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One of the trickier elements of creating a believable setting in a fantasy or science-fiction story is establishing that setting’s economy. Because while it may not factor into the story very much, it gives the audience a more fleshed out world that’s easier to invest in.
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This is especially pertinent for science-fiction, since the genre is rooted in what humans can achieve as opposed to what they can’t. So when we get something like the economy in Total Recall, it’s hard to take seriously. Granted, the 2012 remake’s economy arguably makes less sense but the original film’s economy isn’t perfect either.
While Total Recall never specifies when it takes place, it’s clearly set in the future since space colonization is achieved and there are technologies on display that we’re still developing. These include self-driving cars, holograms, and the artificial manipulation of memories.
But with that in mind, the construction equipment that Total Recall’s protagonist Douglas Quaid and his colleagues use is contemporary to when the film was made in 1990. Now one could argue they’re using “older” technology because it’s cheaper, but it also means higher repair bills. Plus, it seems unrealistic to current technology trends with 3D printing and robotics taking over.
The Rekall Experience
At the crux of Total Recall’s story is the Rekall company, which specializes in giving people false memories of places they’ve never been to and experiences they never had. While this is proven to be an imperfect system, it does make one wonder why more people don’t do it.
Because as the Rekall commercials and salesman that Quaid talks to claim, getting a memory implant is relatively cheaper than actually going on vacation. Additionally, this technology seems widely available as we see the memory-implanting machine on both Earth and Mars. So why would anyone go on vacation to begin with if they can just create a fake one?
Self-Driving Taxis On Earth, But Not Mars
Among the memorable scenes from Total Recall is when Quaid wakes up in a self-driving taxi after the botched memory implant at Rekall, wondering how he got there. Now it’s established that these taxis are everywhere on Earth, since we see similar cars driving around. Yet on Mars, all the taxis are driven by real people.
Seems inconsistent, doesn’t it? Because either the Martian economy is so bad they can’t afford self-driving cars or chose not to make them. Although neither of these explanations work as we see plenty of people on Mars, and choosing not to make them would seem impractical since they would be relatively safe.
Expense Of Space Tourism
One aspect in Total Recall’s setting that’s never fully addressed is the cost of traveling to planetary colonies, let alone going on a space cruise that Quaid’s wife Lori briefly mentions. All we’re told is they can be expensive, which makes Lori’s suggestion baffling since she doesn’t have a job (regardless if she’s an undercover agent) and Quaid is a construction worker.
Therefore, it seems unrealistic that they could afford to go since Quaid’s salary alone wouldn’t be enough. On top of that, it is unlikely space travel will become affordable for everyone in the near future given how expensive it currently is.
Limited Real Estate On Mars
In addition to space travel, living on another planet will most likely be expensive as well. Therefore, the real estate prices would be pretty high and limited. Now on the Martian colony in Total Recall, the people seem to only live inside the canyon walls instead of out in the open.
While this does makes sense, as one would be protected against the Martian dust storms, it implies the real estate is limited. But given the large number of people we see on Mars minus the tourists, it makes one wonder how they’re able to live there since they’re not all wealthy.
Available Jobs For Mutants
Coming in various shapes and sizes, the Mutants are considered a degenerate class in the Total Recall universe since they were created from poor shielding against Mars’ relatively high radiation levels. Therefore, the only jobs we see them holding are fortune tellers and prostitutes in the Venusville district of Mars.
Yet given that these Mutants have psychic abilities such as mind-reading, as demonstrated by the rebels’ leader Kuato, one would think society would have more use for them. For instance, they could be used in espionage and security. Plus, if Mutants like Benny can get away with disguising themselves then there’s no reason why they can’t hold more jobs.
Value Of Martian Colony Cash
Among the items that Quaid gets in a suitcase from his secret agent self, Hauser, is red dollar bills that are supposed to be the currency used on the Martian colony. With Martian governor Vilos Cohaagen’s face printed on them, they range from 1 to 100 in terms of value.
But we don’t know if their value is the same as those of American dollar bills, let alone any other currency on Earth. For that matter, we never see any form of Terran money used or converted into Martian colony cash. Thus, we’re left wondering what the people on Earth use as currency.
The Credits System
Next to the Martian colony cash, Credits are the only other form of currency mentioned in Total Recall. Yet we don’t see any cards or cash representations of it, even though the Rekall salesman briefly mentions refunding Quaid. In addition, the self-driving taxi asks for payment in Credits.
So perhaps the transactions of Credits are done electronically through some kind of device, like the Credit chips in Star Trek. Although, we never see any kind of unusual device carried by anyone in Total Recall for transaction purposes. But considering the film chooses not to focus on this Credits system too much, it clearly wasn’t thought out.
It’s frequently mentioned in Total Recall that the Northern Bloc, which is Earth’s main government, is at war and dealing with the rebels on Mars. Yet this doesn’t seem to affect Mars’ tourism as we see lots of people arriving there during the famous “Two weeks” scene.
Now while there are tourists in reality who go to dangerous places deliberately, it’s highly unrealistic for people to stick around when there are frequent attacks like the ones in the movie. Plus, the flights between Earth and Mars would probably be less frequent or even cancelled depending on the actual frequency of rebel attacks.
The Turbinium Trade
Another element that’s brought up throughout Total Recall’s runtime is Turbinium, a fictional material that’s mined from Mars and terraforms the planet at the end of the film. But it’s never explained what Turbinium is or what it’s used for.
While some speculate that Turbinium has military applications, such as being used by the Northern Bloc for their weapons, there’s no absolute confirmation of this. So essentially, we’re left with something akin to the Unobtanium substance in Avatar. Now even though follow-up material explained what Unobtanium does, it’s no different from Turbinium as they’re both merely plot devices and nothing else.
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