Both the 2012 and 1990 versions of Total Recall rely on the same back story for the main character, Quaid:

  1. Quaid was working for Cohagen
  2. Quaid agreed to be brainwashed to think he switched to the rebel side
  3. brainwashed Quaid spent time helping the rebels
  4. brainwashed Quaid was captured by Cohagen's men
  5. brainwashed Quaid was brainwashed again to think he was Average Joe on an assembly line

Both movies start after step 5 has occurred, with Quaid in Average Joe mode. We eventually learn that the Cohagen wants Quaid to get close to the rebel leader -- so why would Cohagen have reprogrammed Quaid as an Average Joe? How did that advance Cohagen's plan?

(As the story unfolds, Average-Joe Quaid actually does manage to get closer to the rebel leader -- but only by fighting off Cohagen's forces every step of the way, and only after going to Recall, which Quaid's "wife" and "friend" had tried to stop him from doing.)

  • Did anyone remember the tattoo the recall people put on his arm? It was gone, I think the whole flim was a dream of memories the recall people gave to him. Otherwise he would still have that tattoo on his arm.
    – user3614
    Dec 16, 2012 at 8:38
  • I would like to agree with the opinion that the entire series of events that had happened after Quaid went to rekall was part of the dream offered by the rekall....but he gets stuck in his dream.... In the 1990 version,,the doctor who was sent to recover quaid from the dream told him that he was suffering from something like paranoid dissociative break....and when quaid asked "what happens if i kill you" to doc. the doc replied that quaid would be stuck in his dream and there would be no-one to guide him out of his dream...he also added that "you would be working with the rebels and in another
    – user3674
    Dec 22, 2012 at 9:46
  • There is mention that they were waiting to "activate" his "memory cap". I guess the plan was meant to unfold kind of how it did but cleaner, since going to Rekall popped the cap early. Cohaagen was just busy making preparations? Aug 7, 2020 at 5:49

5 Answers 5


If I recall correctly, in the 1990 movie the resistance leader could tell if someone's mind had been tampered with. So Cohagen needed to create someone who was a part of the resistance but also had a legit reason for mind tampering. This is accomplished by capturing BW-Quaid and re-brainwashing him. From there, Quaid needed to find his way back to the resistance, but there needed to be an active perception that Cohagen didn't want him getting back to the resistance, thus the "wife" who's trying to stop him. And, once everything came out, the mole needed to be someone who would give the info about the resistance to Cohagen, thus it needed to start with someone loyal, like Quaid.

I presume this is also correct for the new movie.

  • 3
    +1 your answer helps explain the motivation in the 1990 version of Total Recall, but in the 2012 version, the rebel leader does not have the ability to tell if someone's mind has been tampered with.
    – Shiz Z.
    Aug 15, 2012 at 20:22
  • 3
    @ShaneFinneran Sorry about that; I haven't seen the new one. As much as I liked the 1990 version, it was definitely something I didn't think needed to be re-made. ^_^
    – Scivitri
    Aug 15, 2012 at 21:16

I can't say anything for the 1990 version, but I don't think step 2 was included in the 2012 version. I could be wrong, but my understanding was that Quaid worked for the rebels knowing he was a double agent. The video recording that was activated by playing the piano had Quaid stating that he was Cohagen's agent with the mission of getting close to and killing the rebel leader. He said that this mission changed when he met Melina, and she showed him the "truth" about the rebels. So, we are lead to believe that Cohagen realized Quaid had turned, so he gave Quaid the false information about the kill code as an unknown source of disinformation. Then, to make the disinformation seem real, Cohagen captured, brainwashed, and hid Quaid from the rebels. By doing this and having the "wife" complicate things, he made it seem that the info Quaid found out was very important. Once the rebels got the "average Joe" Quaid to the rebel leader, they tried to access the information about the kill code in his brain. But, this just allowed Cohagen to trace the location of the rebels, since the code doesn't exist. In the 2012 version, it seems that Cohagen played Quaid from day one.

So, for the 2012 version, the purpose Quaid served as a factory worker was to be a "trojan horse" and unknowing double agent after he was brainwashed. This allowed Cohagen to pinpoint the rebel leader's location and kill him.

  • This matches my understanding of the movie, leading to another question: from the rebels' perspective, would they really trust Quaid MORE after he was captured and then came back with his mind re-written? Seems like they would be more suspicious, not more trusting. Seems like they would not accept the Trojan Horse.
    – Shiz Z.
    Aug 27, 2012 at 19:19
  • 1
    Melina vouches for him when they get to the tube station to get to the rebel leader. Maybe her feelings for him got in the way of proper judgement...? Also, the rebels needed Quaid to level the playing field, and he supposedly had information too good to pass up. That may have also led them to mistakenly "want" to trust him.
    – user1964
    Aug 27, 2012 at 19:21
  • +1 good points. also the impending invasion of "the colony" helped add urgency, making the rebels more willing to gamble on Quaid.
    – Shiz Z.
    Aug 28, 2012 at 6:00
  • 2
    The problem with this explanation is that Cohagen says the incident at Rekall was unintentional ("a few hiccups along the way"), and that's what triggered the whole him getting back to the rebels. If that hadn't happened, what good would Quaid do to Cohagen by staying in Average Joe mode as planned? Nov 20, 2012 at 5:01

Have you considered the possibility that the film was not real and actually was the dream that Quaid bought?

