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