A Movie Review: Total Recall

Total Recall | Director Len Wiseman | Score: 4.3

A lot, it would seem, has changed since Paul Verhoeven’s original campy scifi extravaganza blasted onto summer screens back in 1990. As but one example, take the film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in the last 22 years has endured a career crash, the exposure of an affair and a love child out of wedlock, and, of course, the governorship of the most populous state in the country. So, maybe it is time for a different take on Philip K. Dick’s original story, “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale.” Hell, in this day and age, a remake that comes in more than two decades after the original feels like utterly fair game.

Verhoeven’s film, messy, idiotic and over-the-top, was nevertheless the work of a kind of visionary with a specific — if peculiar — camp sensibility (one that served him either faithfully or deserted him entirely on Showgirls). This film, directed by Len Wiseman, takes its popcorn-‘n-butter premise far more seriously. In place of the gargantuan Schwarzenegger we have the far more compact Colin Farrell — presumably what we lose in muscle mass we make up for with acting competence.

At least, that was the plan. The film is in a bit of a tricky spot, attempting to update and reinforce Dick’s story, while paying sufficient ode to Verhoeven’s film, in order to avoid alienating fans of the infamous three-breasted-babe. The result is yet another loud, screaming mish mash of a summer spectacle, wanting to be taken seriously, while at the same time applying as much boom boom and relentless stuntcasting as possible.

As far as Dick devotees go, neither film has all that much to do with the author’s original story (though with such shuddery prose as “I’m still picking up your mentational processes by way of your cephalic transmitter,” maybe that’s for the best) which works as sort of an O. Henry piece for the robot-and-laser-beam set.

In this version, we’re in the last vestiges of the 21st century, after a massive chemical war has rendered all but two places on Earth uninhabitable. The first area, the United Federation of Britain, entirely controls the second area, the Colony, formerly known as Australia, connected only by a giant, super-fast tube called the Fall, from which commuters can use to travel back and forth. Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a mild-mannered factory worker stuck in a grinding job on UFB, and married to a ravishingly beautiful woman (Kate Beckinsale). As we meet him, Doug is suffering violent nightmares where he dreams of being some kind of secret operative and running from crowds of robot security guards.

Quaid is restless enough to try Rekall, a false-memory inducing center designed to offer hopelessly dull and miserable people a chance to feel as if they’d lived fantastically exciting lives. Once there, though, things seem to go haywire right before the process is meant to begin. A slew of police suddenly show up and open fire, leaving Quaid running for his life. The running, more or less, continues throughout the rest of the film, as Quaid meets up with another beautiful operative (Jessica Biel), and the two of them race against the clock to disrupt a planned invasion of the Colony by the UFB’s evil Chancellor (Bryan Cranston, a bit out of his element here).

Along the way, there are many of the usual sorts of action spots and insane escapes amidst the techno-porn (though somehow, even by the end of the century, a giant crew of robot security guards holding massive guns with enormous firepower still can’t ever seem to hit their target), and characters getting punched in the face a dozen times without so much as a bruise to mark them.

It’s no worse than the standard-issue summer action spectacle, I guess, but for its curious insistence that it is somehow more meaningful and necessary than it is. It takes itself far too seriously, which only dooms it to fail even more blatantly than if it would have embraced the original film’s sense of humor about itself. Far be it from me to hype Verhoeven’s version, but, push to shove, I’d take Schwarenegger’s ridiculous post-killing quips (“Screw you!”) to Farrell’s pseudo-philosophy (“An illusion, no matter how convincing, is still an illusion”) any day of the week.


Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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1 comment for “A Movie Review: Total Recall

  1. Anonymous
    August 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    4.3 on what scale? Ten? Five? So it should read 4.3/10 so we can immediately understand the value scale. Just a thought…

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