Set in the future, Total Recall tells the story of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger)*, who, bored with his 9-5 Earth-bound construction worker job, pursues the opportunity to implant his brain with artificial memories wherein he is a secret agent on Mars. As it turns out, he actually is a secret agent from Mars, whose memory and identity have been rewritten for a yet unknown purpose. That’s how the story goes. But, what the movie actually tells us is that Coca-Cola is evil.
*has Arnold ever played a character with an Austrian name?
Allow me to explain. Mars is ruled by a despotic leader named Cohaagen. As we learn more about Mars, the more it becomes clear that Cohaagen is a merciless entrepreneur, interested only in maximizing his financial well-being for as long as possible. Part of his network of greed involves controlling the air supply on Mars and insisting on it being paid for at a high premium. Cohaagen represents capitalism run amok, demonstrating that when the drive toward profit is not tempered with sympathy and care for others, the system ceases to benefit anyone but those who already have all of the power and wealth. He, as an individual, is a stand-in for any corporate entity, although the metaphor is most apt when we look at one corporation whose presence is already felt in the movie.
An initial issue with Cohaagen’s oxygen trade is the lack of competition. He is the sole proprietor of air on this planet and is, therefore, unchallenged in the kinds of rate that he is able to charge for his product. The very first topic in the “Economic Business Practices” section of Wikipedia’s article on Criticism of Coca-Cola talks about the monopolistic challenges that competitors have faced in trying to compete in a space that is so stifled by a major player. Granted, this is not Coca-Cola’s most troubling practice (PepsiCo generally makes the cola market at least a two-party system), the parallel serves as a decent way to get this conversation started.
The big reveal at the end of Total Recall is that Cohaagen has been hiding an alien machine that could turn Mars’ atmosphere into one that is habitable for human life. Considering how abundantly available air actually is, the scheme to control and charge for air is even more unethical. Like a certain cola company whose plants have rendered local water unusable for nearby residents, Cohaagen asserts ownership over a resource that, at least Quaid seems to think, should be available to absolutely everyone.
Cohaagen makes it very clear that he does not care about those who do not make up a significant share of his market. At one point, late in the movie, a district of Mars, populated mainly by mutants, is running out of air. Providing these people with necessary oxygen would be as simple as flipping a switch but Cohaagen’s official order is to do absolutely nothing. Since these people mean little to him except as minor consumers, his only reaction to their suffering and impending doom is apathy. Compare that to Coca-Cola’s willingness to hawk its wares at famous sites of oppression, such as Nazi Germany or in apartheid South Africa. In both instances, the company’s only duty was to generate revenue, regardless of the crimes of the regimes it was refreshing. A successful entrepreneur, it would seem, must extricate itself from the circumstances of its customers, and find a way to sell them a service no matter what.
This absence of morality is also apparent in the way that Cohaagen deals with dissent. He seems to have an unending supply of soldiers willing to die for his cause. Since that cause is profit, it stands to reason that these people are being paid substantially better than those mutants he just tried to suffocate. Since he has all the money, Cohaagen also has all the power, including a private military that is unwavering in its willingness to get the job done, whether it’s killing sex workers or participating in reckless shootouts with no care given to civilian collateral damage. When profits are going to be affected, there is no question that violence is an acceptable practice. More than once, Coca-Cola’s name has been attached to bottling plants where union-affiliated workers have died under mysterious circumstances. Regardless of whether or not an executive at home office gave the order to execute employees, there is still a culture of productivity and profit at all costs.
The notion that a corporate interest takes precedent over human life is the similar strand that runs along this movie and the real world. But, thankfully, Total Recall does provide us with a solution, with an alternative to all of this corporate greed. Life will be so much better if we just…
…drink Pepsi instead? Ugh.
Check out the NetFlakes Patreon campaign to support the project and get rewards.
Total Recall is also available from Amazon.