MOVIE REVIEW: Total Recall


With this review of the Total Recall remake from Underworld franchise director Len Wiseman, I'm going to take long moment to belabor a point about remakes I've often repeated during editorials and reviews on this website.  At the turn of this year's calendar, I wrote an editorial on what New Year's resolutions were needed for the movie industry.  In that piece, the very first resolution discussed that Hollywood should wait ten years before remaking or rebooting any familiar title.  This new Total Recall didn't break that suggestion, being 22 years after the Arnold Schwarzenegger original. It's gets one pass, but it's not in the clear yet.

Last month, when The Amazing Spider-Man attempted (reasonably well) to reboot its hero five years after the disaster called Spider-Man 3, in my review, I offered three problems with its chances that mirror where we are this month and this review with Total Recall.  The first one was time, which we just covered with the 22 year gap last paragraph.  The second dealt with inevitable comparisons to the original.  That one hits the bulls-eye.  Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale insist that their film is NOT a remake, but an adaptation of the original short story, much like the Coen Brothers taking on True Grit.  However, you cannot watch this Total Recall without thinking of Schwarzenegger or when we compared Jeff Bridges to John Wayne.  Finally, the third issue was that desperate sequels cling to name recognition and squeezing every possible dollar out of it.  That's a bingo with Total Recall.  We now have two bulls-eyes.

The new Total Recall is simply inadequate when compared to the original and definitely feels like a money grab from a desperate studio.  When you combine those two huge flaws together, a new flaw in the discussion of sequels, remakes, and reboots emerges.  When are sequels, reboots, and remakes necessary?  The key word is "necessary."  I didn't say profitable.  

Total Recall is an unnecessary one.  The original we all know and love was maybe a little dated, but still held up as decent science fiction and a great chapter of macho "Ahnuld" action.  We really didn't need a new one.  For those who have seen the 1990 original from director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers), the story of Total Recall is familiar and now even more barely and loosely based on science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.  

Lowly factory worker Douglas Quaid is a restless member of a late 21st century version of Earth that has been decimated by global chemical warfare where only two geographic areas remain safe from the effects, the former countries of England and Australia, both of which are governed by Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, who doesn't look like a Greek-Dutch combination) and policed by high-tech robot cops and military.  People commute between those two ends of the planet through "The Fall," an implausible, even by science fiction standards, an massive gravity elevator that passes by Earth's core.  England represents the elite while Australia occupies the lower castes.

Quaid looks like Colin Farrell (oh wait, that's because he is), sports a Gold's Gym cut body, is married to a smoking hot EMT worker (Kate Beckinsale, the director's wife), lives in a decent pad, drinks Heineken, and gets a token black best friend (Bokeem Woodbine) to share life and those beers with after work.  Somehow, with all that going for him (yeah, I know), his life feels empty and in need of something bigger and more important.  Doug frequently wakes up from dreams of being chased by those robot cops with an unknown girl (Jessica Biel).  Enter the temptation of implanted memories possessed by "Rekall."  For a price, their technicians will make you feel like a rock star, champion, or any other dream you have.  When Quaid seeks out a little intrigue to become a spy, the system backfires and triggers his real memories of being Carl Hauser, a skilled government operative of Cohaagen tasked with wiping out his opponent and underground resistance led by Matthias (Bill Nighy, who had a lot more fun in this genre in The Hitchkiker's Guide to the Galaxy than he does here).

Because this entire story has already been told before, there are absolutely zero surprises in Total Recall.  You know Kate Beckinsale is going to turn on her husband.  You know Cohaagen is a crooked leader and puppeteer of all troubles.  You know who Quaid already really is and you know how the movie is going to end with little peril to your hero.  Director Len Wiseman and his team of writers, Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt), Mark Bomback (Unstoppable), and James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) have not done enough to offer any new twists, emotion, or depth to the story.  In fact, without the Mars element of the original film and Dick's story, there's even less depth.

The performances match this shallow kiddie pool story.  Farrell is pedestrian through this film, at best, and shows little to none of his trademark intensity and smolder.  Beckinsale is always nice to look at, but is only here because her husband is behind the camera.  Biel's heroine is supposed to be the reason Doug fights and a competitive compliment, but she offers absolutely zero zest, which doesn't help that lack of Farrell intensity.  Cranston is one-dimensional and boring and the usually-charismatic Nighy is given almost nothing to do and gets only mere minutes of screen time.  When you have to rely on Bokeem Woodbine, who, no disrespect, hasn't had a relevant role in a movie since 1998 (maybe even 1995), to guide the most pivotal scene of character-defining choice for our Doug Quaid hero, you have to find someone and something more dynamic than that.  He's not a Tarantino-esque casting coop of resurrected talent.  No one ever says "Hey, whatever happened to Bokeem Woodbine?"

The one thing Total Recall has going for it is looks.  I will say that.  The movie is astoundingly detailed and impressively designed as a future-scape setting.  In a slick combination of Blade Runner rain, demographics, and size with Minority Report-level speed, science, and practicality, the effects and production value show the movie's high price tag.  The film, on that level, is gorgeously created and bears no resemblance visually to the 1990 film.  That's one victory you can give the writing team for giving us something we've never seen before.  They got that element of redefining a classic right.  It's too bad they couldn't do that with the story and characters too.

LESSON #1: HUMAN BEINGS REALLY NEED A THIRD HAND-- Those who've seen the original and know the line, know exactly why.  A certain unforgettable chick makes an appearance again here.  Speaking of hot chicks...

LESSON #2: NEVER TRUST THE HOT CHICK-- This is true even if it's your own wife.  Hot chicks are trouble, always have agendas, and, in a way, are always out for themselves.  Doug, you're a good looking guy, but a dead-end factory worker.  You out-kicked your coverage with the seemingly perfect hottie waking up next to you.  When she tries to divorce you, or worse, kill you, don't say I didn't warn you.

LESSON #3: DON'T MESS WITH YOUR MEMORY-- In each of these science fiction scenarios, from Total Recall to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, editing, changing, or erasing one's memory never leads to good things.  The human brain should not be tampered with.  Rekall sounds too good to be true, meaning it is just that very thing.

LESSON #4: BELIEVE IN YOUR DREAMS-- Yeah, so I guess Doug was something special after all and should believe in his dreams.  The lessons rings as random and hollow in the movie as it does at the end of this ridiculous Saturday Night Live digital short with Andy Samberg.  Once again, this movie is weak.