Total Recall – on a technical level – isn’t necessarily a poorly made movie. It looks nice, the action is somewhat coherent (if not entirely thrilling) and it contains some decent performances. Watching it, it became clear to me that I don’t dislike Len Wiseman’s work because he’s not talented. He’s actually got some chops. I just dislike his work because of the way he chooses to use his talent.
When this remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film was announced, everyone claimed that they were actually reinterpreting Phillip K. Dick’s original story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Of course, as always, this wasn’t really the case. For the first hour or so the film is a beat-by-beat remake of Verhoeven’s but without any of the color, characterization, wit or fun. Farrell plays Quaid as being equally unsatisfied with his life as Schwarzenegger’s character in the original, living in a modest apartment with his beautiful wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), his life having fallen short of his own expectations.
Sure, there are some changes. There’s no mention of Mars. Instead we have the United Federation Of Britain (UFB) and The Colony (located on Australia). Quaid must travel back and forth between the two via “The Fall” a train that bores through the center of the Earth in 17 minutes (naturally adjusting for a nifty gravity change halfway through). There, the character no longer works in construction but assembles police drones that look like an awful lot like Imperial Stormtroopers. Seriously, there’s a lot of Star Wars in this movie. The set design is also drastically different. I know that’s an odd thing to bring up, but The Colony looks so much like Blade Runner‘s Asian-tinged dystopia that I hope Sony gives Warner Brothers some kind of deal for those sets on the sequel.
Aside from all of that, it’s more or less the same at the beginning (minus the entertainment). Quaid’s been entertaining the idea of visiting the memory implantation service Rekall for a while now, and one day the new guy on the job gives him a card that serves as the tipping point for him to do so. If you’ve seen the original, you pretty much know what goes down at Rekall. Quaid almost immediately becomes a fugitive and the girl of his dreams (literally), Jessica Biel’s Melina, shows up to help him on the while he’s on the run.
After that the film differs significantly from the original. Instead of doing what sci-fi does best, giving us big ideas peppered with thrilling action, it becomes one long chase sequence. It’s so unrelenting and so much stuff is flying around onscreen you pretty much feel like you’re in the 3rd act of Revenge Of The Sith via The Fifth Element right up until the mano a mano fight between Quaid and Bryan Cranston’s Cohaagen. There are some interesting set pieces along the way, an elevator shaft chase is nicely executed and there’s a comparatively inspired zero-gravity gunfight, but so much is thrown at you that you literally want to disengage from the film.
It’s also worth noting that, for a movie that’s supposedly about such things, this Total Recall isn’t actually interested in exploring the “what is real and what isn’t” angle. Questions of identity and the perception of reality are only vague, temporal bridges to the next action sequence. In fact, the only real standout in the film’s second half is Kate Beckinsale. Her Lori is a composite of both Sharon Stone’s character and Michael Ironside’s Richter from the first film (i.e. she lives longer and is the primary assassin on Quaid’s trail) and she’s the MVP of all this unrelenting action. All glower, sleek moves and improbably styled hair – she’s the only one in the movie who seems to be having fun.
You may have noticed I’m comparing it to the original an awful lot. Shouldn’t a film stand on its own merits? Yes. Unfortunately though, not only is this film light on merits, it actually operates under the assumption that you’ve seen the original to the extent that it relies your pre-supposed knowledge of it to get you through its own narrative shortcomings. An early scene at Rekall would be incomprehensible if you hadn’t seen the original.
The film is big, expensive and boring. It thinks that its spectacle and budget (not to mention its overabundance of lens flares) will convince the audience that they’re having a good time. Total Recall is a total nightmare of a remake – a serviceable film that undercuts and devalues its source material. It’s A CG filled, PG13* watering down of Verhoeven’s 1990 film with little to no understanding of what made the original work.
*This movie is utterly bloodless. You do get a brief glance of the three-breasted prostitute, but it’s thrown in so lazily it’s almost insulting. There are no other mutants in the movie, just her. A woman walking around with three breasts for no reason.