We may be eager to forget its lackluster 2012 remake, but the 1990 blockbuster Total Recall—which was released 25 years ago today—will live forever as a benchmark of gloriously silly science fiction. Even if you’ve rewatched the film ad nauseam on cable reruns, there are still a few facts you might not know about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s modern classic.
1. THE MOVIE WAS IN DEVELOPMENT FOR OVER A DECADE.
In 1976, fledgling screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon teamed up to adapt Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” The pair purchased the rights to the piece that year, but soon hit the first of many delays on the road to the screen.
Difficulties in reimagining the story as a film forced the pair to take a long break from the Dick story to work on a different project. (This distraction would prove rather fortuitous, ultimately becoming the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Alien.) Over the course of many years, the screenplay went through more than 40 revisions.
2. TOTAL RECALL ALMOST COST THE WORLD THE FLY.
Even after Shusett and O’Bannon’s script found a patron in power producer Dino De Laurentiis, setbacks persisted as finding the right director proved challenging. David Cronenberg, then only on the precipice of his cult glory, was the first director assigned to the project. He opted to take on Total Recall instead of an offer to direct a different film: The Fly, which was then snagged by commercial director Robert Bierman.
After spending a year working on the Dick adaptation, Cronenberg parted ways with production, handing the baton off to Tender Mercies director Bruce Beresford. Cronenberg returned his sights to The Fly—a newly vacant job after the departure of Bierman due to a personal tragedy—ultimately making it his most iconic feature. (By the time Total Recall actually went into production, Beresford would be gone, too.)
3. CRONENBERG’S VERSION WAS CONSIDERED TOO FAITHFUL TO THE STORY.
As the story always goes, “creative differences” prompted Cronenberg to jump ship on Total Recall. While the director approached the project hoping to pay homage to Dick’s writing, its producers fostered a divergent vision that Cronenberg described as “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” In a 2003 conversation with WIRED, the filmmaker remembered an odd exchange with the writing team: “Eventually we got to a point where Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you've done? You've done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?’”
4. SOME OF CRONENBERG’S CREATIONS REMAIN IN THE FINAL CUT.
Although the project shifted gears in a major way following Cronenberg’s departure, he did leave behind a few creative concepts that survived in the version of Total Recall that hit theaters. Chief among them was the community of Martian mutants—among the movie’s most memorable elements—including the major character Kuato.
5. THE QUAID/HAUSER CHARACTER WENT THROUGH AN IMAGE OVERHAUL.
Producer De Laurentiis’ initial vision of the film’s hero Douglas Quaid (originally named “Quail”)/Carl Hauser was decidedly more in line with Dick’s short story: A schlubby office drone who dreams of a more exciting life. With this characterization in mind, his first choice for the part was Richard Dreyfuss. Over time, the desired machismo of the film’s leading man increased, prompting suggestions like William Hurt (courtesy of Cronenberg) and Patrick Swayze.
6. AT FIRST, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS TURNED DOWN FOR BEING TOO MANLY.
Despite the gradual growth of Quaid’s imagined virility, there was a limit to how far De Laurentiis was willing to stray from the original character. He insisted that someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger was out of the question for the part and even turned down the Terminator star when Schwarzenegger expressed interest in the role.
7. TO GET THE PART, SCHWARZENEGGER LED ANOTHER COMPANY TO BUY THE MOVIE.
Schwarzenegger saw an opportunity when De Laurentiis’ production company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. The actor convinced Carolco Pictures, with whom he had recently worked on Red Heat, to purchase the rights to Total Recall.
8. SCHWARZENEGGER HAD AN UNUSUAL AMOUNT OF CONTROL OVER PRODUCTION.
The coveted role of Quaid was not the only thing Schwarzenegger won in the transaction: In addition to being welcome to recruit the director of his choice (as a big fan of RoboCop, he picked Paul Verhoeven), Schwarzenegger maintained authority over all creative aspects of the film, script, production, and even elements of distribution.
For instance, Schwarzenegger took issue with the portrayal of the movie in its TriStar Pictures studio trailer, demanding that the company create and release a preview that better represented Total Recall. Furthermore, when the actor was dissatisfied with the middling public awareness conjured by the movie in the weeks leading up to release, he convinced Carolco to invest more and more money into marketing until virtually everyone had heard of Total Recall.
9. THE MOVIE WAS ORIGINALLY RATED “X.”
The notorious “X” rating did not enjoy a particularly long tenure in the culture of United States cinema, starting in 1968 and lasting only up to 1990, when it gave way to “NC-17.” Total Recall, heavy with graphic violence and soaked in bloodshed, would have been one of the last movies rated “X” were it not softened up late in production in the interest of achieving the more commercially viable “R” rating.
10. THE MOVIE’S FUTURISTIC VEHICLES WERE ACTUALLY MEXICAN PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION.
A memorable sequence involves Schwarzenegger’s character speeding away from his pursuers through a futuristic public train station. Though evocative of the film’s 2084 setting, the station and its vehicles were in fact actual features of the Mexico City public transportation system. Minor touch-ups like sleek silver paint and television screens were applied to boost the ultramodern feel, but surprisingly little effort was needed to make the setting read as “of another time.”
11. TOTAL RECALL MARKED THE TRANSITION FROM OLD TO NEW SPECIAL EFFECTS.
The 1990 film was both one of the final movies to heavily utilize miniature effects and one of the first to employ computer-generated imagery. The former camp, which involves the projection of filmed shots inside miniature scale model sets, includes a number of Total Recall’s Mars scenes. In the latter category are only sequences featuring Schwarzenegger’s passage through a transit station’s X-ray machine. The coming years would see CGI quickly become the predominant form of special effects used in Hollywood filmmaking, with the miniature method all but losing its place to more advanced techniques following Total Recall.
12. THE MARTIAN GUARDS WERE REAL AMERICAN SOLDIERS.
All of the actors portraying guards in the movie’s Mars scenes are in fact genuine American Marines and Naval officers.
13. ALMOST EVERYONE GOT SICK OR INJURED ON SET.
Multiple cast and crew members had to be hospitalized during production. First, a craft services foul-up resulted in almost everybody on set enduring a bout of food poisoning. Only Schwarzenegger, who ate privately catered food, and the fanatically health-conscious Shusett were exempt from the illness. Verhoeven required a steady stream of medication and fluids and regular access to a nearby ambulance in order to keep directing through the pain.
Next, associate producer Elliot Schick fell terribly ill due to the rampant air pollution of Mexico City. Finally, the least surprising accident of the lot: Schwarzenegger repeatedly cut and damaged his hand, even breaking his finger at one point, during shooting of the film’s innumerable punching stunts.
14. TOTAL RECALL WAS, POSSIBLY, THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE AT THE TIME OF ITS PRODUCTION.
Although exact accounts of the Total Recall budget are elusive, official estimates have the film costing around $65 million. This neighborhood makes it one of the most—if not the most—expensive movies produced by 1990.
15. THE MOVIE WON AN OSCAR.
By winning the Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the 63rd annual Academy Awards, Total Recall became the first—and to date only—Philip K. Dick film adaptation to win an Oscar. Total Recall was also the final live-action picture to receive the Special Achievement prize; the only film to win since has been Toy Story, recognized five years later for its advancements in computer animation.