I’ve only seen the original Total Recall once, and while I found it entertaining I was never smitten with it the way some people are. Maybe it’s the weirdness of the story, maybe it’s the weirdness of Paul Verhoeven’s direction. In any case, I was largely indifferent to the idea of a remake of the movie, especially if the director was going to be Len Wiseman, of Underworld fame. But when I saw the first trailer my interest was piqued, even if it was only because of the futuristic visuals. I’m disappointed to say that the visuals and the frenetic action scenes are the only reason this movie is watchable.
In this second take on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” we find our hero, Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) a factory worker who lives in one of two remaining “safe” zones on the planet. The rest of the world is uninhabitable after nuclear wars ravaged the surface. Quaid lives in a renamed Australia and commutes to his job in the leftovers of Europe via a gigantic elevator that goes through the planet core; one of the more ridiculous sci-fi aspects of the film, but an interesting one nonetheless.
Quaid is unhappy with his boring factory worker life and begins to consider visiting Rekall, a place that manufactures and implants fake memories. His friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) and his wife Lori (the insanely gorgeous Kate Beckinsale) warn him to stay away but a coworker (Will Yun Lee) convinces him it’s a good idea and recommends him to a friend who works there, McClane (John Cho).
One or two short scenes later and Quaid is strapping in to the chair, getting ready for the ride of his life. Something goes wrong and suddenly he’s being hunted by military forces commanded by a politician named Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). His wife turns out to be an agent of Cohaagen’s, assigned to watch Quaid under the guise of loving wife. After evading her he runs into Melina (Jessica Biel), an agent working for a rebellion leader, Matthias (Bill Nighy). From here chase scene after chase scene lead us toward an uninteresting ending that completely ignores the idea that this all may not be happening anyways.
And this is my biggest problem with the film. There is not enough questioning what is real and what is not. There are a few scenes where Quaid struggles with deciding whether his predicament is all memory or real life but ultimately the question is never a compelling part of the film. It feels like the character never figures anything out for himself and instead just goes with the violent flow, allowing other people to tell him what to believe and do. It’s frustrating given the interesting setup.
The performances are largely forgettable, though Wiseman’s direction and a weak script from Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback don’t give anyone anything worthwhile to work with. As I said, Quaid never seems to do anything for himself, making his character a void. And though it may be okay that he doesn’t know who he is, the script doesn’t seem to know either, making Ferrell’s performance empty. He gives us a lot of stressed or worried looks and absolutely no personality.
Beckinsale is one-note, an angry operative trying to clean up a mess she couldn’t contain. At least she’s nice to look at though right? Biel has even less personality than Ferrell, if that’s possible and Woodbine is downright awful. I haven’t seen a more awkward scene than when he’s pretending to be drunk outside of a bar. He would win a Razzie if his performance and this movie weren’t going to be so forgettable. The biggest crime however is relegating Cranston to a simple old school Bond villain type role. At one point he says something a lot like this: “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take over the world (Mr. Bond).”
The sheer laziness behind the camera is appalling. What can you expect though when a film like this is green-lit? It’s clearly a case of the studio hoping the name Total Recall can put asses into seats. I may have bashed the film so far but it’s not entirely unwatchable.
The sci-fi elements of the film are handled with verve. There are elements of films like The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, and Minority Report, as well as videogames like Mass Effect. The cities, whether in Australia or Europe, look amazing. The architectural design, the details, the people, all look awesome. The gadgets and vehicles are inspired as well. From magnetically propelled hover cars to infantry grenades that blossom mini cameras, there is a lot of sweet tech to get any nerd all hot and bothered. Even the robots are slick. Much cooler than anything featured in 2004’s I, Robot.
The action scenes also have a solid energy, no doubt because of Len Wiseman’s visual talents. He may not be able to tell a story but he is a competent action scene director. Some of the action suffers from a bit of shaky-cam but overall it’s not a huge problem.
The issue isn’t always whether a remake is necessary or not, but whether it’s done well. Films like Ocean’s 11 and John Carpenter’s The Thing prove that a remake can be a worthy endeavor if brought to life by talented and creative individuals who want to tell a good story. A film like Total Recall on the other hand is a clear indication that Sony and Columbia Pictures were looking at this from a purely financial viewpoint, never once considering to deliver a new or interesting take on the material. Despite a lifeless cast and simple, uninspired plot, the sci-fi elements and action scenes shine through just enough to recommend a possible matinee viewing. 2 out of 5 stars.