Total Recall (1990): Face on Mars represented in the script

leading from 
Total Recall (1990)

a) The story for Total Recall had in earlier stages of its development the idea of a Martian Sphinx that was being excavated was an echo of the idea of the Face of Mars structure seen in photos from the Viking lander in 1976.  

In the Revised Draft Screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon – May 1983, it's described as Martian machinery while later in the January 1986 version it's described as a Martian sphinx

  1. Revised Draft Screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon – May 1983
    This is one of reportedly forty-two screenplay drafts that were written before the film was ultimately shot – including several by David Cronenberg, who was briefly attached as writer/director in the early 1980s.
    Shusett and O’Bannon’s 1983 draft has roughly the same three-act structure as the completed film. Act One – Douglas Quail (“Walter Quail” in this version) goes to Rekall Incorporated where buried memories of his prior identity as a secret agent on Mars are uncovered. Act Two – Pursued by agents who are trying to kill him, Quail escapes Earth and returns to Mars. Act Three – Joined by former girlfriend Melina and other mutated members of the Martian “Resistance,” Quail finds and reactivates ancient Martian machinery to create a force field around the planet and save it from the domination of fascist Earth.
    The May 1983 screenplay has the same lighthearted and adventurous tone as the completed film (think: James Bond in Outer Space). Many of the movie’s best ideas are already in this draft, including: the videotaped messages left by Quail’s former identity, “Hauser,” to help him in his quest; the painful removal of a monitoring device from Quail’s skull; Quail’s escape to Mars disguised as an entirely different person (in this draft, as a dwarf; in the movie, as a middle-aged woman); Benny, the helpful “Rickcycle” (rickshaw/bicycle) driver who ultimately betrays Quail and Melina; Kuato, the leader of the Resistance, revealed to be a baby-like “twin” growing out of the body of a mutated Resistance member (an idea repurposed from Philip K. Dick’s novel, DR. BLOODMONEY); and the emissary from Rekall, Inc. who tries to convince Quail on Mars that it’s all an illusion.
    In this version, both Melina and Quail turn out to be mutants. Quail has the mutant ability to see 3 seconds into the future (an ability he uses exactly once). We meet a fake Resistance leader who is a double of the real Resistance leader, an idea abandoned in the final film version.
    What’s notably missing from this version is an individualized primary villain or antagonist. Quail and the rebels are simply fighting against the shadowy Agency. Although Quail’s “wife,” Kirsten – actually an undercover agent – attacks him in Act One, she does not reappear in Acts Two or Three. Most of the revisions that will occur in subsequent drafts have to do with the story’s problematic final act. (
  2.  Revision by Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield – January 1986 The January 1986 screenplay draft adds a defined antagonist, Vilos Cohaagen (played by Ronny Cox in the movie), who is the director of Earth Intelligence Operation (“EIO”). The hero’s name is now Douglas Quail, same as in the original story. Martian girlfriend, Melina, who was an archeology student in the 5/83 draft, is now “big boss” of the Martian cab company.
    In this version, the bad guys’ motivations are clearer. Cohaagen wants the mutant Martians off Mars so it all belongs to Earth, and is prepared to destroy the atmosphere within the City’s protective dome to accomplish this goal: “They’ll stop resisting when they stop breathing.” Quail and Melina have four hours to get to an ancient Martian Sphinx so they can foil Cohaagen’s plan. Quail is the only one (the missing piece) who can activate the Sphinx, and when he does so, the entire Martian atmosphere is transformed into breathable Earth air: “Just goes to show you. They don’t make Sphinxes like they used to.” (
  3. Film directed by Paul Verhoeven – 1990 The involvement of mega-star, Arnold Schwarzenneger, was the single most important factor in getting the film finally made, and its screenplay – credited onscreen to Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman (from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon, and John Povill) – has been tailored to Schwarzenneger’s particular talents and physique. His cover profession on Earth, for example, is that of a construction worker.
    Director Paul Verhoeven’s principal contribution appears to have been making all of the sex and violence that was implicit in the earlier screenplay drafts more excessive and visceral. The hero’s name is now Douglas Quaid. Martian girlfriend Melina (Rachel Ticotin), who was an archaeology student in the 5/83 draft, and a cab company operator in the 1/86 draft, is now a prostitute, and much of the action takes place in her red light district.
    All of the versions discussed here begin with a dream sequence taking place on Mars, but the film version adds the nightmarish image of Schwarzenegger’s eyes popping out of his head when exposed to the Martian atmosphere. Oxygen, and its absence outside the domed City, is the principal motivating force in this version.
    In addition to the main villain Cohaagen, the movie adds a secondary henchman, Richter (played by Michael Ironside), who does most of the dirty work. He is also romantically involved with Quaid’s fake wife (played in the film by Sharon Stone) whose role has been significantly expanded, including a reappearance in the film’s final act.
    Throughout the movie, as in the previous screenplay drafts, the hero is aided by video recordings made by his former persona, Hauser, but the movie adds a significant twist – Hauser was actually one of the bad guys, a friend and ally of Cohaagen, and Quaid becoming a good guy who helps the rebels save the planet is a development the villains did not foresee. (
Around this time, the popularity of the Face On Mars comparable to the Egyptian sphinx returned, 
in 1986, an interview with Richard C Hoagland was published in a book called "Planetary Mysteries" edited by Richard Grossinger (a shortened form of the interview was published in the July 1986 of The Sun Magazine  ( and in 1987 when Richard C Hoagland released his book Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever that explored the Face on Mars amongst other things.

