Total Recall

Remaking classic films is always risky business. Mainly because there is a specific reason those movies are so well received – because they are the best of their time. Remakes are inherently risky because the filmmakers have a bar they have to at least reach, and they absolutely cannot tread the exact same ground as the original. They have to do something new, modern, or innovate. Or, at least they are expected to. When remakes work, they soar. When they don’t… Well, that’s another story. Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” (1990) was an excellent science fiction monolith of its time. It stood out as a heartfelt science fiction story, one that was exceptionally aware of its own identity, design, and overall setting. It reflected the vary soul of its time – intentionally representational of culture at the time (late 80s and early 90s). If Len Wiseman’s remake, “Total Recall” (2012) is supposed to be a representation of contemporary culture in the same way as the original, then I fear our popular culture is too shallow for high minded science fiction. While not a bad movie – in fact, it is actually quite entertaining overall – it just does not feature the same soul and passion of the original film.

The premise follows the original in only a rough sense. Sometime in the future, the world has been left mostly uninhabitable due to a deadly chemical war across the globe. Humanity has been left to residing in the only remaining habitable landmasses – Western Europe and “The Colony”, the latter being modern-day Australia. Because air travel is now impossible, the only travel between the landmasses is through a massive elevator called “The Fall” that cuts through the center of the Earth. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who works in Europe but lives in “The Colony” with his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinstale). His chronic nightmares lead him to become interested in the “Rekall” service – a machine that can implant memories into customers. His interest will lead him on a wild journey with Melina (Jessica Biel) to learn about his true self as well as secrets of Cohaagen’s (Bryan Cranston) tyrannical administration.

The problems of the film really start with the premise. While I enjoy the creativity of something like “The Fall”, it is simply too ridiculous to take seriously. They deserve credit for coming up with a relatively unknown science fiction concept, but an elevator that travels through the center of the Earth? Peoples’ suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far. It serves a practical purpose in the plot – to create the conflict between “The Colony” and the mainland and between the government and the Resistance. Yet, too much time is spent trying to introduce this concept and make it seem plausible than the film should. It honestly seems easier to just use the original film’s conflict between settings – Mars and Earth. I have to ask, what makes an elevator between two lands more contemporary of an idea than a conflict between colonial Mars and Earth. This is especially true considering recent news that a Mars colony might be seen in our lifetimes.

The other problems are more literary. Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid is portrayed very well throughout the film, and he manages to make the character satisfactory in the emotional portrayal of a man with a confused past and an insane situation. But even then, I have to say Arnold’s original portrayal seemed overall more human. The problem with Colin Farrell’s character is a mixture of performance and writing in his introduction. It is hard to believe him as someone so distraught over his nightmares that he absolutely feels compelled to go to Rekall. If they spent more time exploring his inner demons and how they are bringing his life down, then he would have been a much more compelling character. As it stands, he just goes through the motions of a protagonist. All of the other characters are the same way. Kate Beckinstale’s villainous Lori and Jessica Biel’s Melina are fairly shallow characters. They are not bad at their roles but that is all they, unfortunately, are: roles. Like Quaid, they just go through the motions, playing their part as clichéd character archetypes. Bryan Cranston is always awesome in any role, but in this he is not given much to work with. All he ends up being is just an evil tyrant with a megalomaniacal plot – with very little reason or background.

Those issues said, there are many things that do work. The pacing is good throughout, with no moments feeling awkward. The art design is exceptional, and there are no moments in the film that are boring to look at. To its credit, almost every scene is full of beautiful science-fiction design. The only complaint in this area is that some of the action scenes feel very cluttered due to the overall noise of The Colony’s design. The plot moves forward steadily, and it is overall simple to understand. That said, it is not without its own faults. The plot starts out great but becomes full of usual secret agent thriller clichés. Also, the plot becomes very campy, not to mention unbelievable, in its third act. The third act is also where there are the most plot holes – notable plot holes at that.

If you can shut your brain off for a couple hours, you can enjoy “Total Recall”. The film is pretty to look at and is absolutely packed with action sequences. All of the action sequences are well shot, well paced, and entertaining. The actors all do great with what they are given; but the problem is that they are not given much. They are all fairly flat characters, but are all satisfactory for the service of the plot – a plot that is well paced and understandable, but one that becomes campy, ridiculous, and peppered with notable plot holes. It is not as tightly written and directed to be a great secret agent thriller, and not as inspired to be a great science fiction story. The original was exceptional in its setting construction – pulling the audience into the amazingly designed Paul Verhoeven world. It was full of comedy and thrills, thought and design. As it stands, the moments that could really go far in establishing a passionate soul-filled, inspired world are instead spent on making quick references to those vary moments from the original. It could have established its own voice, its own heart and soul, but it just settles on being your clichéd average science fiction blockbuster.

2.5/5 stars