Movie remakes always recall what came before, and given that this one recalls a movie about recalling -- and remaking -- its drawing attention to these very activities might have been clever.
I've been having these dreams. It feels like I'm doing something that matters, something important, you know?
--Doug (Colin Farrell)
"Goddamned resistance." Lori (Kate Beckinsale) has just received a call, the kind she hates. She's a cop in the Colony, see, which means she's living in a squalid walkup in a city where it always rains. When she gets this call, at the beginning of the new Total Recall, she's just getting up, wearing sexy undershirts and distracting her unhappy husband, Doug (Colin Farrell) with what you know to be calculated kisses.
The scene closes as she leaves to answer that call, still teasing Doug, still trying to get his mind off his bad dreams, wherein he and Melina (Jessica Biel) are running from men with guns. He's just awakened from one of these dreams when Lori's phone vibrates (a quaintly 20th century technology lingering into 2084), at which point their kissing stops and they both lay out the lies that structure their relationship: he leaves out any mention of Melina and she leaves out the fact that she's a secret agent who's only pretending to be his wife.
So here's the problem and also the pleasure of the new Total Recall, that you know more than everyone you're watching. Most likely, you know because you recall Paul Verhoeven's movie, the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug, the great Rachel Ticotin as Melina, and Sharon Stone as the wife ("Considuh dat a divorce!"). Your memory helps you to spot the allusions to the Verhoeven -- the three-breasted woman, the hero's use of human shields, the chair with straps and headgear, and the frightful needle that's "still the best way to get chemicals into the human body" -- all making what's on screen less a movie than a game of correspondences.
As concepts go, this isn't terrible. Movie remakes always recall what came before, and given that this one recalls a movie about recalling -- and remaking -- its drawing attention to these very activities might have been clever. But the 2012 Total Recall is more cumbersome than clever, because it doesn't do much beyond re-raising the question the 1990 movie raised already, the question more effectively posed in Phillip K. Dick's source story, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." On its face, this question is existential: How do memories construct a sense of self over time, so that each morning you wake up with an idea of who you are, based on where you are and who's next to you, recollected from the day -- weeks, years -- before? And how would it matter if these memories were not "yours," but implanted?
So far, so like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"] (or Blade Runner, referenced here by rainy, Asianish sets). The next-step trick in "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" and the Recalls is the commercial conundrum: it's not just that you may not be who you think you are, but also that you may have made choices (even paid money) during a self-making process, suggesting that you have a self that made choices to make (or remake) a self. Here that mechanism is the business called Rekall, where you're injected with chemicals affecting your brain, that is, your memories, that is, yourself. Supposedly, the sales pitch has it, you might return to your daily life -- in Doug's case, exceptionally depressing manual labor, producing sentries intended to police them, the manual laborers (see: THX 1138 or The Matrix).
Here, those laborers not only make the means of their physical oppression, but they also use their meager payments to purchase the means of their psychic oppression (chemicals that become memories). Here, as well, the state of the laborers is turned into the emplacement of workers (Doug) in the Colony and the work (and profits) in the United Federation of Britain, the only two inhabitable continents left on earth following some apocalyptic chemical warfare. The workers commute from one side of the planet to the other via a train through the earth's core called -- so odiously -- the Fall.
Most obviously, the Fall literalizes the divide between the UFB, run by the assertory Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), and the poor, also known as the "goddamned resistance," whose leader is the barely seen Matthias (Bill Nighy). The metaphor -- necessary because the mechanics are impossible -- is better. Each morning, Doug and his worker buddy Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) strap themselves in to the train, turn upside down as gravity reverses; each evening, they reverse the trip, then get drunk before they go home and wake to do the same thing the next day.
If Doug's complaint -- they sit in the "exact same seats" on the train, go to the same bar, drink the same shit beer -- suggests his essential 99%-ness, the movie is less interested in class politics than in the question of identity. Here, that means he's a Bourneishly skilled fighter named Hauser, repeatedly surprised at what he can do and also by directives issuing from video versions of himself as Hauser, or Hauser as his proto-self: "I hope that somewhere inside of you, you're still me," one Doug tells the other. What does that even mean, you can see the wheels grinding over Doug's face: is he a double agent? A loyal Cohaagenist? A reborn rebel? When Hauser reminds Doug that his political remaking was inspired by "a woman" (Melina), who helped him to see what was wrong with the world, that is, his previous self, well, that's a romance of the cheesiest sort. In this fiction, it must be true.
This moment, enacted in Hauser's apartment, obviously recalls Arnold listening to himself as Hauser. And like that moment in the old film, it also encourages you to think about your position as a viewer of multiply reflected selves, selves that are fantasies and memories, projections and desires. Here those selves are extra-actionated, engaging in 3D-chess-space chases, parkour-style stunts, and raucous shootouts, but also hardly bloodied. This makes the question of who anyone might be at a point in time or space immaterial. When, during late scenes of supposed action-amping, the gravity reversals on the Fall turn into vague slow-motiony ballets rather than grating changes of weight and orientation. Bodies don't matter, they can't resist. They just capitulate.