The Egyptian Sphinx has often compared with the controversial Face on Mars in discussion over the years as well

In Total Recall at some point it became a very peculiar alien looking structure with a flat area to land flying vehicles on the top.

(One might also want to pause and think about the"Tom Corbett space cadet" view-master story from 1954 that involves the discovery of a feline sculpture on Planet Mars. In 1965, John Brunner's sci-fi novel The Martian Sphinx was published, but this book wasn't about Martian ruins)


b) The character Kuato transforms into a representation of sphinx


c) In another drawing it showed a stylised abstract owl like face if that's what you could call it.


d) Paul Verhoeven questions the Face On Mars idea
There was a lot of controversy at the time about the Face On Mars. Was this thing light and shadow or was there really a civilisation that had lived on Mars before earth. Ron Shusett knew that people thought that ideas was crazy and people thought that it was it was for conspiracy nutcases to imagine that there was a civilisation that built these things.

At the time of the movie there were no other signs from the Martian landers but later there were the indications such as water under the surface that people didn't know about then.

It got to a point when the script was handed over to Paul Verhoeven to direct, and he said to Ron "Are we going to say that's real? That on Mars there these things and we finally go there, we didn't see them when the Viking landed, and suddenly you see'em there?"

Ron responded "Ah, yuh, the Face on Mars is real, and we'll finally find that out when we get to that part of the planet."

Paul's view then was "Well that's light and shadows, that's all it is, it looks like a face, if you believe that there's a pyramid like structure there, you must be mad."

Ron replied "I am mad, who else who raised a story with a god damn giant alien worm coming out of your chest? And he was unpretentious, Paul. and he loved that I didn't take myself seriously, that you know, sure I did that because I'm half crazy"

However it seemed Verhoeven appreciated that Ron didn't take himself seriously.
Ron Shusett who appeared to take of some seemingly outlandish believes decided that the face on Mars structure really was an building rather than just something that was a result of light and shadows.

The Face on Mars as photographed in 1976 by the Viking 1 Orbiter

e) Eventually structure that was the Sphinx would soon in production be replaced by a near pyramidal mountain containing the terraforming technology

The mountain in Total Recall (1990) containing the terraforming technology
f) A question I might wonder about is whether there were any actual Martian faces in any of the scripts seen in a way similar to the on Mars in cydonia, since I haven't seen all the scripts, and if this Martian sphinx in Total Recall, was something very separate from the Cydonia face on Mars which still often has been referred to as a sphinx.

g) See also: The D & M pyramid
  1. Robin Maxwell: Tell is about the early days of preproduction when they were building the sets in Mexico City

    Ron Shusett:
    Arnold had gotten the movie made because he got me Verhoeven and he was huge and hot, and he didn't want anybody to change one word of it. He had the same feeling I did. it was working perfectly. It doesn't need to be changed. So I, I arrived there with the kindest of confidence, the thing was going exactly the way I wanted it to go, because in the first in the first meeting with him he said something that won him over just like to Dino. He (Verhoeven) said what about the Face on Mars, what am I going to do about that, we knew Mars was on our script, and you know there was this famous face and he says "what is that, is that you, are we going to say that's real? That on Mars there these things and we finally go there, we didn't see them when the Viking landed, and suddenly you see'em there?"

