The critics have not been kind to Len Wiseman’s remake of the classic SF film TOTAL RECALL.
You can’t blame them, really. Though the original, made in 1990, did star Arnold Schwarzeneggar (and Sharon Stone—who remembers that?), it was a smart, snappy thriller, smoothly directed by Paul Verhoeven. That film, which has achieved something of a cult status among SF fans, was yet another clever adaptation of a short story by writer Phillip K. Dick (“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”). Its hero, Douglas Quaid, who starts out as a disaffected factory worker on a future Earth, stays confused about his past and his identity for much of the film, so the audience is never quite certain whether he’s living a dream or reality. That was the beauty of the film, at least as I remember it.
In Wiseman’s version of the story, that illusion is shattered very early on and never regained. The story is told as a straightforward action thriller, losing much of its elegance and mystery. Our factory worker, unhappy with his dull life, goes to ReKall to have some new, exciting “memories” implanted, but before the drugs can be administered, the ReKall computers discover Quaid has actually lived the life he’s chosen before. He actually is a “secret agent” and he was undercover, spying on rebels in The Colony where he now works, until he fell in love with one of the rebels and became sympathetic to their cause. He was then captured by his government handlers and reprogrammed with this “new” life.
The problem is that we learn all of this right at the beginning of the film. Since the drugs were never administered, there’s never much question that what happens subsequently—the troops showing up to attack him at the ReKall facility, the revelation of his wife and his friend as government agents, the chases, the plots and all the rest of it—is real. The film is just a (pretty good) shoot-‘em-up with an interesting beginning.
The biggest reason this is too bad is that the heart of the story—the whole “what is reality” question--is missing. Phillip K. Dick didn’t just write thrillers; his stories had a point. John Cho’s ReKall manager character states that point in a nice little monologue, but most people are likely to miss it: What is reality but a mental construct? Or, put another way, if we remember it, is it the same as if it actually happened to us? That was a strong element of the original film that is completely lost from this one.
It’s also too bad that some cool technological ideas are wasted in service to a lesser story. The original story’s rebels were on Mars. The bad guy, the dictatorial governor of Mars, had a plan to keep control by preventing the use of reactors that would have created a breathable atmosphere for the Red Planet. Um, okay. Not sure if that’s any less likely than a tunnel that allows transportation all the way through the Earth’s core from England to Australia. But the Fall is way cooler in both concept and onscreen execution.
Then there are the maglev highways in the air of the city that allow multilevel car chases, and the phone wiring implanted in Quaid’s palm that lights up when he gets a call. You do wonder why folks would stop at the palm when they could go directly to the brain, though. It would make removable more difficult, I suppose.
So should I even talk about the acting? We’re comparing Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Colin Farrell. Neither one is well known for his range of facial expression. Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel have a great fight scene in an elevator (in fact, the fight scenes overall are stellar). Bryan Cranston is not nearly as menacing as he should be, but then Kate has all the good scenes, there. Bill Nighy and John Cho are pleasant surprises. And Bokeem Woodbine, as Quaid’s treacherous friend Harry, does his usual fine job.
Well, there we are. The summer is almost gone, and we haven’t had a real SF film to rave about. Time to hit up Netflix or your own collection and watch something made five, ten or even twenty or thirty years ago. Like the original TOTAL RECALL, maybe.