The problem with Len Wiseman‘s remake of Total Recall is a lack of imagination. Yes, that’s a problem most remakes suffer from, but this version of Total Recall actually doesn’t clash much with the Paul Verhoeven-helmed, Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring film of the past. The names and plot remain more or less the same, as does the mysterious memory-implanting company ReKall, but where Verhoeven built an entire planet—populating it with mutants and promising that, yes, there is life on Mars—Wiseman shrinks his worldview considerably, ousting Mars entirely to focus on a poisoned-earth narrative where the rich get richer while the poor build the engines of their own destruction. While the living space issue and the rich/poor divide suggest a film mindful of current events (Verhoeven, by contrast, seemed more concerned with having a good time), Wiseman’s fictionalized current events are window dressing to a plot that sees a stock Chosen One fight to dismantle an army of killer robots. There’s a long, distinguished line of movies like that, and Total Recall just doesn’t stack up.
Let’s give it a fair shake, though. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who dreams of a life where he is torn away from a beautiful woman while in the midst of an escape attempt. His life in the factory is menial and meaningless, but he loves his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and has little problem with his life, beyond the boredom. Life on Earth, such as it is, can either be good or bad. If it’s good, you’re living in the United Federation of Britain, a gleaming city of skyscrapers and freeways run by Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), who, given his name, is obviously the bad guy. If it’s bad, you live in The Colony, a densely-packed stretch of land in the former Australia that looks like a slicked-up version of the slums in Blade Runner. Not that it has anything to do with Quade and his wife, but space is getting cramped for the citizens of the UFB, and Cohaagen is plotting to fix this by sending a phalanx of robotic soldiers through the hole we’ve dug through earth for the purpose of ferrying factory workers back and forth from their jobs.
Quaid, meanwhile, sees advertisements for Rekall, a company that promises to implant memories so real, they feel like actual, lived-in experiences. He decides to take the process for a spin, figuring it’d be fun to be a secret agent, when the authorities drop in on the place and surround him. Much to his own surprise, Quaid single-handedly takes out the entire squad. Upon confusedly confessing the whole thing to his wife, she turns on him, revealing herself to be some sort of spy, too, only one who actually knows she’s a spy. Lori chases Quaid across the world, at which point he is rescued by Melina (Jessica Biel), the woman from his dreams. Then they are both chased because, as it turns out, Quaid is quite central to Coehaagen’s plot to flood The Colony with his robot army.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this. The principal characters are passable, and whatever’s lost in the balance between Farrell’s superheroic blank slate and Schwarzenegger’s blockheaded victim-of-circumstance is made up for by Beckinsale, who is unexpectedly gleeful in her role as the Wile E. Coyote to the Roadrummer duo of Biel and Farrell, and as long as you’re willing to accept safe, sanitary CGI in place of Verhoeven’s grim ‘n gritty approach (not that you should be, but lets say that you are), then the film’s never-ending series of chase-sequences should seem adequate, if bland.
But, given the number of bland action movies run out to theatres over the course of a year, that’s a killer problem for a movie with the pedigree of Total Recall to have. And if it seems somehow unfair to compare the two Total Recalls or the Mars-bound Phillip K. Dick story that inspired both, take into account that Wiseman’s film reverently pokes at Verhoeven’s. Again, the two hardly clash, but Wiseman practically invites the short mental leap from one film to the next. The most curious of these nods is the three-breasted woman, who at least made sense in Mar’s mutant-pocked red-light district. As the only person in Wiseman’s Total Recall besides the obese woman in the yellow dress—another callback to Verhoeven—displaying any kind of odd deformity, she sticks out like a sore thumb, an admission of inferiority.
Wiseman also employs fake lens-flares for the majority of Total Recall‘s runtime, a tactic that’s annoying to the point of distraction before it somehow fades to the background. The lens-flare, I suppose, is one way to heighten the unreality of Quaid’s situation, a visual cue for the viewer to ask if what’s happening is real, or if it’s a memory implanted by ReKall. Douglas Quaid’s memory—such a key issue in the original film—is kind of a non-factor here. Sure, the bad guys use it to try to get into Quaid’s head, and yes, there’s some murky philosophizing about the nature of memories, but they play like temporary, easily overcome obstacles in Quaid’s path—there’s no legitimate danger that our hero, in the real world, is strapped down to a table awaiting lobotomy. Granted, that device didn’t add much to last year’s Sucker Punch, but this Total Recall is a film patently lacking any kind of danger, real or imagined. There are enough elements from Verhoeven’s film to stir feelings of deja vu, but this Total Recall is content to load up on CGI, making its world unreal in the most underwhelming way possible.
Total Recall. Directed by Len Wiseman. With Colin Farrell (Quaid/Hauser), Kate Beckinsale (Lori Quaid), Jessica Biel (Melina), Bryan Cranston (Cohaagen), Bokeem Woodbine (Harry), John Cho (McClane), and Bill Nighy (Matthias). Released August 3, 2012, by Columbia Pictures.