“Total Recall” came out in 1990, and as with any remake — especially of a film not even 25 years old — it will beg the question of why Hollywood sees it fit to (fittingly) implant memories of a new one in our brain.
The answer doesn’t really exist. Sony clearly didn’t make the movie for creative reasons or some newfound relevance that Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” didn’t have in 1990 that it does now — it made it for commercial ones.
Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” is pretty perfectly comparable to a high-tech theme park ride, or at least it is most enjoyable when thought of as such. Actually, experiencing a ride based on this movie would be quite awesome; its strengths are without a doubt the visual effects work, the futuristic world-building and the countless action sequences.
Honestly, there’s nothing egregious about the film, just a lot of stuff that’s arbitrary. The story packs no surprises except for those unfamiliar with the Paul Verhoeven original, so it feels at times formulaic and predictable, but it masks it all effectively with distracting and creative visuals. The film is never boring or silly (actually, it’s rather humorless, especially in comparison to the original), just a bit uninspired.
All the talent in this film provides enough serviceable quality to create a two-hour diversion. Colin Farrell makes for a watchable Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who finds out he’s a top-flight super spy and all his memories have all been fabricated and put in place of the old ones. Kate Beckinsale breaks out all her “Underworld” training to play his “wife,” who turns into his relentless pursuer and physical equal, and Jessica Biel plays a self-capable love interest. The characters are all one-note, but convincingly one-note and in such a way that keeps interest. I wouldn’t say we care about them, but we’re invested in the outcome.
Futuristic context wise, Mars is out of the picture in this version. Humanity lives in two nation-continents, the wealthy United Federation of Britain (what would be Europe) and The Colony (what would be Australia), a slum of sorts. A giant transport called “The Fall” travels through the middle of the Earth between the two. A resistance force led by Matthias (Billy Nighy) has been growing stronger and threatens the rule of Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). The socio-political backdrop is just that, however, a backdrop.
The story rides on Quaid’s pursuit of his identity. He’s unsure whether it’s all real, which leads to a pivotal “Inception”-like moment in the middle of the film. There are some interesting ideas about memory at play, but only when the script is willing to spare a minute. The rest leans heavy on plot, exposition and action.
The trailers provide just a taste of the lengthy and at times relentless action sequences. They don’t disappoint and the CGI involved is rather convincing, impressive considering it’s likely that an abundance of the film was shot on green screen. The creativity is focused toward spectacle rather than function within the story, but the results do not include boredom.
The film earns points with its many technological gadgets. We get stuff as simple as an LED touch screen on a refrigerator for notes, pictures and lists (we’ll probably use that the future, right?) to the more complicated such as a phone implanted in one’s hand or a magnetic highway system for cars. It all feels practical and organic to the world the film creates as well, not simply for a coolness factor (though that certainly plays into it). In general, the world is much more rich than the 1990 film.
Fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “Quaaaid,” “HOWzah” and “COHaagen!” won’t be treated to any adequate replacements, though there are a few homages to look out for, such as when Quaid uses a hologram disguise to get through transport security. Regardless, comparisons to the original, especially ones used in attempt to understand this film’s existence, are futile. Audiences will be best served to just lay back and suck on the eye candy.
Good theme park rides give us a sense of “being transported,” the shallowest definition of a quality experience, and not feeling like you wasted your time waiting in line. “Total Recall” offers that. Certainly we want different things from a movie than we want from a a theme park attraction; “Total Recall” is the overlap.
Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback (screenplay), Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill and Kurt Wimmer (screen story), Philip K. Dick (short story)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston