In the future foretold by Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall, geeks haven’t just inherited the earth, they’ve remade it in their image. The movie exists in a world reminiscent of a video game. The plot is simplistic, the architecture is detailed from a distance (though curiously devoid of life upon closer inspection) and, most telling, the characters exist only to drive the plot forward through their actions and words but never though anything struck deeper than a string of 0s and 1s. Total Recall is a soulless, joyless return to the ideas and plot points of Paul Verhoeven’s deceptively thoughtful actioner. Without the satiric edge or playful tugs of ambiguity of the original, though, Wiseman’s film is a chore to slog through but is, by no means, a terrible film.
Despite earlier claims from the production team that this new version of Total Recall would pay more debt to the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” that inspired the original film, it is fairly obvious right away that Wiseman’s remake is a flopping lizard tale – cut from the vibrant animal that was Verhoeven’s film and expected to survive on its own without a head or heart to guide it.
Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a factory worker stuck in a life he never dreamed of. Despite being married to the impossibly beautiful Kate Beckinsale and being in what appears to be great health, Doug Quaid is unhappy with where his life is at and seeks more. Unfortunately, in the future Earth that Doug calls home, there just isn’t much room left for those who seek. Decimated by World War III, Earth has only two remaining geographical locations left inhabitable. Each location is on the opposite side of the world and the working class must commute by literally falling through a hole in the world. An admittedly clever way to replace the original film’s Mars setting, this vision of the future is perhaps the only truly original idea this version of Total Recall has to offer – and it’s a good one. As commuters ride a bullet train through the Earth’s core, they must strap in to giant harnesses due to the reversal of gravity halfway through the trip – causing the train’s inhabitants to experience momentary weightlessness. This, of course, provides ample opportunity to explore some great action set pieces later in the film but – unfortunately – to get there audiences are going to have to wade through a listless recounting of the first film’s story beats.
Unhappy with his life, Quaid visits Rekall, a company that specializes in providing their customers with false memories of vacations that would be impossible to experience. For those with the right amount of cash (an undetermined amount but apparently the process is cheap enough that a factory worker forced to live in a hovel with his wife can afford to impulsively partake), Rekall can send you to Mars (wink, wink), beaches that assumedly no longer exists or, if you’re feeling extra frisky, they can let you cosplay inside of your mind as a spy. Seen reading an Ian Fleming James Bond novel early into the film, Quaid naturally chooses the spy mission and, in the process, encapsulates everything misguided about this film.
The original Total Recall was memorable for two things: an extreme amount of violence and a sense of joy and humor that permeated the film. The future wasn’t pleasant (as is the case with most futures) but there was still room for people to smile. Schwarzenegger’s Quaid, upon being thrust into his fantasy, was hunted by his wife, shot at, blown up and generally mistreated (as is Farrell’s Quaid). Despite all this, Schwarzenegger never forgot that this was his character’s fantasy. He wanted to be a spy. He enjoyed the thrill, the danger, the close encounters with death and he took to it like a duck in water – finding time for one-liners and romantic entanglements with femme fatales. Farrell’s Quaid spends the entirety of Total Recall moping about and acting super dour. This is completely out of synch with the character and his motivations. But Wiseman has no room for the ambiguity that Verhoeven wove so well. He doesn’t want to tease audiences with the idea of whether or not Quaid is truly a spy or if he is just experiencing the fantasy he purchased at Rekall. Wiseman is much more concerned with creating stunning action set pieces and at that, at least, he is halfway competent.
Kate Beckinsale (Wiseman’s wife and star of his Underworld series) is given most of the heavy lilting when it comes to action scenes. Made to kick, leap, slide and squeeze her way through an hour and a half of nonstop chase scenes and close encounters with the husband she’s chasing, Beckinsale’s character is an unstoppable assassin and, thankfully, she is the only actor involved with the project who sees the film as a chance to have some fun. It is Beckinsale that has all the one-liners and she is the only one with true life coursing through her eyes.
Jessica Biel, as a resistance fighter who teams with Quaid, is the opposite. Like a ragdoll being lifelessly tossed around by the director, Biel is playing a paint-by-numbers character who serves the plot instead of the other way around. There is nothing memorable about her performance nor is she given any room to shine. She’s not alone, though, Wiseman’s Total Recall manages to waste performances by Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy and John Cho with equal abandon.
Besides Beckinsale, there is another shining light. Bokeem Woodbine, as a factory worker who is friends with Quaid, takes charge of his character by force and, through sheer willpower, makes it his own. There’s something magnetic and powerful about Woodbine’s performance – and something gleefully self-aware. If only Colin Farrell had shown the same kind of enthusiasm. Farrell has proved in the past that he is a charismatic actor but in Total Recall he is a black hole of audience interest – sucking in any trace of curiosity and leaving behind absolutely no evidence of an audience connection. There is no rooting for Farrell’s Quaid because ne never proves to the audience that he is anything more than a character in a video game. We are never shown evidence that, should Quaid die, he won’t just respawn in the last save point. He follows the beats of the film as outlined by the script of the original, but without the excitement and joy Schwarzenegger provided with ease.
Wiseman’s Total Recall is a PG-13 film, a shock considering the original’s reputation as one of the bloodiest films ever made. Despite the lower rating, Wiseman manages to squeeze in copious amounts of gunplay (and, yes, even a three-breasted alien). Despite this, the film’s violence is very much lacking any real depth. Critics complained that the original Total Recall displayed cartoon amounts of violence but at least the film showed the true consequences of gunplay – blood, death and dismemberment. The remake glosses over any real consequences of violence – never showing the deviation that comes with the film’s heavy artillery count. A robotic army exists to dehumanize the violence even more – allowing Quaid to have plenty of faceless, emotionless goons to dispose of without the film having to get bloody. This whitewashing of the film’s violence leaves the audience no choice but to gloss over the rest of the film’s action scenes. There’s no weight to the choreography as there are never any consequences shown to the actions of the characters. Cars crash, trains explode and bystanders are sniped at but the movie never takes a moment to stop and reflect on what’s happening. The audience is too busy being bussed along to the next action scene and the whole experience can be a bit exhausting.
Total Recall has no mutants, no mars, no real violence and no humor. It is Verhoeven’s Total Recall in name and story only – like a coma patient who has shriveled up into a shell of its former self. Despite all this, Wiseman’s slick sense of scale and the beautiful set design help make sure Total Recall at least isn’t a terrible movie. It’s inoffensive and unfun, a dangerous combination if you have a refined taste in action films, but it is more than up to the task of entertaining those that seek bland and generic action films to chew through and immediately digest without a moment of reflection.
If the 1990 version of Total Recall was a groundbreaking action epic (and it was), Wiseman’s version of the film is the cheap video game adaptation – designed to milk a few extra bucks out of fans and be quickly forgotten about a few months later.
Director: Len Wiseman Writers: Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, based on “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick Notable Cast: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho and Bill Nighy
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.