REVIEW: Convoluted, Humorless Total Recall Lacks Fun of the Arnold Original

Movieline Score:
Total Recall Remake Review

Yes, there is a triple-breasted hooker in Len Wiseman's Total Recall remake.

If you happened to have missed the news posts and Comic-Con appearances (it was a lot of publicity for a three-line role), please rest assured that a futuristic working girl does indeed flaunt her unusually augmented bosom for Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), just as in the Arnold Schwarzenegger original. It's one of the few callbacks to the hallucinatory nature of Paul Verhoeven's wild-eyed, schlocky, terribly fun 1990 blockbuster, few other qualities of which this redo shares. The two films have the same underlying bone structure, sure, but this new Total Recall is made of more serious, more humorless stuff. It looks simultaneously lavish and interchangeable in its explosions and shoot-em-ups with a dozen other recent action movies, and in its sci-fi stylings with a dozen others in the genre.

Instead of Earth and Mars, this Total Recall world is split between the United Federation of Britain and the country formerly known as Australia, now called the Colony. (Reportedly the two were originally Euroamerica and New Shanghai, but in the spirit of the rest of the film any potential political commentary seems to have been neutered.) Most of the world has been rendered uninhabitable by warfare, and the remaining population clusters in and threatens to overrun these two cities, which are joined by a giant transportation device that travels through the center of the Earth and is called The Fall.

The Fall, half space shuttle and half commuter rail, is the film's most interesting idea, uniting the oppressive UFB and its head of state Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) with the have-nots in the Colony — as many of the latter, including our hero, travel to the more industrialized nation each morning to serve as cheap labor. Quaid shares an all-concrete studio in the Colony with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who like him heads out via The Fall to work every day. She's in emergency services, he's at a factory that makes the synthetic soldiers that serve as the UFB's army.

Quaid's been having recurring dreams of a woman (Jessica Biel) trying to rescue him from a scientific facility. Exhausted by the grind of his day-to-day life, entranced by these nighttime visions in which, as he says, it "feels like I'm doing something important," he stops by Rekall, a service that implants artificial memories of adventures that are practically like having done the real thing. He asks to be given the experiences of being a secret agent, which doesn't go so well, because he may have actually been a spy in a past that's been wiped from his mind.

This Total Recall does away with the wonderfully queasy ambiguity of the 1990 film, in which we're never sure if Quaid is a badass involved in a rebel conspiracy to decide the fate of the world or if he's just a regular schmuck who's become too fond of and given himself over to the illusion he purchased for himself as a bit of escapism. We never really doubt that Farrell's Quaid/double-agent Hauser is experiencing a legit reality even when another character tries to convince him otherwise — there's no sense, even when the trouble begins, that what happened at Rekall was anything but what we saw on screen, complete with an explanation for why the treatment might have triggered buried memories.

It's a shame, because that aspect of the first film allowed it to follow a typical movie arc while also carrying a pointed critique of it — how appealing, to learn you've actually always been one of the most important people in the world, that everything depends on you! Who wouldn't find that more seductive than just being another working stiff filed away in a giant apartment block, even if choosing to believe it meant possibly abandoning the real world and demonizing your wife at the same time?

As that wife, Beckinsale's entertainingly indestructible and glowery, striding like a Terminator with an immaculate blowout down countless hallways while wielding a gun, and chasing Quaid over rooftops and along balconies after her cover as an enemy agent is blown ("I give good wife," she sneers). Farrell and Biel are perfectly serviceable in uninspiring roles, while Cranston tries gamely to look like he could be the equal of Farrell in a brawl and Bill Nighy appears briefly as rebellion leader Matthias.

The film flickers from fight scene to chase scene and back again, rarely pausing after the introduction for a quiet moment. Wiseman's an adequate director of action, but only one or two of these sequences rise out from the ruckus of automatic machine fire — the standout involves The Fall and how gravity on the transport shifts when it passes through the Earth's core. And while the sets and art direction are striking, with their multi-tiered urban landscapes, they also look familiar. The UFB is just a sleek, Minority Report future intent on taking advantage of the messily (and more Asian) Blade Runneresque future of the Colony. The synthetics are Star Wars battle droids by way of Tron. The floating car chase is awfully Fifth Element.

