Total Recall Review

By August 2, 2012

Woe to the filmmakers who dare to attempt a remake of a well-admired film. Despite being one of Paul Verhoeven’s dumbest American films, 1990’s Total Recall has officially entered the Nostalgia Zone, an area in which a film resides (forever) if it still has enough vocal fans. This is a double-edged sword where remakes are concerned: Total Recall is certainly well-known enough to make a remake a smart idea, financially speaking, but then you have to deal with all of the hand-wringing from the fans who somehow feel that a subpar remake does actual damage to a film over 25 years old.

And then you simply have people walking in to a remake with a huge chip on their shoulder, which is just weird.

All of this is one way of saying “some remakes are actually pretty cool,” and I bring it up because the “unnecessary” remake to Total Recall (which is also the second adaptation of the late Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) is actually a slick and highly diverting piece of sci-fi/action filmmaking. What director Len Wiseman has excised from the source material in thematic depth and satisfying ambiguity, he has replaced with huge batches of kinetic energy and amusing attitude. Best of all, despite a few obvious touches for the old-school fans, the new Total Recall changes some things around: gone are some of the key subplots found in the Verhoeven film; in their place is a pretty exciting series of chases, escapes, scrapes, and explosions.

The story is this: it’s the future, and our planet only has two remaining landmasses than can maintain human existence: The British Federation (the haves) and The Colony (the have-nots). It’s hardly the most novel of societal maladies to be found in a dystopian science fiction film, but this Total Recall does have one really cool new trick: “The Fall,” which is a massive elevator that basically shuttles the lower-class workers through the core of the planet so they can work building police robots for their evil overseers.

One such worker is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), and because his life is such an endless grind — despite being married to Kate Beckinsale — he decides to visit “Recall,” a company that specializes in giving human beings false memories of amazing fake experiences. But the second Quaid gets his injection, a platoon of robots swarms in and kills everyone. Turns out Quaid is a wanted fugitive! But is this real, or is it just that the “Recall” program is in full effect? To be fair, Paul Verhoeven had a bit more fun with the delicious ambiguity of Quaid’s plight, but in this new version, Len Wiseman seems more interested in using the premise as a simple springboard for eye-popping (digital) world-building, a lot of (mostly effective) action stuff, and more eye candy than most other sci-fi flicks bother with.

Not to focus on the surface-level appeal of an ostensibly intelligent sci-fi story, but “eye candy” really is where the new Total Recall shines. Those who gripe that the remake is dumber or less ambiguous than the “original” adaptation will be correct — but I fail to see that as a major shortcoming. To his credit, Wiseman (along with screenwriters Mark Bomback and Kurt Wimmer) give us just enough sci-fi roughage to keep the story afloat, but this rendition of Total Recall is infinitely more interested in being a fast-paced futuristic chase-fest than any sort of garish yet contemplative rumination on “id vs. ego vs. superego vs. self-made superhero.”

The performance by the deliciously evil Kate Beckinsale sets the right tone: she’s slick, sexy, perpetually snarling, and virtually unstoppable. The lady may never do Shakespeare, but she’s clearly having some fun here, and it’s a little bit infectious. Colin Farrell delivers a comeback hero role, of sorts, and has no trouble giving us a character we’ll root for after five minutes, even if we’re not sure we should be rooting for him. Eventually Jessica Biel shows up, and she’s also so gorgeous that it doesn’t really matter that she’s not Meryl Streep. We are talking about a summertime matinee action flick, after all. It’d be great to see that veteran character actor Bill Nighy and Bryan Cranston add something to the mix, but they’re criminally underused; their roles with either woefully under-written or simply pared down in post-production. It’s a notable misstep for a mostly amusing movie.

“Amusing” sums it up pretty well. The new Total Recall earns points for streamlining some of the wackier material found in the Verhoeven film, but it certainly loses a few for dumping ambiguity and intelligence in favor of simple spectacle. On that end, this flick certainly LOOKS like a million bucks. Digital landscapes of overcrowded cities, the nifty look of “The Fall,” the numerous and elaborate action scenes; the new Total Recall certainly isn’t a great movie, but it certainly is generous with its visual lunacy. And sometimes that’s enough.

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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.