The story is set in the year 2084. Douglas Quaid is a construction worker who has been experiencing dreams about exploring the planet Mars with a brunette. After seeing an ad from Rekall, a company that sells imaginary adventures by implanting false memories, he decides to buy a “vacation” on Mars from them, one in which he will take a vacation from himself by becoming a spy. Rekall calls it an “ego trip.” Before buying the vacation, Quaid is cautioned by a co-worker that Rekall is risky, and a memory implant failure “lobotomizes people,” in reference to failed memory implants which caused the recipients to suffer permanent brain damage. Quaid hesitates, but disregards this warning.
After the procedure starts, Quaid has a violent outburst and tries to break free, yelling incoherently about people who are coming to kill him. At first, it seems as though he was merely acting out the “spy” portion of the memory implant; however, when it’s confirmed that they hadn’t implanted the memories yet, the doctors at Rekall realize that they are real memories, and someone else had previously erased his memory. After narrowly subduing him, Quaid is returned home with no memories of ever going to Rekall, but then he is attacked by his friends and even his wife, Lori. She tells him that everything he remembers, including their marriage, is false; memories implanted less than two months before. While evading his assailants, he receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a former friend of his who had been asked to deliver a briefcase if he ever disappeared. The briefcase contains false IDs, money, weapons, devices, and a video player, containing a video disk he left to himself beforehand. Watching it, Quaid starts piecing together his past on Mars as a secret agent. Pursued by Richter, a man working for Mars’ administrator, Vilos Cohaagen, Quaid travels to Mars to discover the truth.