The Hollywood remake-o-tron is at work once again, and this time the decision arrow has landed on the 1991 Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic, Total Recall. When it comes to remakes, the only question that really matters is: What does the remake offer that the original didn’t? If the remake has an answer, fans will likely be appeased. If not, it will never be able to outshine an original that was popular enough to warrant a remake in the first place.
Remaking Total Recall was something of a weird choice, since the original wasn’t screaming for more exposure. Still, most fans weren’t especially offended by the prospect of another take at the Philip K. Dick short titled “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale.” Effects have come a long way in 21 years, and the original film and book touched on rich ideas centered around the idea of what is reality, leaving plenty to explore. So does Director Len Wiseman’s (the Underworld series, Live Free or Die Hard) Total Recall have something new to offer? Yes and no.
The film’s crowning glory is that it looks incredible. Following World War III, civilization in 2084 is a mix of science and survival. The world of Total Recall is a visual feast grounded in the reality of this dark future. The thing that stands out about the world shown in the film is that it isn’t clean, but neither is it a true apocalyptic vision. There is a touch of a dystopian outlook, but for the most part it is just an evolution of our current world. Some story elements will explain and augment the environment, but for the most part the world of this Total Recall is a vibrant and realistic possibility that feels lived in, and grounded in realism.
Naturally, there are several similarities between this film and the original, along with numerous homages to the Schwarzenegger version, but Wiseman’s Total Recall takes the story in a different direction from both the original film and the short story that birthed it.
In the world of 2084, the devastating effects of the recent global war have changed the way humanity lives and works. The vast majority of the world has been rendered uninhabitable due to chemical warfare, making space the most sought-after resource in the world. The only remaining nations are the United Federation of Britain, an elitist society occupying what is left of Europe, and the Colony, a primarily working-class-inhabited urban sprawl covering Australia. Connecting the two nations is tube through the center of the planet called the “Fall,” which can transport people from one end of the planet to the other in minutes.
Living a life of quiet desperation is Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker with disturbing dreams that hint at a more exciting life. Despite the best efforts of his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and best friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), Doug can’t shake the feeling that something is missing from his life. After a restless night, Doug finds himself at Rekall, an entertainment venture capable of implanting any memories you want, from being famous to — in Doug’s case — being a spy on a mission to save the world. Or at least that is the plan. Everything soon goes to hell when Doug is discovered to have a secret even he isn’t aware of.
Despite the setting and the look, Total Recall follows the original film more-or-less to this point, but diverges afterward. Gone is the trip to Mars, replaced by a trip to the UFB, run by the duplicitous Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). It’s here Doug meets Melina (Jessica Biel), literally the woman of his dreams, and the two go off to unravel the mystery of Doug’s missing mind.
The world itself is an artistic treasure, and you will probably spend as much time looking at the backgrounds as you will the action. Multi-level cities, magnetic freeways, and elevators that move in multiple directions are just a few of the many glimpses at a potential future on display. The most impressive part of it is that it all feels natural. The refrigerator doors with touch screen notepads, the embedded cell phones, the artificial peacekeepers — they all serve a logical function, which helps to create a memorable and vivid setting.
While the world feels fresh and unique, the story is anything but. It follows a predictable action film pattern, and takes hardly any risks. With a movie about what is real (a question that the poster for the film even asks), there are very few instances of anything regarding a deeper story. Sure, there are hints here and there, but it is something that could and should have been more of a feature of the movie. Instead, the film is a standard “spy on the run” film, packed full of explosions and pretty scenery.
The plot just takes short cuts throughout, even beyond the nature of reality. For example, part of England is covered in a deadly cloud, but another part is fine. How the cloud is being stopped is never discussed. For that matter, neither is the reason as to why the impressive technology of tomorrow isn’t being used to clear the fog, build domed cities, go to space, and a dozen other questions that will come to you early. It creates a whole new world but doesn’t bother to give you the rules for it. Putting that aside, the relationship between the UFB and the Colony is central to the plot, but is also not flushed out. That stands out too, because it really is an intriguing concept. It just never goes anywhere.
Farrell turns in a solid, albeit not particularly memorable performance in what quickly becomes a mostly reactive and traditional role in the vein of the Bourne films. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel is just kind of there for most of the film. She adds very little, and the relationship between the two is taken for granted more than it is explored. Kate Beckinsale, on the other hand, actually steals the show as Lori, and although it isn’t really a surprise, her role is best left undescribed to avoid any possible spoilers.
Wiseman devotes very little time to any semblance of character development, or development of the world itself. Doug spends much of the film running from one thing to another with people trying to kill him; some of that looks spectacular, but there isn’t much attachment to the character or the situation. The pacing is generally solid, but there are a few significant issues with the timing. In one scene, an antagonist leaves a bomb in an enclosed space then escapes, but rather than just exploding, it is bewilderingly set with a 20-second countdown timer, giving the protagonists plenty of time to “narrowly escape.” It’s just odd, and there are several moments like that. You may walk out of the film enjoying it, but the more you think about it, the more problems like this you’ll find.
That isn’t to say Total Recall is a bad movie — it isn’t. The look of the world alone is enough to make it worth seeing, and the action is suitably entertaining, just in a very light and fluffy sort of way. It is just a dumb film that could, and should have been a smart one. The ‘splosions sure are purdy though.
Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall succeeds on one level (it looks great), but fails on several others. It improves upon the look of the original film significantly, but lacks the same substance. Take a moment to think about that — it is a dumber version of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film from the 90s. Apparently, anything is possible. Putting that aside, Total Recall doesn’t come close to living up to its potential, but it does make for an entertaining action movie. It won’t come close to supplanting the original film, but it doesn’t desecrate the memory of it either. Ironically, for a movie touted as being about the nature of memory, it is surprisingly forgettable.