Earth & Conservation

Mars, Membranes, and Memories: The Science Behind ‘Total Recall’

Seeker’s Bad Science podcast looks at the oddly prescient technologies of the 1990 sci-fi blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Total Recall, director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi freakout, is famous for a lot of reasons. The film was the first adaptation of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick to achieve genuine blockbuster status (after 1982’s Blade Runner, which underperformed at the box office — more on the science of that film here). Total Recall also boasted eye-popping special effects, and with reigning action king Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, it was pretty much a guaranteed commercial success.

Nearly 30 years later, Total Recall still holds up critically as well, thanks to a strong script that manages to convey the extremely weird science of Dick’s original short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Compared to your typical action movie fare, Total Recall was (and remains) a genuine mind twister.

The movie’s fundamental strangeness informs this week’s installment of Bad Science, Seeker’s podcast on the real-world science behind popular movies. Host Ethan Edenberg welcomes Dr. Laura Kerber, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and resident expert on the planet Mars. Comic Brent Weinbach also sits in to explore the film’s strange twists.

Speaking of which, the film’s central twist concerns the nature of perception itself — a lifelong obsession of Philip K. Dick’s. In the movie, our hero Quaid travels to the planet Mars. Or does he? The film imagines a future where commercial memory implants can be purchased. Is Quaid really living the story we’re watching, or is he acting out a false memory?

Weinbach contends that the ambiguity of the story actually helps with suspension of disbelief.

“Any flaws in logic or contrivances are allowed, because it’s just a dream,” he says. “There were things that were just a little too coincidental, a little too contrived, but by making the decision that this is fantasy all the way through — that he’s acting out this narrative in his head — then hey, anything goes.”

But Dr. Kerber disagrees.

“I have the opposite opinion,” she says. “I think that it was totally real and it all actually happened.”

RELATED: Scientists Can Implant Fake Memories in the Brain: Here’s How

Maybe the weirdest part of all: Scientists have shown that they can actually manipulate memories in the brain — the mouse brain, anyway. In a landmark study earlier this year, researchers demonstrated a technique in which they manipulate neurons to erase memories and otherwise tinker with the minds of mice. No, really.

Aside from the strange neuroscience, the conversation turns to Dr. Kerber’s areas of expertise: space travel and all things Martian. Early in the show, the panel discusses one of the more innovative special effects sequences, in which characters are exposed to the vacuum of space when they lose the protection of their futuristic space suits.

Would the loss of pressurization on Mars really look like that? Dr. Kerber provides some hard numbers.

“In space you would die within about 30 seconds,” she says. “On Mars, the pressure is still low enough that your lungs would rupture if you didn’t breathe out.”

RELATED: Colonizing Mars Will Rely on These Next-Gen Technologies

Kerber says humans need a minimum amount of atmospheric pressure, real or artificial, to survive on the Red Planet.

“The pressure on Mars is about 6 millibars, which is very low,” Kerber says. “The amount of pressure you need is about 50 millibars. That’s called the Armstrong Limit, in a pressure suit. You can’t go below 50 with just a pressure suit holding you in. Then you need a pressurized space suit.”

Kerber notes that the film’s concept of future space suits — as a kind of transparent membrane — also has roots in real science.

“Some of the people designing the next generation of space suits have this idea,” she says. “Instead of putting you in a suit that generates air pressure to hold you in, the suits would just physically hold you in with a membrane.”

Tune into the Total Recall episode for more on the science behind the movie, including some pleasantly reckless conjecture on atmospheric engineering, self-driving vehicles, and the probability of life on Mars.