Colin Farrell, Kate Beskinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 3 Aug 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 3 Aug 2012 (General release); 2012)
It’s the announcement that breaks many a film fan’s heart. A beloved effort, a movie they can’t imagine being any better or entertaining, is cleared for the commercial complaint known as the pointless remake. Immediately, fond memories are assaulted and considered classicism upended for another run at generational merchandising. Sometimes, the gamble pays off in ways wholly unexpected (David Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing). In other instances, more than time and talent is/was wasted.
Take the latest entry in this ongoing aesthetic debate—Len Wiseman’s Total Recall. Many have a very warm place indeed in their outsized action movie hearts for the original Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger epic. It’s a quotable, entertaining hoot. This update, with Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, and Jessica Biel may be more high tech and ostentatious, but it pales in comparison to the crazy quilt camp of the original. Instead of being fun, it’s forced.
This time around, our hero is a lowly assembly worker in a factory that makes robotic soldiers. Earth has been devastated by a massive bio-chemical war, leaving only two regions—New Britain, and The Colony (formerly known as Australia)—as the sole inhabitable areas. Every day, Quaid and his best buddy (Bokeem Woodbine) take “The Fall”—a massive elevator that travels through the planet’s core—to their jobs. It’s a dead end existence.
Quaid is married to an EMS specialist (Beckinsale) and is plagued by dreams of a mystery girl (Biel) who, each night, tries to save his life. Hoping to find some answers, he visits the memory replacement company known as Rekall. There, a technician (John Cho) discovers something shocking. Quaid has been reprogrammed already. In fact, everything about his life is a lie.
Turns out, our lead may or may not be a high profile double agent working for dictatorial chancellor of New Britain, Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). This tyrant has a plan for the Colony and he needs to capture an elusive rebel leader named Mathias (Bill Nighy) to succeed. Once his “cover” is blow, Quaid becomes a fugitive. Turns out, his wife is really a dormant assassin ready to take him out should he ever regain his memory.
With the help of the real ‘woman from his dreams,’ a feisty revolutionary named Melina, Quaid must stop Cohaagen before he destroys everyone in the Colony. Figuring out how to do so, however, will become a game of cat and mouse, as well as a more esoteric question over who Quaid really is, and what his real motivations are. After all, this could all be just a Rekall recreation.
The Total Recall remake does have its moments. It looks good, is well cast, and offers up a series of spectacular if often illogical and impractical action sequences. Unlike the original, which had an anti-corporation/anti-Establishment angle buried in between its Earth to Mars chase element, this update is nothing more than flash and finery. The set design and future shock dynamic are compelling, if a little odd. The use of CG to turn Britain into a surreal Escher metropolis is never credible, but the whole “Fall” concept comes across convincingly. While the narrative never leaves the planet, the lack of a trip to Mars is really never missed. Sure, Cohaagen’s plan now seems petty and unworkable, but we can suspend our disbelief enough to get past the many massive plot holes and loose threads.
No, the real problem here is Wiseman. HIs underwhelming Underworld imprint is all over this uneven experience. When dealing with actors jumping between hovercars or multidirectional elevators, he’s fine. When attempting to give his story drive and energy, he fails. Verhoeven took on his adaptation of the Philip K. Dick source material and made sure that every scene ran into the next with an almost ADD like efficiency. No lollygagging, No chance for the viewer to settle in and start wondering.
Indeed, it’s the questions that sneak into the back of your subconscious that ultimately ruin Total Recall. For example, if Cohaagen wanted to find Mathias and knows/suspects that he’s probably in the devastated, post-apocalyptic zones outside the city, why not send in his precious robot soldiers to scour the area. Sure, humans can’t tolerate the high levels of poison, but surely a machine can. In the original, the double cross was necessary to discover who (or what) Quato is/was. Here’s it’s a red herring.
Even worse, Rekall becomes a gimmick, a throwaway point in a story that used to revolve around it. There is never a question as to whether or not Quaid is an agent. There is never a moment when we return to the proposed ‘truth’ that this is all a virtual simulation. Our hero goes to the brain busting business, has his cap blown, and then turns into a super spy. Period.
Sure, Farrell tries to oblige the point, constantly acting like he’s psychologically constipated, but everyone else treats the experience as authentic and unquestioned. All the hints that Verhoeven put into his set-up, all the possibilities of who Melina and her cause might be, are shuttled aside for bombast and breakneck stuntwork. We enjoy the eye candy, even if it remains vapid and lacking real nutrition.
Perhaps the biggest crime here is that the new Total Recall offers nothing… new. It’s a reconfiguration of what came before, but in name only. When Marcus Nispel took on both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, he added an aura of aggressive reality that was hard to dismiss. Similarly, Rob Zombie turned Halloween into a sturdy slice of serial killer mythology. Heck, even Farrell’s last run through remake territory—the far superior take on the horror gem Fright Night—brought the vampire tale into the economic downturn of the last few years.
Here, we just get a bunch of fancy bells and whistles without any of the substance to keep us connected. The acting is fine, and the premise, while flawed, finds occasional sci-fi pleasures. But overall, it just feels…unnecessary. If you can’t bring anything new to the table, why try. Total Recall 2012 is indeed different from the Arnold original. That turns out not to be a good thing.