Quaid receive his sedative is the beginning of his Rekall. Quaid groans and our adventure begins.

    As for all the exposition between here and the taxi, I’m prone to think that this exists for the same reason Richter exists outside of Quaids own personal experience. I assume that Rekall works much like an on-line RPG. The implanted memory is more than just Quaid’s personal experience, it’s a universe of characters and scenarios that as a whole complete Quaid’s Rekall.

    And so to answer your question straight… Yes, I believe it’s all a dream after that specific pivot point.

    On a different note:
    I’ve been frequenting for most of this year and have thoroughly enjoyed almost every article. Even subjects I have no interest in have become far more intriguing thanks to this site. Thanks for the good times! It’s been fun to weigh in on something I care passionately about so I am sure that you will be hearing more from me over the following Verhoeverthinking It week!

  9. lee OTI Staff #

    @gerant: Thanks, glad you’re enjoying the site, and thanks for contributing to this discussion!

    As for the exposition in question here (when Quaid flips out and the employees give him emergency sedation), I find it hard to believe that all of that was intended to be part of Quaid’s adventure. According to the dream interpretation, there are things that Rekall intended to happen and things that Rekall did not intend to happen. Quaid flipping out is clearly part of the latter.

    In other words, I think this exposition sequence of events is “real.” Something actually goes wrong, and the Rekall employees actually sedate him and put him in a cab.

    From there, one of two things happen:

    “All a Dream” option: Quaid doesn’t wake up in the cab. He keeps dreaming and experiences his adventure on Earth, then Mars. Meanwhile, in reality, he’s found in the cab unconscious and presumably taken back to Rekall for further “treatment.”

    “All Reality” option: Quaid wakes up in the cab and the events of the movie actually occur.

  10. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    And let me ask another question. IF it’s all a dream, what do we make of the mysterious man who comes to Quaid’s room on Mars, and tells him it’s all a dream. He explains that the program has gone wrong, and if Quaid doesn’t take the pill as a symbolic gesture of wanting to wake up, he’ll stay in the dream indefinitely. Is this just a pre-scripted twist to the spy story? Or is the guy being totally honest – he really WAS sent by Rekall to try and help Quaid out of the fantasy?

  11. Rooker #

    The book does a better job of giving a plausible explanation for the instant atmosphere thing. It was still rubbish scientifically but it was fine for fantasy.

    The book has a couple of interesting twists not in the movie, at least if you like sci-fi.

  12. Mads Ejstrup #

    But how, to those who think he got to Mars, do you explain that the scenes were he chooces what kind of Rekall-Holiday he want’s, the pics out all the elements that later come true? He’s wants to be a secret agent and he even pics his dream woman to be part of his dream and she looks exactly like Rachel Ticotin.

  13. Simon Levin #

    The one thing I always got confused with about Total Recall was if Quaid was Hauser, then how did he know Melina? And why did Melina know Hauser as Quaid. Thats one big fucking plot hole in my book, unless someone can explain that.

  14. GMan #

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but – in support of the “ass to Mars” side of the argument – isn’t it explained to Quaid that that everything in his mundane life (i.e. the first bit of the film) was in fact the dream, and that the action-packed, “see you at the party” stuff was the reality? The visit to Rekall is his wake up call.

    This way, references to future occurrences, such as his taste in women, type of desired vacation, etc. are merely him dreaming about things in his real life.

    • Dan #

      Yes! That helps put the “got his ass to Mars” idea into a possibility. He picked the adventure and the girl because his real life Mars alter ego is living it?

      • Brian McCandliss #

        Yep, and maybe I just THOUGHT I was playing DOOM, but it was really just part of the game-plot, and I was actually the marine saving the planet from Hell. Because that’s how silly it is, to claim that it was real.

  15. Mike Prince #

    I’ve taken the film to be entirely a dream sequence after he first falls asleep in the chair at Rekall. His awakening and flipping out is all part of the memory “experience” he paid for as a secret agent. The details of the description of the secret agent package are too coincidental.

    Therefore, I take it that the head of Rekall really is inserted to help guide Quaid out of his mental delusion. Hence at the end, when the screen turns to white right after the big romantic kiss, that’s Quaid’s brain fading away while he is being lobotomized. And that’s the kind of ending I expect from Verhoeven.

    Just my two cents, hope it helps. Love the site.

    • Brian McCandliss #

      The salesman-tech also ADMITTED that someone got lobotomized, just like his construction-worker buddy warned him; he just brushed off the concerns, saying it was 100% safe.

  16. Rich #

    Let’s be honest, there’s no use deducing Total Recall in hopes of finding some backbone coherency connecting it all into a logical, understandable plotline.

    The scene where the man from Rekall comes into the apartment and offers Quaid a red-pill offers no insight to the question at hand. Why shouldn’t he be pre-programmed into the story? Furthermore, Quaid sees the man sweating (which, in theory, a digital fabrication would have no reason to do), so there’s enough evidence for either conclusion.

    Isn’t the whole idea of Rekall to make an experience that Quaid doesn’t know is false? Wouldn’t the best way to do that be to thrust him into a situation where he has reason to question whether or not the recall worked? If the company raised to the expectations it proclaims for itself, the only way to give a one-hundred percent satisfactory recall experience is to make the client actually believe, in his core, the fabrication is, in fact, real.

