I had high hopes for the remake of Total Recall, after first seeing the trailer a year or two ago, not least because the original is a film I enjoyed immensely. It looked exciting, at the very least. There was Colin Farrell, for example, leaping heroically from building ledges. There was Kate Beckinsale, fighting Colin Farrell, punching him repeatedly in the face. There was Jessica Biel, looking a little bit like Kate Beckinsale. There seemed to be a lot of bullets. It kind of looked like Blade Runner. And there was a lot of noise.
Surely it would be worth a gander? Alas, no, apparently not. A vast number of unfavourable reviews were published, and I forgot all about Total Recall. In fact it was almost as if I’d visited Recall myself, and had my mind wiped; my memories had been replaced with those of a film blogger who could only remember the excellent 1990 Paul Verhoeven sci-fi flick, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Ironside, Sharon Stone and an alien with three breasts.
Then a DVD of the 2012 version landed on my doormat, and I thought to myself “can it really be that bad?”. Well, actually, Total Recall isn’t that bad. (For the sake of this review, every time I say “Total Recall” I’m referring to the remake. I’ll refer to the original as, er, “the original”. After this, though, whenever I refer to “Total Recall” in the future, I’ll be talking about the Arnie one. Got it? Good.) In fact, if you just want to switch off on a Saturday night and gawp at some well-choreographed action set pieces, impressive set design and decent special effects, you can’t go wrong. All of those boxes are ticked. But first, a plot recap.
The year is 2084. After chemical warfare has devastated much of the earth, only two territories remain. In the southern hemisphere there is “The Colony”, which used to be Australasia (boooo!). In the north, attempting to lord it over everyone in a self-important manner – Aussies will point out that nothing changes – is the United Federation of Britain (hooray! *waves flag, polishes Lady Di memorial plates*). The two are linked by a giant lift called ‘The Fall’, which passes directly through the Earth’s core (and I thought my tube journeys in the summer were uncomfortably hot). The UFB is the target of a resistance group that is looking to improve the quality of life in The Colony, while the UFB is looking to rob The Colony of its resources and land. How very British.
Many workers travel from The Colony to work in the factories of The UFB each day via The Fall, including electrician Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), who is starting to tire of his daily routine of commuting through the middle of the planet. The bored Quaid visits a company called Rekall, which specialises in artificial implants of memories, offering customers a holiday from the drudgery of daily life. Just as he is about to be implanted with the memories of a spy, Rekall scientist Bob McClane (John Cho, better known as Harold from the Harold and Kumar movies, or the guy that popularized the term ‘MILF’ in American Pie) discovers that Quaid already has his own memories relating to espionage. The Rekall facility is subsequently attacked by robotic government spooks, but the surprised Quaid escapes.
As if his day couldn’t get any worse, Quaid returns home to find that his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is actually an undercover agent, who tries to kill him before setting off on a relentless pursuit that eventually takes Quaid to the UFB. There he hooks up with resistance fighter Melina (Jessica Biel), and discovers that his real name is Carl Hauser, an undercover agent who actually works for UFB Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, slumming it as an instantly forgettable villain, but you can see the appeal of the project).
Confused, and trying to extract a code from his body that will enable the government’s enemies to destroy the robotic forces that oppress them, Quaid seeks the help of freedom fighter / terrorist Matthias (Bill Nighy). But can he find out the truth about himself? And will anyone who hasn’t already seen the original care by this point anyway?
Total Recall is a humourless film, one which amounts to nothing more than a long chase through a couple of futuristic cities. It takes itself so seriously that you long for one of Arnie’s emphatically-delivered lines, a “See you at de pardeee, Richter”, “Consider dat a divorce!” or even a “But if I’m not me…den who da hell am I?” Farrell, presumably as part of a wider team effort to distance the film from the original, delivers that third line of dialogue with the kind of joy mustered by a man who is about to be rubber-gloved at customs by The Hulk.
From the point that Quaid checks in at Rekall to the very last minute of the film, it’s all action, with only a few short scenes where proceedings calm down long enough for a morsel of plot or character development to be cast forward to the starving viewer. I lost count of the number of times Quaid just about escapes with his life after being cornered in a lift / a room / a corridor. It’s such a shame, because actually these action sequences are fantastic, and they save Total Recall from being a complete write off. Farrell’s first fight scene with Kate Beckinsale is tense and just about believable, making a mockery of the giant Schwarzenegger’s ludicrous mis-match with Sharon Stone in the original. The subsequent chase across the rooftops and through the streets of The Colony is also excellent, and had me on the edge of my seat; some bright spark must have thought “what if we put Jason Bourne on the set of Blade Runner?”. It works, but 80 minutes and fifty four fist fight/chase scenes later, I was impatiently waiting for the film to end. If you were trying to argue the case for Total Recall, you might say that ‘the action never lets up’, but the phrase in full ought to be ‘the action never lets up, to the detriment of everything else’.
