[3 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, we should just go along for the ride. We need to shut our brains down, forget logical and logistical reasoning, and simply let the eye candy fill us with nutritionally unsound cinematic satisfaction. This is the argument we film fans frequently make, especially in light of a mess of a movie like the recent Total Recall remake. While the original is no bastion of reason and rationality, it contains a central premise (the creation of an atmosphere on Mars by someone who may or may not be a secret agent) that holds up to most scrutiny (not ALL, most). Sure, we could pick it apart in a dozen different ways, but at least we get a handle on why our hero Quaid and his resistance fighters would want to prevent the dictatorial Cohaagen from “giving da peee-ple AAAAAAIRRRRRR! ’ It’s a question of money and control.
In this unnecessary remake, the plot has been reduced to—SPOILER ALERT—a land grab. That’s right, even in the far off, post-apocalyptic future, real estate is a scarce commodity and this entire flimsy film premise is based around Cohaagen’s desire to make room for more people on an otherwise uninhabitable planet. Huh? Birth control not an option? Exactly. Unfortunately, this is not the only element about this lame Len Wiseman effort that’s bothersome. From the unimportance given to Melina as Quaid’s connection to “reality” to that lack of any significant “what if,” this is speculative fiction at its most flawed. As a matter of fact, we have pulled out 10 topics within this mélange of mediocrity that kept pulling us out of the otherwise arresting visual feast. When your cast and your set designs are more polished than your script and your directing, you know you’re in trouble.
Let’s start with what we learn in the opening credits. Remember, there are SPOILERS here o’plenty:
Right from the start, the movie muffs its premise. We are told that a widespread world war has resulted in biological and chemical fallout covering most of the Earth. Only the UK and Oz were/are sparred. How? Last time anyone checked, WMDs don’t have preset boundaries or range controls. Set off an anthrax or deadly gas bomb and see how easy it is to keep it contained. Clearly we are supposed to believe in the scientific superiority of the weaponry, but the result seems more about plot and logistical convenience that anything else.
So, we can build elevators through the middle of the planet, set up cities with MC Escher like living quarters, and make cellphones that can be implanted in your hand, but we can’t come up with a cure for what ails the rest of the Earth? Heck, in the original Total Recall, the ancient Martians devised a way to create an air-based atmosphere for their otherwise arid interstellar rock. Here, we’re so busy building robots and living like sci-fi sardines that we can’t be bothered with trying to solve the “lack of land” problem, which leads to this…
In the original, the despotic Cohaagen was in charge of Mars’ artificial air concern. He didn’t want the secret of the Martian atmosphere processor discovered. Why? Money and control? Now, Cohaagen wants the destroy The Colony - and by association, his cheap forced labor workforce - so he can have more land for the “good” people of New Britain. Right, but then once the invasion is complete and The Colony is his, then what? Whose going to build all those physics defying accommodations, or better still, the necessary robot reinforcements once the Colonist fight back?
During the film’s first act, we learn that our hero has the humdrum job of fixing some manner of faceplate to one of thousands of robot soldiers. They are used for both peacekeeping and protection. But Cohaagen also plans on using them for his invasion. Only problem is, he has to wipe out the rebel alliance formed by someone named Mathias. Since this mystery man supposedly lives somewhere within attack range New Britain (we learn of bombings and raids), why not send your robots out into the polluted, toxic outlands and capture him? Humans have to avoid the poisons. Machines don’t.
In the original film, we never really knew if Quaid was indeed Houser or just the gray matter remnants of a Rekall trip gone awry. Director Paul Verhoeven even went so far to pepper the entire film with question marks so that we never really ‘got’ if we are watching a double agent re-awakened or a lowly construction worker on a mangled mind trip. Here, our Quaid is a once lethal spy sent deep underground to act as a decoy so that Mathias and his group can be unmasked. Once his memory cap is blown, it’s all future shock espionage, nothing more or less, which means…
There was no need for the Rekall angle at all. If you plan on having a device which, literarily, allows you to question the ID of everyone involved, why turn it into the placeholder for an about to occur action scene. Unlike the original, we never get that Rekall is a “cure” for what ails addled people. Instead, it’s a conversation talking point, a fight sequence setting, and then a second act red herring that goes absolutely nowhere. It only exists as an excuse, a means of getting Quaid/Houser back in the game without excessive exposition.
The UK and Australia are left standing after this so-called war. The rest of the planet is destroyed. How did these two divergent, and according to the movie premise, exact global opposite locations decide to come together? And how did they build this elevator through the middle of the planet? Yes, we understand that it’s all speculative future falderal, but if you can construct hovercars and multidirectional people movers, wouldn’t a massive airship that travels from each location be more practical? And how does having a gaping hole through the middle of the Earth guarantee it’s future inhabitability? Or stability, geologically?
During the closing action sequence, our hero, his gal pal, and several of the baddies are battling it out to stop the invasion of The Colony. They are locked on the outside shell of The Fall, descending down through the middle of the planet. Now, our grasp of remedial physics is pretty weak still, but isn’t there TONS of pressure the deeper one goes within the Earth? Wouldn’t that be a problem for anyone, say, hanging on the outside of an elevator traveling through it? And what about temperatures? Isn’t the core like nuclear, heat wise?
In the original, Kuato was near religious figure who inspired rebellion and resistance…or at least, that’s what Cohaagen wanted us to believe. In reality, he was a mutant who could read Quaid’s mind, therefore unlocking the secret of the Mars air reactor within and tell our hero how to start it. Here, Mathias (a bored Bill Nighy) is a failed figurehead who may or may not be a radical. We never know. Why? Because the character gets about two lines before he is killed. Yes, he’s housed some likeminded minions in his lair within the toxic confines of the outlands, but why? Was he just lonely?
So, Cohaagen is building a bunch of robots so that he can invade The Colony, wipe out (or perhaps further enslave) the remaining indigenous population, and then use the end result as a land grab. Got it. So why create the “false” kill code subplot? Since few know of Cohaagen’s plan, who would the kill code benefit? And if it’s fake, why would you care if someone (Quaid…Mathias…the local rabble) got a hold of it? It doesn’t work, and won’t stop you, so why not let them hold on to the Intel until your troops are at The Fall’s exit, ready to strike. They try the kill code, it doesn’t work, master plan remains intact? You win. The audience doesn’t.