Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback; based on a screen story by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, Kurt Wimmer; based upon the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. Produced by Toby Jaffe, Neal H. Moritz. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Photographed by Paul Cameron. Edited by Christian Wagner. Production designed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho.
It’s such an intriguing premise. An everyman from the future, seeking some desperately-needed entertainment, signs up for an advanced procedure where the memories of a vacation are implanted into his head—memories so detailed that his brain will process it just like the real thing. But then something happens: while attempting to get memory implants, our hero learns that he has already been implanted with a lifetime of memories that constitute a false identity. In “reality,” he is a secret agent caught between two sides of a planet-wide conflict, and everyone is trying to kill him. That’s the basic plot engine that drives Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall (much expanded from a short story by Philip K. Dick), and now here’s the same plot again for Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake, which starts well enough, has some nifty visual effects and arguably good performances…but it’s cold, and doesn’t play enough with the central ideas at its core; it ultimately starts as a relatively smart sci-fi actioner, and ends up a dumb one.
The original film, which is the middle piece of a little sci-fi action trilogy that Verhoeven made in the 80’s/90’s (the bookends are Robocop  and Starship Troopers ), has certainly dated in its visuals, cheesy one-liners and over-the-top violence. But it also had its hands on a terrific conceit, one that eagle-eyed movie watchers will recognize as a twist on an old Alfred Hitchcock trope: instead of the innocent man wrongly accused, here is the guilty man who thinks he’s an innocent man wrongly accused. And Verhoeven played the paranoid fantasy to the hilt, especially in the way reality continued to fall from beneath its hero’s feet, even deep within the narrative (a sensibility that Dick, the godfather of mind-screwing sci-fi cyberpunk, would have approved of). The new Total Recall lacks that complexity, and lacks much interest in the inherent paradoxes within the source material; while both versions end with pell-mell action sequences, Verhoeven, a cunning satirist, undercut the material in interesting ways, up until the very last shot. Not so here. It’s non-stop action, and you’re either in or you’re out.
So, fine. Let’s be in. The new one stars Colin Farrell, subbing for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he delivers a solid performance as a put-upon everyman named Douglas Quaid in Australia, which is one of two continents that can still support life in the future (the other being the “Federation of England”). The Brits live in luxury, while down under the citizens are crammed into squalid hovels that stack on top of each other within a teeming super-city. The commentary on class divides is…there, I guess. Every day Australians commute to England to toil in menial jobs, and they do it through a massive commuter rail-style chute called “The Fall” that plunges through the center of the Earth and out the other side, driving through the Earth’s core like it’s no big thing. Uh-huh. Quaid, who is happily married to police officer Lori (Kate Beckinsale), wants something more out of life, so he goes to Rekall, a shabby memory-implanting company that has the look and feel of a high-tech opium den.
Quaid is a fan of spy novels, so he signs up for Rekall’s “secret agent” package, and that’s when his reality switches tracks like a train set. A sleazy doctor notes something is wrong and immediately pulls a gun on him, and then soldiers burst in and try to take Quaid into custody. Even at home, Quaid isn’t safe, because Lori, after hearing his story, drops her compassionate façade and tries to kill him, leading to a chase through their hellhole neighborhood that is really quite well done. Quaid, now scared and confused, is led to a message from…himself, telling him that he’s been implanted with false memories, a sham marriage and a phony life. There are more scraps for him to find as he tries to piece together his old identity, which may involve Melina (Jessica Biel), a fragrant revolutionary whose feelings are clearly hurt when Quaid says, for the hundredth time, that he doesn’t remember her. And there are other figures like Matthias (Bill Nighy), a rebel leader, and his ideological opponent Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the evil ruler of England.