This is a less cartoonish sci-fi vision, but to what end? The twists and turns of this convoluted tale of a guy who was bad but who may be able to reinvent himself as a better person thanks to having his brain scrubbed is fundamentally goofy, and it takes place in world that swarms with people but that only seems to have a handful of actual characters (when an important, dangerous attack takes place, Cohaagen of course heads it up in person, the way all world leaders do). These are elements that make sense when there's a fair possibility the story might be all the protagonist's indulgent delusion, but seem clumsy without it. Total Recall is an indifferent mean of whiling away two hours of your summer — but at least, unlike Quaid, you'll be in no danger of getting lost in it.

Follow Alison Willmore on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.


  • Len says:

    Ths review doesn't surprise me. Hollywood's inept attempts to "re-imagine" a peviously good movie into a modern money-maker has always resulted in disappointing results. This just seems to further prove that American movie makers can't muster any talented originality. If "gross", "crude" & "violent" is good, then "grosser", "cruder" & more "violent" must be better. Here's a thought... re-imagine some lame film to actally make it better. Oh, wait... I forgot about Godzilla & Cloverfield. Never mind.

  • clip says:

    This really is a benchmark, horrible, sound-of-bottom-scraping summer at the movies.
    The murders in Colorado take it into the realm of the phantasmagoric, but it really is the worst summer for movies in Hollywood history. Real talk.

  • Jimmy Mahoney says:

    According to predictions from Comic-Con, Total Recall is supposed to be one of the biggest hits of the summer.

  • All the remakes of films that had originally starred Arnold have done poorly.

  • GC001 says:

    I just don't get it... WHAT is the appeal of Colin Farrell??? At least with Biel and Beckinsale I sorta get it (hot chicks who kick butt -- great for women who want the validation, enticing to masculine masochists and bondage freaks) but Farrell???? Has he ever been in a good film or been worth watching???
    Besides that, yeah, what's with remaking ANY well-known film, especially one that's not even a quarter-century old???!!???
    I must admit I'm NOT a huge fan of the original Total Recall -- there really are only about 3-4 Schwarzenegger films I like that much and NO, the last two Terminator films are not on that list(!) -- but this is beating a dead horse. Makes about as much sense as reshooting Psycho in full-color shot-for-shot with poorly cast actors! (Yeah, and as if that hasn't been done!)

    And yes, Schwarzenegger's sheer physical presence and throwaway relief/comic lines are sorely underestimated... (Granted, today he's maybe one-quarter the size he was in the first Terminator film but give him a break... He hasn't done 'roids in years!) It is part of the guy's appeal in many of his films. Olivier he is not but he was the closest thing to the modern strong American man prior to the ill-advised political career and Daddy Terminator scandal.

    With Schwarzenegger and Stallone past their prime, we're left with the likes of Matt Damon and the forever boyish Leonard Dicaprio as American action men????

  • Richard says:

    I sort of have to disagree. I went to see this with my 19 year old daughter this afternoon and she hadn't seen the original and she really liked this film. I'd give it a solid B myself. I think people get too worked up in the remaking of films and wanting to compare them rather than looking at them as a different interpretation. This film is darker and has far more action in it and honestly the 2 female leads are WAY and I mean WAY better than the original versions - if you're looking for a comparison. Farrell was believable and did a very good job at what he was given, although honestly to me the movie may have been better served to go another 15-20 minutes and give him more time to develop into what he was and why.

    I don't understand at all why everything in the 'colony' was asian and everybody spoke English though, that was a bit odd, but really neither here nor there in dealing with the plot.

    • PoeticFox says:

      for your last comment I present to you FireFly universe that was half asian and half american sure had no asians in it

  • I am now not certain where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend a while studying much more or figuring out more. Thank you for magnificent information I used to be looking for this info for my mission.

  • Pedja says:

    This is nice rimake, better than original. I don't agree with this review.