Viewers’ overall preference for the original seems to be widely attributed to nostalgia or fondness for Arnold’s acting, but in fact what makes the old movie better is that the characters’ actions and relationships just make so much more sense.
Arnold is an ordinary manual laborer of the future who’s so obsessed with going to Mars that not even his seductive wife can distract him from his dream of going there. He visits a business called Rekall that sells memories of perfect adventures and vacations that people can’t have in real life, but something goes wrong during the memory-implantation procedure and suddenly Arnold is being hunted. He goes to Mars, gets the girl and saves the planet. Or does he?
Feminism accounts for some of the differences between the original and the remake. The 1990 version has a feisty female rebel and a feisty female secret agent, but the rebel is a prostitute and the secret agent is also more or less hired out. Those roles had some ground-breaking elements but didn’t totally suit the sensibilities of two decades later. Also, the alien and psychic elements were dropped and obviously the setting was changed.
Interestingly, the original movie, I’m told, isn’t much like the story it was inspired by, Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”.
Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Total Recall (1990)
Arnold dreams that he and an unfamiliar woman are holding hands and happily exploring the surface of Mars, but there’s no air, so when his faceplate cracks, he wakes up in a panic.
From his futuristic home on Earth, Arnold is watching a news broadcast about rebels on Mars. His wife tries to get him to stop thinking about Mars and just enjoy life.
Arnold says there should be more to life than this.
On the train to work, Arnold sees a cheesy ad for Rekall, a memory implantation service.
One coworker says he knew someone who went to recall Rekall and as a result suffered brain damage, but (I think) another coworker tells him to go and to ask for someone specific there.
Break into Two
Arnold not only buys the Mars package, after the salesman’s pitch about how he can take a vacation from himself (an Ego Trip), he springs for the add-on that changes his virtual identity from a mere holiday-maker to a secret agent.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Something goes wrong with the procedure. Arnold has a “schizoid embolism”! He wakes up thinking he really is a secret agent. Staff subdue him and shove him in a self-driving taxi. When he gets out, he is attacked by coworkers and kills half a dozen people. Confused and horrified, he returns home, where he gets attacked by his wife, who turns out not to be his wife after all, but some kind of agent. She says he isn’t who he thinks, but she doesn’t know who he is.
Arnold flees to a hotel, where he gets a phone call leading him to a suitcase in which he finds money, ID, gear, and a recorded message from himself telling him to remove a tracking device in his head and then go to Mars.
When he arrives on Mars, he’s helped by a friendly taxi driver. The clerk at the Mars Hilton (this movie is full of product placement) tells him there’s something in the hotel safe deposit box for him. It’s a flyer that says, in his own handwriting, that for a good time, he should find Melina.
On the way to find her, he gives money to a deformed girl who is apparently psychic (she correctly guesses his astrological sign). This is an important kind act because it establishes his sympathy for mutants.
When he finds her, Melina is angry with him and he doesn’t know why.
At the Mars Hilton, Arnold is visited by a man claiming to be a virtual visitor from Rekall. He says what Arnold is experiencing isn’t real; to exit the scenario, Arnold should take a red pill. (OMG, is there a blue pill, too? No? Oh.) Arnold’s fake wife shows up to corroborate this story. Arnold almost buys it, but sees a bead of sweat run down the supposedly virtual visitor’s head and smells a rat. He shoots the visitor, enemies burst in, Melinda comes to assist Arnold, and the chase is on.
Bad Guys Close In
We’ve been shown that there’s an evil corporate dude in control of the production and distribution of air on Mars. He scolds his minion for losing control of the Arnold situation. The minion feels resentful not only for being scolded but also because Arnold’s fake wife was actually his wife. When, during the chase, Arnold kills her, he gets super angry and tries to kill Arnold, despite orders to capture him alive.
Arnold escapes into the secret rebel hideout with the help of Melina, the mutants, and the taxi driver, who is also a mutant. He is taken to see the rebel leader, Kuato, who is a kind of psychic mutant Siamese twin. Kuato is supposed to be able to read the evil corporate dude’s secret in Arnold’s mind, though he doesn’t remember it himself.
Kuato tells him to start the alien reactor to save his people.
All is Lost
Enemies burst in, led by the traitorous, mercenary taxi driver. The evil corporate dude kills Kuato and explains that everything has gone according to his and Arnold’s plan; in another recording, Arnold admits that he erased his own memory so that he could infiltrate the rebel group without raising suspicions.
Dark Night of the Soul
Arnold is forced into a memory implantation chair (so is Melina) so that he can become his old evil self again. Meanwhile, the mutants who helped them are gasping for air because the machines have been shut off by the evil dude, who when giving the order to deprive them, symbolically smashed a tank of goldfish.
Break into Three
Without any help, just muscles and determination, Arnold escapes the restraints and frees Melina. They run to the secret alien reactor.
To fight his pursuers, Arnold uses a hologram-generating watch from the suitcase of items he gave himself. On the way to the reactor, he manages to kill the angry minion whose wife he had been sleeping with. Then he confronts the evil dude in the reactor room. The window gets shattered in the fight and Arnold pushes him outside, where he gasps and presumably dies. Arnold manages to activate the reactor before also being swept outside with Melina. They begin to gasp, but before they die, the reactor floods the planet with air and bursts the domes. The mutants, saved, wander outside and gaze up happily at the blue sky.
Arnold and Melina are standing outside on Mars without suits, breathing freely.