Total Recall (United States/Canada, 2012)

August 02, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Total Recall Poster

It's a hard thing for a filmmaker, even an accomplished one, to make a project "his own" when the original is well remembered as a vehicle for a star as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger. A mere 22 years have passed since the Schwarzenegger/Paul Vehoeven sci-fi/action collaboration, Total Recall, reached screens, yet it remains as vivid as ever. The difficulty for Len "Underworld" Wiseman and his screenwriters is to recreate the essence of Total Recall while giving it more than just a facelift. To do this, they keep many of the key moments intact while changing a myriad of details. One significant failure, however, is an inability (or unwillingness) to rectify the last act anticlimax. The biggest flaw of the 1990 Total Recall was how disappointingly banal the endgame was. Wiseman adds some special effects and Michael Bay-style pyrotechnics, but the result is similar. It's doubly deflating because one of the great advantages of remaking a movie is being given the opportunity to correct problems - something not attempted here.

Colin Farrell's interpretation of the protagonist is, predictably, much different than Schwarzenegger's. It's a less tongue-in-cheek approach with no flippant one-liners ("consider this a divorce"). About all they share is the same name: Douglas Quaid. At the time when the 1990 Total Recall came out, Schwarzenegger was near the height of his popularity; Verhoeven understood this and gave him an extraordinary amount of latitude to please his fans. The result was Arnold being Arnold. Farrell's interpretation is more low-key and introverted. One senses that, had Wiseman wanted to take the story in a different direction, Farrell could have embraced the mind-fuck aspect that is only hinted at. But, since Wiseman sticks to the original trajectory, there's rarely much serious consideration that significant portions of the movie could be implanted memories. Too bad Spike Jonze wasn't at the helm. That would have been a wild ride.

There's no Mars in this Total Recall. Oh, Mars is still there, and it's mentioned in passing, but it's not part of the setting. The time period is the early 22nd century and a global biological war has left a majority of the planet uninhabitable. Those places still capable of supporting life - parts of Great Britain and Australia - are grossly overpopulated. Class warfare is erupting with the "Rebel Alliance" led by the messianic figure of Matthias (Bill Nighy) and the "Empire" controlled by Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Little attempt is made to disguise connections to Star Wars: Cohageen's soldiers look so similar to the clone troopers at the end of Attack of the Clones that one expects Yoda to show up and pronounce: "Begun the Clone War has."

Quaid is one of many grunts who makes a daily high-speed trip called "The Fall" from Australia to the U.K. through the Earth's core. It takes about 17 minutes. Quaid's daily routine is the same; he always sits next to Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), his best friend for as long as he can remember. When the day is over, he comes home to his loving wife of seven years, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). But there's something missing from his life and he only discovers what it is when a trip to Rekall, a corporation offering to implant fake vacation memories, uncovers a startling truth. It turns out that Quaid hasn't merely been fantasizing about being a secret agent; he is one. But he has no memories of his life as "Hauser" and no idea what he was like or who he was working for. Was he Cohaagen's right-hand man or a turncoat who went to work for the rebels? And who is Melina (Jessica Biel), the dark-haired beauty who appears in his dreams?

Most of what's interesting about Total Recall's story is replicated from the 1990 screenplay, which was loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." In terms of plot innovation, Wiseman and his writers bring little to the table. One can argue the benefits of moving the story from Mars to Earth, but there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason for the change. Those familiar with the Verhoeven picture will immediately recognize this as a close cousin.

There are some differences. The first, and most obvious, is tone. The 1990 Total Recall was justifiably rated R for its unflinching brutality. It also had a dark sense of humor. Wiseman has neutered the violence to get the coveted teen-friendly PG-13. His universe isn't kinder or gentler, but he doesn't show things as graphically as Verhoeven did. The black comedy has also been muted, resulting in a more generic approach. On the other hand, the 2012 interpretation is more action-oriented. In fact, numerous sequences are presented as non-playable sequences from computer games, making one wonder whether the art designer had this in mind when designing some of the levels. I have played games like this before although my avatars rarely accomplish things as fluidly as Quaid and Melina.

The characters of Lori and Richter from the 1990 version (played by Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside, respectively) have been combined into one in order to give Mrs. Wiseman more screen time. Kate Beckinsale plays this role like she's still in one of those Underworld movies. Stone's ass-kicking Ice Queen was a more compelling interpretation, and that was two years before she opened her legs for Verhoeven in his follow-up. History will probably not repeat itself with the somewhat prudish Beckinsale.

No one can fault Wiseman's vision. His grim world, although highly derivative of other dark, futuristic science fiction enterprises (Blade Runner and The Fifth Element come to mind), is vividly represented via some of the most effectively splashy CGI I have recently seen. There's a Lucas-like attention to detail. By comparison, Verhoeven's science fiction details seem dated and low-budget. Granted, with access to CGI, the 1990 Total Recall would have boasted a different look.

This is the second recent remake of a 1980s film in which Farrell has participated and, although this doesn't feel as utterly superfluous and vaguely insulting as Fright Night, it's not a poster child to argue why remakes can sometimes be good things. Given a choice between watching Paul Verhoeven's interpretation of the material starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone (with an R rating) or Len Wiseman's version starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale (with a PG-13), which would you choose? Case closed.

Total Recall (United States/Canada, 2012)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2012-08-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1