Did Total Recall have to get remade? Some of you may be under the impression that this new multi-million dollar Colin Farrell action vehicle is a new take on the original source material, Phillip K. Dick’s 1966 short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Make no mistake, Len Wiseman’s film is a remake of the classic Paul Verhoeven actioner that in the summer of 1990 helped star Arnold Schwarzengger finally step outside the great big shadow of The Terminator. Sure, it’s a “loose” remake, jettisoning many of the elements that helped the original stand the test of time, while retaining familiar plot points. Does it work? In all fairness, the film has many positive aspects – amazing visual effects and an impressive production design for a futuristic world that could possibly become a reality. The problems lie with the story and characterizations, they feel soulless and rather bland, making for a visually interesting film that carries little resonance after the end credits have rolled.
In this version of Total Recall, Earth hasn’t colonized neighboring planets like Mars, but chemical warfare has made most of the surface uninhabitable. The elite and upper class exist in a territory known as the “United Federation of Britain” and the poor workers inhabit “The Colony”, formerly known as Australia. The Colony is one of those fictional settings where it appears to always be nighttime and rains constantly – a hybrid of Ridley Scott’s L.A. in Blade Runner and the slums of Shanghai. Workers make their daily trips to the U.S.B. by way of a massive elevator that travels through the planet called “The Fall”. Farrell is Doug Quaid, a poor guy who barely makes a living on the assembly line for the new robotic police force. That doesn’t matter to his loving wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who seems content that she lives in a slum with her High School sweetheart even though they never realized their dreams. The fact that Quaid looks like Colin Farrell may have something to do with it.
Speaking of dreams, Quaid has a recurring one where he’s being chased by authorities with a gun in one hand and Jessica Biel in the other. At least in the original film and the short story, the character wanted to journey to Mars and realized having false memories implanted in his mind was the cheaper option. For really no reason at all, Farrell’s Quaid makes that same trip to the mind altering travel agency “Rekall” and ops to have false memories of a life as a secret agent implanted. As soon as he walked in the door, he should have realized what a mistake he was making when the Rekall salesman turns out to be none other than John Cho from the Harold and Kumar films, ready to sell him synthetic memories. If it was Kal Penn, I imagine Farrell would have also had the option of buying synthetic weed.
It’s nearly impossible to not compare this remake of Total Recall to Paul Verhoeven’s original film. There are even a few bits and lines of dialogue here that pay “homage” to the original like the three-breasted prostitute (fully shown despite the PG-13 rating), the hi-tech mask disguise and a plump red-headed woman who resembles the one who uttered that infamous “two weeks” line. That’s great for die-hard fans, yet none of it feels as fresh as before.
The 1990 version played with the notion that the fantastical adventure Quaid embarks on might all be just a fantasy. The deliberate ambiguity was an artistic decision by Verhoeven, one that kept you on your toes throughout that movie. It was supported by what is perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best performance in a film. He wasn’t playing a robotic assassin, wise-cracking soldier or larger than life hero. He was just an ordinary guy who had trouble buying the fact that he was capable of doing extra-ordinary things. Knock Schwarzenegger all you want, but in a handful of his films, he’s actually “acting” and Total Recall remains his best performance as an actor because he was trying something different. When military forces suddenly arrive just before Farrell has his memories implanted, he too is amazed that he’s able to subdue and even kill most of them with the ease of an experienced professional. Yet Farrell’s befuddled reactions don’t hold water. Though his character has had time to be established within the story and we’ve already got to know him, it’s tough to identify with or like the guy. The action bit you may have seen in the trailers, where Farrell takes out an entire tactical team is pretty dumb if you’re smart enough to notice all the editing cuts as the camera moves behind one set of pillars after another.
“Sorry Quaid, your whole life is just a dream.” Well, no one actually says that line this time around, but for reasons unclear to him, someone has set up Quaid with false memories, a false life and even a false wife, who suddenly shifts gears and tries to repeatedly kill him once his “cover” is blown. Kate Beckinsale has the attitude, look and presence of a living comic book heroine and although it’s nice to see her play the villain this time out, Lori feels like a weak clone of Selene from Underworld, the sci-fi/horror action series where she excelled. She’s a combination of Michael Ironside and Sharon Stone’s characters from the original film – one was a trained killer, out to eliminate his rival, the other an operative assigned to play Quaid’s wife for six weeks who only saw their relationship as a “job”. It was understandable why Ironside hated Schwarzenegger so much because the guy got to play house with his girlfriend, Stone. Here, Beckinsale immediately goes into Terminator mode in her hunt after Farrell and stays that way even after her boss Cohagen (Bryan Cranston) orders her to bring him in alive. Makes little sense other than the fact that it gives Farrell a reason to keep running for his life.
Farrell has more of an exciting visual landscape to be chased through than Schwarzenegger did 22 years ago. The U.F.B. is a city filled with a robotic military, skyscrapers built on suspension levels and a mag-lev transportation system that greatly resembles what we saw in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, another film based on a Phillip K. Dick short story. When Quaid finally reunites with Melina (Biel) the girl of his dreams, who informs him of his role in a resistance movement against Cohagen and the political machinations of the U.F.B., there’s no evidence of heat or chemistry between them like what Schawarzenegger and Rachel Ticotin had before. Even the evil plot of Cohagen when finally revealed, feels rather weak and frankly boring. As great an actor as Cranston is he’s wasted here. Except for a few snippets where he appears on a TV monitor or two, Cranston doesn’t really show up until the third act and lacks the greed and corporate sleaziness of Ronny Cox, who originated the role.
Total Recall is fun if watching actors leap from one moving vehicle to another is your bag. The action sequences involve either Farrell running or leaping from one environment to another. I wouldn’t have mind seeing one singular action sequence designed like that, but it happens in each and every one. Farrell’s Quaid also leaps off of vehicles or balconies with great abandon, never looking exactly where he’s jumping to. I guess he knows something that we as moviegoers should know – he’s the hero and probably isn’t going to die. With Biel in tow, he’s often climbing, jumping or falling down on an elevator or car that’s in motion. It never stops and even Beckinsale, the baddie always chasing them, doesn’t seem to mind either. Maybe the fact that the director is also her husband has something to do with it.
Even if you’ve never seen the original Total Recall, it’s painfully obvious that something crucial is missing from this film. Verhoeven’s original had visual effects that barely hold up today, yet the film also required you the audience to use your imagination as Schawarzenegger took an journey though Mars and towards danger. Wiseman’s film is visually amazing, with some of the most realistic effects I’ve seen in a sci-fi actioner in years. The visual design of “The Fall” an elevator that travels through the Earth and even shifts gravity when it reaches the core, is initially impressive until you realize just what a stupid idea and plot device it really is. The budget is there on the screen, but it also doesn’t require you to use your imagination which takes out the fun. Gone is the playful nature of the story and most importantly humor. The characters were richer before and reacted to events in the story much like any real person would. Even the attitudes of the bad guys made them endearing. Despite fantastical things occurring in this version of Total Recall, its characters don’t react in surprise or wonderment and go with the flow almost as if they could shrug their shoulders at any moment. I didn’t care what happened to Farrell, Biel or anyone else for that matter and whether or not they saved the world. That’s not a good thing and although I want to say this film is a missed opportunity, it feels more like an idea that wasn’t properly expanded upon by those involved because they failed to understand what made it work so well before.