That would explain why everything happened the way it was explained in the sales pitch and why the girl on the monitor when Quaid described his perfect girl looked exactly like the girl he met on Mars later.

Otherwise there was a very low chance of the plan actually working as so many co-incidences had to line up and that does not include the fact that Cohagen's henchmen did not know the plan and kept trying to kill Quaid.

  • +1 Wow, I love this idea. Hadn't thought of it but it makes lots of sense. Only possible objection that comes to mind: Quaid's adventure begins just before he gets the Recall treatment. Still, this is very intriguing.
    – Shiz Z.
    Sep 4, 2012 at 2:23
  • Or does it start before his treatment ... in his dream and that is how the product hooks the customer's life to the fantasy?
    – Stefan
    Sep 4, 2012 at 18:34
  • 2
    "The ending is ambiguous, just as Verhoeven desired. “Gary [Goldman] and I really emphasized that there were two realities,” he says. “And that both realities were true at every moment. It is a dream and it is true.” If that sounds like a risky way to finish an action movie, that’s because it was. At the time, audiences were accustomed to satisfyingly concrete endings; the good guy kills the bad guy and gets the girl. But Verhoeven wasn’t concerned with such preconceptions." theringer.com/movies/2020/6/4/21278539/… Aug 7, 2020 at 4:28
  • Fascinating! Thanks for that. I still think that a dream is more likely but it is good to know that the intention was that it should make you think
    – Stefan
    Aug 7, 2020 at 8:04

I'm not sure about the 1990 version, but I just watched the 2012 version. This is what happened:

  1. Quaid was working for Cohagen to infiltrate and kill the rebel leader, Mythias(?).
  2. Quaid met Melina, then fell in love and was convinced that Cohagen must be stopped.
  3. Quaid was captured by Cohagen's men (showed in the beginning), THEN GOT BRAINSHED into thinking that the bitch cop was his wife and that he was working at the factory.
  4. BW-Quaid regains memory when he goes to the Rekall shop because he wanted a double-agent memory, but since he actually WAS one, cops showed up, he reacted by killing the cops, then started to run away.
  5. The rest is him just finding out about his true identity and stopping the Cohagen's invasion.

Now, to answer your question. My guess is that Cohagen knew the rebel would look for Quaid and try to convince him to give them the nonexistent "kill code" for the "synthetics." This also works because if the plan had gone smoothly, then no police would have gotten hurt or killed.

  • +1 nice explanation. the one thing I don't understand -- the last sentence -- why would no police have gotten hurt?
    – Shiz Z.
    Dec 22, 2012 at 16:37

My take on the 1990 version is this:

  1. Quaid was working for Cohagen.
  2. Quaid agreed to be brainwashed to think he switched to the rebel side.
  3. While with the rebels, Quaid fell in love and his sympathy for the rebels became more innate.
  4. Quaid, worried that he might be captured, made the video for himself telling him how to remove the tracker, etc. Whether he knew then that he was a double agent is hard to say. Maybe his inner training just took over and he did not know.
  5. As Quaid feared, Cohagen decided to pull him out, but loved him like a son, so he had him brainwashed again instead of killing him. He placed people close by to keep an eye on him. In short, he didn't serve any purpose as "average joe" except Cohagen didn't have to kill him.
  6. The Rekall thing was just really bad luck for everyone, except that clearly his fascination with Mars had some basis in his inner mind.
  7. So the effort to get back and rejoin the rebels was genuine, and so was Cohagen's attempts to stop him, but once again he did not want him killed. Maybe because he loved him, and maybe because he was already thinking he might be able to use him, but what he SAYS is he wants him reimplanted and put back into the same cover situation. I think Cohagen just cared about him.
  8. But once Quaid made it to Mars, Cohagen also put someone (taxi driver) on Quaid to try and follow him into the rebel center, and it worked. This was never the master plan, but a way to salvage the original goal.
  9. When Quaid learns of his original identity and goal, he rejects it, even though there is yet another video he made for himself.
  • 2
    I like it in general, but i think Cohagen is just not the person that would invest considerable resources just because he "cares" about someone. Also, as good as Quaids fake-wife played (and maybe enjoyed) her role, she most likely did not plan to do it for the rest of her/his life wouldn't she? Why give Quaid a wife in the first place? I really have to watch the 1990 version again...
    – Rev
    Mar 26, 2013 at 19:32

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