    • Brian McCandliss #

      If you have to stretch the argument that thin, it clearly doesn’t hold up. It’s supposed to be a memory, not a living experience where he makes decisions. Dr. Edgemar (Roy Hendricks) wouldn’t be implanted, because he was in the commercial, and it would sort of ruin the realism, like if you were supposedly working with the CIA, and and Sylvester Stallone pops in as your assigned sidekick, John Rambo. GAME OVER! That’s a DREAM!

  17. E11evenE11even #

    I am for it all being a dream. After the fight scene with his “planted” wife. She tels him “what can I say, your whole life is a dream”..however for those who believe it’s not a dream, if you pay attention to the scene where the rekall salesman is telling him about the cost of the trip, you can see the receptionist watching them suspiciously through the window, and immediately get on the phone with someone. This may explain how his co-worker knew he went to rekall.

  18. J7 #

    i’m in favor of Mike Prince interpretation.

    my first opinion was: when he fall asleep for the first time is where the dream begin (all of the dream setup/preparation is there in the dream). but there was too much other things in the movie that got me in confusion.

    I realized after seeing this comment that almost all get in place if the guy with the red pill was really implanted because this scene is another pivot point (i think). i was already thinking : hey, if in his vacation dream at rekall, he kill his wife and then release an atmosphere on mars, how the hell he is going to think that this dream was really his vacations when he will wake up. just going to wake up, take a taxi to home, say hello to his wife and check the news seeing terrorist on mars and etc…Rekall said it would be as real as real vacation it got to be sync’ing
    with his reality somehow.

    the guy with the pill said if he kill him and refuse to get back, he is going live his dream up to the end then be lobotomized. i think he cannot get back from this and then say nothing of this appened

    (sorry for the bad english, french is my first language)

    • Brian McCandliss #

      The vacation wasn’t supposed to go that way where he kills his wife; it all went horribly wrong. He’s supposed to find Quaato and start the reactor, create a blue sky on Mars, beat the bad guy and save the day– VACATION OVER.
      Of course he’d know that it didn’t really happen that way, it was called an “ego trip,” but it was supposed to be a fun fantasy that would feel like he was really a hero, like a James Bond movie.

  19. Brian McCandliss #

    The answer: NEITHER! IT’S FICTION! It doesn’t HAVE to make sense!
    In Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose,” an absurd series of events takes place involving a barber finding his customer’s nose in his bread, and his wife accuses him of cutting it off on purpose; the nose then disguises itself as an ambassador, which is arrested as an imposter and returned to the customer. The “surprise ending” is that Gogol was simply bored and started writing nonsense; meanwhile the moral is that fiction doesn’t have to make sense.
    Here we have a similarly absurd plot where Dorothy chooses to remain in Oz, and we’re expected to seriously consider that perhaps she’s really there. And even this made no sense, since Cohaagen could not have possibly wanted to send Dr. Edgemar, a memory-salesman, to Mars to risk his life to get gun-wielding Quaid to take a Red Pill, if Coahagen was using him to infiltrate the aliens– including the “2-headed monster” mentioned in the Rekal ego-trip description, who turns out to be Quaato, to avoid the “blue sky on Mars” which eventually comes along as well?
    Sorry, Toto, you’re still in Kansas…. lobotomized.
    But of course fiction doesn’t have to make sense, so it’s whatever the author intended– including leaving it deliberately ambiguous.

  20. pie #

    It’s a psychotic break, and in fact, Quade’s reality after it all goes wrong. He never wakes up from the fantasy.
    1) Blue sky on mars mentioned by assistant right at the start
    2) Melina’s Picture chosen from the database
    3) The Alien Ice-Melting Machine shown on the choices for alien artifacts

    These three things prove it’s a dream.

    Everything from after the sedate him. All a dream. Until… he actually has a psychotic break. His brain, presumably prone to flights of fancy and the idea that he is meant for something more, refuses to believe he his dreaming. He continues the story and twists it… killing his wife etc. This should leave the audience satisfied as it’s technically not a dream.. it’s Quade’s reality from which he never escapes. I think he probably was developing mental health issues before recall and the trip did the rest.

    • Brian McCandliss #

      The Alien Ice-Melting Machine was shown on the choices for alien artifacts?
      Was this in the original, or the re-make? I didn’t see it in the original with Arnold.

  21. Eric #

    I believe the events of the film really happened based on one thing.
    Quaid is not present in every scene.
    Had the movie stuck with Quaid the entire time, this would be one thing because his delusion would build a world centered entirely around him that could not exist without him being there. That would make perfect sense for the dream scenario.
    However, there are many occasions where the film leaves him to show other characters interacting, sometimes miles away from his location, even staging traps which he falls right into. These things would not occur independently of the character had it all been a delusion, because the characters would require his presence to exist.

  22. Shane White #

    Hi…. One thing is Melina is on the tv monitor when Arnie created his ultimate woman… This itself is strong evidence that it is all a manufactured secret agent dream.

  23. Brian McCandliss #

    Three words: IT’S A MOVIE!
    It doesn’t HAVE to make sense!
    At the start of the movie, Quaid has a dream about being on Mars with the girl before he picks her out, and then he died from movie-decompression; but then the Rekall technicians talk about details from the dream etc.
    And note this: there’s no sequel! If Mars became an Earth-like planet with alien technology, wouldn’t that merit a sequel?


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