    I said "Ah, yuh" I said "the Face on Mars is real, and we'll finally find that out when we get to that part of the planet. "

    "Well that's light and shadows, he said' that's all it is, it looks like a face, if you believe that there's a pyramid like structure there, you must be mad."

    I said Paul, "I am mad, who else who raised a story with a god damn giant alien worm coming out of your chest? And he was unpretentious, Paul. and he loved that I didn't take myself seriously, that you know, sure I did that because I'm half crazy" (An Alien in Hollywood podcast episode 5)
  2. Robin Maxwell: Did he pretty much stick to the script
    Shusett: Oh, every bit of it, any, anything I wanted he, he realised he's not going to change. Too many times I turned out right. Even during the shooting. He wanted to do a couple of things different. I said well if you do that there, it's going to be heard of, when you go to the next story point, it happens in the script, a few months later you're going to realised you shouldn't have done that there because. what you're saying, changed now is good, when get later in the story, you cut the artery, you'll have to go back and you won't have that set any more and it won't make sense 'cause what you're changing here from what I wrote is not going to make sense at a point in time on six months later in the movie and sure enough he says you're right, you're right, I would have totally screwed it up, so anything I felt strongly about, he would not try and force me to change

    Robin Maxwell:  What are some of the biggest ideas or visual effects that you and Dan came up with for the movie?

    Shusett: Of course, the Kuato one was the most famous I think

    Robin Maxwell: What about the pyramid, that that pyramid where that helps them get air

    Ron Shusett: Arnold, you thought he was Quaid, who was a secret agent, but he was a double agent. Mars had had air, years before, millions of years before.

    Robin Maxwell: Mmhmm

    Ron Shusett And it was an ancient race but something had happened hit the planet, and destroyed their environment, and so there's a few people left cryogenically suspended and so then they, with.  Earth, when they got advanced enough to go to Mars, they knew that you could re... that there was air machines, terraforming equipment, but they just didn't know how to activate it, and Arnold knew it because he was an ancient guy, he was frozen millions of years ago, he lived on Mars as a citizen, an so Kuato discovered him frozen, realised that he could use this guy for my agent, because he's incredibly powerful and smart, and so in the end what happened, it tapped into memories he had that he originally was an ancient guy from ancient race that lived on Mars, and that we finally find that out in the climax of the story.

    Robin Maxwell: It was very convoluted

    Ron Shusett: It was very convoluted, but it all, it all made sense

    Robin Maxwell: The mind

    Ron Shusett: It was mindful but it was done in such a way you could believe it all, because in a fantasy, if you do it good enough, they'll believe what you show them, if you can make it convincing.(An Alien in Hollywood podcast episode 5)
  3. Harry Duran; Earlier you talk about the face on Mars, and how it was important to tell that back story how he, he was previously on Mars, there was a previous civilisation where had things gone bad so I'm wondering
    Ron Shusett: : There was a civilisation that built these things, it wasn't just light and shadow

    Harry Duran; I wonder if you can tell us where the ideas came from

    Ron Shusett: : In real life there was a big controversy, everybody was saying is the a face on mars real, or is it light and shadow, or was there a civilisation that lived on Mars before Earth, and most people thought that was crazy, you know, you're talking about, you see light and shadow looks like a face, it's not really,  we saw no other sign when we had the landers there, but when we got a little further, there are the indications like there's water under the surface, we didn't know that then. At that time it was all conspiracy nuts to imagine that there was a, that there was a civilisation that built these things. (An Alien in Hollywood podcast episode 5)

1 comment:

  1. "Total Recall: Face on Mars represented in the script" was posted on 13th November 2019