Rating: 14A – Nudity, Language May Offend, Graphic Violence
Run Time: 121 minutes
“Total Recall” is the latest Hollywood remake to support this enduring maxim of the movies: no amount of visual effects and action sequences can validate a film without a good story. The “What is Reality?” question stops at this movie poster’s tagline. It never becomes an area of conflict within this adventure. This is a successful CGI advancement packed relentlessly with the action movie goods. But it’s pretty mindless for a film that alleges to be about, well, the mind.
It’s a shame. The intrigue of reality vs. fantasy was the central wonder of Philip K. Dick’s brisk 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, which was about a working class nobody named Douglas Quail who goes to Rekall Incorporated to implant false memories of a journey to Mars. Despite its brevity, “Wholesale” set up a futuristic world and a compelling premise that demanded a feature film.
In 1990, the great Dutch schlockmeister Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop”, “Starship Troopers”) expanded on Dick’s story, added more characters, and camped things up with beefcake star Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas. There was goofy action, histrionic humour, and Mars itself was an inventive vision. The special effects were just cheesy enough to obtain that vintage, ‘90s pizzaz.
Granted, Verhoeven’s film wasn’t perfect. Doug’s final line, “I just had a terrible thought…what if this is a dream?” never really begged that question (this is not a spoiler, trust me). That “Total Recall” lacked the psychological depth for us to bother wondering whether its hero really went to Mars or was back in Rekall strapped to a chair. Nevertheless, it didn’t spoil Verhoeven’s capacity for suspense, wry wit, and nifty set pieces.
The new “Total Recall” is directed by Len Wiseman, who has the task of dealing with Verhoeven skeptics – like myself. Strange though that Wiseman seems totally apathetic to the dream element of Dick’s story. It is only mentioned frivolously in the (pretty awful) dialogue.
This “Total Recall” drowns itself in self-seriousness and never using that tone to brood on any of Dick’s key concepts. It introduces us to beautiful and expansive, noir “Blade Runner”-esque cityscapes only to demolish them by the end. At the 90 minute mark, we are overwhelmed. Incomprehension has long overtaken intelligence.
The main differences with this remake are: 1) Mars is not mentioned (there are now two clashing hemispheres of Earth: Euroamerica and New Shanghai – but this version thinks of another reason for locals not to breathe the outside air), 2) Douglas is played by Colin Farrell not Schwarzenegger (though the latter considered it), 3) Douglas’s impostor wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), combines the Sharon Stone (Lori) and Michael Ironside villains from the original, and 4) Doug’s “fantasy” girl, Melina (Jessica Biel), is not Doug’s old trick from Mars, but a rebel agent under the leadership of Matthias Lair (Bill Nighy).
Those are the essentials. Other differences are in the details. Certain scenes play off the original, but in no way are they better. The “two weeks” scene is handled here without Verhoeven’s unique touch of suspense. The confrontation with the doctor (now Douglas’s fellow employee) doesn’t toy with our mind enough. However, you would have to seen the original to share my disappointment.
If you go in on a clean slate, you may find “Total Recall” reads like a typical Hollywood action film. The dialogue is recyclable (lines like “come on!” and “let her go!”), chases pile on chases, and the noise is all rat-a-tat. This wouldn’t be too bad if Wiseman weaved in some emotional depth. But it’s all action, shot with only professionalism and no incentive for us to care. Scenes follow the action cliché where the bad guys are good at everything but marksmanship. They miss our heroes at point blank and hit them (or are hit) only when necessary to move the plot forward.
These would be tiny quibbles if “Total Recall” had an idea in its head. But questions are only lazily raised when the characters are on lunch break from the stunts, explosions, running, and chasing. Come to mention it, these characters demonstrate great athleticism with their running skills. They could be used in London at the moment. Sadly they are steamrolled down a plot that assaults the senses rather than affects the emotions.
Farrell fills the rough-and-ready hero unit accordingly. Biel, however, is bland as the by-the-numbers and only quasi-resourceful sidekick. Beckinsale, the star of Wiseman’s lousy vampire film “Underworld”, is actually pretty ferocious with her scenery-chewing. Although Bryan Cranston, the power-hungry corporate leader Cohaagen, has a bad habit of doing too much talking over shooting. You get the picture?
I won’t deny “Total Recall”, visually, enthralled me. It is drawn to a greater scale than Verhoeven’s film. The visual sumptuousness may hold your attention, especially when Doug flees from Lori and her Stormtrooper-like soldiers through the canals, apartment complexes, and dense crowds of New Shanghai. There are some shots that benefit from the CGI (you’ll know what I mean). But, um, like I was saying about the story…
I left the theatre asking myself the expected: was this necessary? Wiseman’s fatal flaw is his inability to add the much-needed psychological depth to Dick’s tale. This is a more progressive example of Hollywood excess than a faithful remake. With Dick’s extraordinary vision on a platter, it’s too bad “Total Recall” succumbs to a rote action framework. And if you thought Wiseman would find a smart way to end this darn tale, well, you’re wrong.