Mars is a hellscape. Step onto the planet without a protective spacesuit and your eyes will pop out of their sockets as your blood vessels burst and your entire body convulses. At least, that’s the premise of one of the most successful science fiction movies to ever set foot on the red planet.
Luckily, the Mars colonists in Total Recall’s imagined future don’t venture outside all that much, living in large domes filled with breathable air instead. But these domes are a different kind of hell. For many, the conditions are terrible. People are charged for essential resources and poor radiation shielding has led to genetic mutations.
There’s a lot of wild and escapist sci-fi in Total Recall. Talking taxis, a three-breasted lady, flashing memory implantation machines, a was-it-all-a-dream? ending, and a psychic rebel leader conjoined to his brother George’s stomach.
But the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from director Paul Verhoven also forces us to consider the harsh realities of life on Mars — and how those in power might one day control the planet’s precious resources. Is Total Recall a vision of humanity’s future life on Mars? Let’s take a closer look.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
Can you take a stroll on Mars?
Establishing how hostile conditions are on Mars in the first scene of Total Recall is vital from a story-telling perspective. It sets the tone for the film and provides a stark contrast to the movie’s uplifting ending. According to Dr. Nicholas Heavens, who works at the research non-profit the Space Science Institute and specializes in Martian weather and climate, it’s also highly accurate.
“It might not be as visually impressive as in Total Recall, but leaving the pressurized environment of your Mars base would have fatal consequences,” Heavens tells Inverse.
This is because the atmosphere is mostly made from carbon dioxide, and the air is very thin.
“The atmospheric pressure is around 150 times less than on Earth, Heavens adds.”
Dr. Erin McDonald, an astrophysicist, writer, producer, and Star Trek science advisor, says it helps to think of Mars as a vacuum. “You know those science museum experiments with bell jars where you suck all the air out to see what happens in a vacuum? When those perform their best, the ‘atmosphere’ inside is comparable to Mars.”
“Your eyes would not pop out.”
But the pressure problem is one of many.
“Mars is much more exposed to solar winds and radiation than Earth is because Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field,” McDonald says. “So although it might not be immediate, you’d get one heck of a sunburn, too.”
So what would it look like if we stepped outside on Mars? Would death be inevitable? Would our eyes bulge out of their sockets as Schwarzennager’s at the end of the movie?
“As soon as he was pushed out, he would have been knocked for a loop by the burst eardrums and some blood vessels in the face, suffocated in about a minute, and been found frozen with a terrible case of sunburn on exposed skin,” Dr. Heavens says. “An analogy with what divers experience during rapid depressurization suggests there might be some eye damage, but your eyes would not ‘pop out’ in the same way.”
Could we grow our own atmosphere on Mars
Total Recall’s mining operations on Mars reveal a big, million-year-old secret: ancient alien technology that can terraform the planet. As Arnold’s character explains, “The whole core of Mars is ice, the reactor melts it, and it releases the oxygen [...] Enough for the whole planet.”
Assuming there’s no alien tech hidden on Mars in real life, is there at least some truth to the idea that we could use the planet’s insides to make it more hospitable on the surface?
“Mars doesn’t have a glacial core. The core of every planet is hot; heat left over from formation,” says Sara Seager OC, an astronomer, planetary scientist, and professor at MIT. “There are giant glaciers at the Martian north and south poles, made mostly of carbon dioxide but also of water.”
Could these glaciers be used to give Mars a breathable atmosphere?
“People definitely speculate about terraforming Mars,” Seager says. “Melting the polar ice caps would release these potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus warming the planet by creating a greenhouse atmosphere.” However, we’d still have to find a way to generate oxygen.
“We’d have to replenish the atmosphere faster than it’s being lost.”
Dr. Tanya Harrison, a geoscientist who has worked on multiple NASA missions and is now the Director of Strategic Science Initiatives at Planet Labs, says one way to produce breathable oxygen would be to mine it from the atmosphere.
“Thanks to science, we can rip oxygen off of carbon dioxide,” Harrison says, “and NASA’s Perseverance rover actually has an instrument onboard called MOXIE that is doing this as we speak!”
Bigger versions of MOXIE — which stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — could generate enough oxygen for human bases. However, the lack of a magnetic field on Mars means any long-term plans would be a challenge.
“Without the protection of a magnetic field, the solar wind is slowly stripping away the atmosphere,” Harrison says. “We’d have to replenish the atmosphere faster than it’s being lost, and we’d be making that atmosphere from finite resources.”
Are we moving towards a Martian dystopia?
At the core of Total Recall lies a devastating and all-too-familiar story of gross inequality. The rulers of Mars control its resources and treat their citizens poorly. They have the means to make Mars liveable for everyone but choose to keep it quiet.
We might not have established our own presence on Mars yet, but many people are concerned that’s exactly how those with the power, money, and means will treat the red planet and its future human inhabitants.
“It sucks and I hate it.”
“Right now we are in a capitalism-driven space race,” astrophysicist Erin McDonald says. “So if corporations establish an off-world presence, I can see them using fundamental resources to generate profit. Any space development efforts with a profit-driven mindset will take advantage of this. It sucks and I hate it.”
Although everyone Inverse spoke to for this article had a similar opinion, there was some hope for a future brighter than the one we so often see in dystopian fiction.
“Early on, humans will be in an environment where everyone has to play a role to keep the base up and running for survival. Inherently, that means we’ll have to take better care of each other and create a sense of collective community.” geoscientist Tanya Harrison says. “As someone idealistically dreaming of a Star Trek-like future, I would hope we learn from our mistakes on Earth.”
But Total Recall isn’t solely a warning about our future on Mars. Under its sci-fi set dressing, there’s a much more urgent lesson plenty of people currently in power don’t need to become an administrator on Mars to act like a dystopian villain – they already do.
They have the means to drastically improve the lives of millions, but they either choose not to or have set their sights on something else. Think of Elon Musk’s focus on Mars, which he’s justified by saying: “Life can't just be about solving problems.” (Sounds about right when you’re one of the privileged few who don’t have any.)
We need to think more like Total Recall’s psychic rebel leader Kuato., We need to open our minds and unlock ways to take better care of the Earth and the lives of everyone on it before we venture out into the stars. Otherwise, our home planet might soon bear a much closer resemblance to Paul Verhoven’s Martian hellscape.
Total Recall is streaming now on HBO Max.