That’s probably enough of the plot to relate (familiar as it is). What I will say is that it opens up a series of improbable-but-entertaining action sequences that feel like the greatest hits of Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Minority Report, and even a little Super Mario Brothers (a scene involving an elevator access corridor leading to a maze of shifting vertical and diagonal blocks seems ready-made for an eventual video game). It’s done very well, even though everything is an echo of better material. Patrick Tatopoulus’ production design is derivative but detailed, and I have to fully disclose that I love this kind of stuff, like the little underground shops that Quaid passes by on a trip to Chinatown, or the magnetic highway of the future that still has pileups and exit signs that go by way too fast. The movie lives in its fanciful settings and action sequences, and Wiseman helms them well.
What he ultimately misses, however, are many trace elements of humanity. Once Quaid learns who he really is, his long-term memory kicks in and he goes into full-on Jason Bourne overdrive, becoming a man of action with little conversation. Although he seems appropriately scared at first, he acquits himself so well that he eventually becomes unrelatable. Farrell, who is arguably a better actor than Schwarzenegger, nevertheless gives a less effective performance, because Schwarzenegger was given more chances to think and process—the remake’s busier pace doesn’t exactly help the scraps of character development that we need. The original also had fun with Arnold’s iconic status by subverting it in the early scenes involving domestic tranquility. When we learn that he’s “really” a spy, of course we buy in…and maybe we shouldn’t. That’s kind of the point, in a way.
Beckinsale, whose character is upgraded into a major adversary for the remake, is clearly having fun in the role of the good wife gone bad, but she lacks the spark and surprise Sharon Stone brought to the twists of the original; this Lori is persuasive as the wife and convincing as the trained assassin, but her two halves feel disconnected and unmotivated. Biel, who very often doesn’t get good action roles (or good roles of any kind), is perfectly fine as the yang to Lori’s yin tugging at Quaid, but she’s mainly reduced to an action figure, and granted only one moment that actually resembles human behavior: her determined look away after seeing Quaid and realizing he doesn’t know her anymore. Cranston, who fills the hole left by scenery-chewing Ronny Cox, is downright wasted. How bizarre to see him outclass every actor on television and yet see half a dozen movies this year where he gives a useless supporting performance.
The remake makes several omissions from the original: there’s no scenes that take place on Mars, very little humor, and it lacks the sly way Verhoeven and the screenwriters found new bizarre ways to top themselves; a triple-breated hooker even shows up at one point as homage to Verhoeven, and it feels singularly out of place. But the difference that truly hurts is an overall lack of ambiguity. The 1990 film was clever in how it treated a key scene where a friendly doctor (Roy Brocksmith) tries to convince Quaid that his secret agent adventure is just an elaborate delusion; even after the matter is dealt with, there are clues peppered throughout the story that truly make you wonder maybe the doctor is right. There’s a similar scene here where Quaid’s friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) tries to talk him out of his fantasy, and not a second of it is persuasive. This hurts the remake not because change is bad, but because the filmmakers haven’t found a sufficient climactic hook; it should be a dovetailing of complex notions about identity and existential value. By eliminating the paranoia and muting some of the plot twists of the original, the remake is more about a guy who learns he’s not who he thinks he is, but quickly (too quickly) gets over it.
This becomes fully apparent in the third act, which is, frankly, a mess involving robot soldiers and gravity-defying heroics while travelling through “The Fall,” where characters conveniently square off for perfunctory fights, one of which involves a knife. Why does a sci-fi adventure have to end with a character brandishing a knife? And how exactly do our heroes survive anything that happens in the last twenty minutes of this movie? That isn’t the problem, however. The problem is the movie makes you think of those questions by giving you nothing else to consider.
We live in an age of remakes, and some of them have been far worse than what they’ve done to Total Recall. Is it fair of me to keep referencing the original to illustrate this movie’s problems? I think so, because I don’t love the 1990 film so much that I shudder to see it remade. If anything, I had hoped Wiseman would improve upon Verhoeven’s flawed epic, but he has not—he’s made it safer, blander, and a little less fun. Still kind of enjoyable, but missing something major that Verhoeven’s film had. Although perhaps my memory is faulty. It can get that way sometimes, don’t you know.