The cities are beautifully realised, with high rise built on top of high rise to cope with the pressure of over-population. The UFB has one or two nods to present day London, most obviously with a segment set in a contaminated West End, with Piccadilly Circus covered in dirt, and less obviously with a border security at The Fall which is actually similar to the overall experience of landing and passing through customs at Heathrow or Gatwick Airport. Weird.
I’ve mentioned Blade Runner a couple of times, and the street-level look of The Colony really is copied wholesale from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece (but, given both were based on Philip K. Dick stories, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea). There’s the constant rain, for starters. Then there’s the sheer number of people on the streets, the dense mass of neon signs and the fact that Asian culture and food has almost completely taken over at the expense of all others (though there are one or two signs in Russian around, and the language spoken is English). Giant adverts fly past loudly selling products (also a feature of the original Total Recall, if memory serves). Unfortunately there’s little originality on show, despite the fact it looks very good indeed.
The film’s boldest moves are the ways in which it differs from both the original Verhoeven film and the source material, the aforementioned Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Both of those are set partly on Mars, whereas events here are limited to Earth (despite the fact the filmmakers were at pains to stress that this newer version was more in keeping with Dick’s story; perhaps it is, in tone). Michael Ironside’s 1990 character Richter is dispensed with entirely, with Beckinsale’s Lori taking on the joint duties of being Cohaagen’s sadistic and ruthless sidekick as well as Quaid’s wife. However, where the intentions of the government in the original film were clear (they’re searching for an alien artefact that threatens their ability to mine Mars for resources), here the relationship between the freedom fighters and the politicians, and The Colony and the UFB, is given short shrift. A couple of news pieces attempt to create a sense of a society under threat from the terrorists, but mostly it just seems to be sloganeering and stencil graffiti. It never feels as though anything concrete is at stake; on a planet that has been decimated by a Third World War, would a small band of terrorists really be the greatest threat that exists to a stable society?
Colin Farrell isn’t particularly objectionable as Quaid, but he lacks the endearing combination of goofiness and muscle that made Schwarzenegger such an enjoyable hero to watch first time round. Farrell is often shot from just below chest height, making him look as big as possible, with ever-present lens-flare flashing across his chops, but he lacks presence here. He’s certainly not the worst action hero I’ve seen (well, his stunt double is very good at repeatedly falling through fake glass or jumping into open lift shafts, etc. etc.), but it’s certainly not one of his greatest roles.
Unfortunately the near-constant action means that Biel and Beckinsale play characters that aren’t developed much, if at all; they’re just there to kick ass occasionally, which they manage to do convincingly enough. They fare better than Bryan Cranston, who is woefully underused as Cohaagen, popping up once or twice on news screens in the first hour before he eventually makes a ‘proper’ appearance for all of ten or fifteen minutes. And even that is quality screen time compared to Bill Nighy, who appears for about a minute, and Ethan Hawke, who only made it into the Director’s Cut. (A Director’s Cut? Already? Why?)
Ultimately it doesn’t stand up to the original because it lacks that film’s bloody gore, knowing sense of humour, sense of camp fun and (literally) its otherworldliness. There’s no sense of mystery or playfulness until the very, very end, when Quaid spots an advert for Rekall in the distance and – like Schwarzenegger in the original – briefly questions what is real and whether all of the events he has experienced have been made up by the company. There are nods to Verhoeven’s movie, but they are occasionally messed up. For example, the original famously featured a mutant woman with three breasts, which worked given the fact the film was set on a planet that was full of mutants and aliens. When a similar figure is shoe-horned in here it seems ridiculous, as there are no other similar figures in the film. It’s full of ‘normal’ humans. Or robots.
Simply put, what we have here is expensively-made sci-fi by numbers, which admittedly looks good, but there is no emotional core. It’s hard to truly lose yourself in the film and to care about the plight of any of the characters, except for Quaid. The action and chase sequences are very good, though, and if you haven’t seen the original you might enjoy it more than most because of them. But the advice is firmly to go with Verhoeven’s wonky classic, and forget all about this one.
Directed by: Len Wiseman
Written by: Ronald Shussett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, Kurt Wimmer, Philip K Dick
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bill Nighy, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 118 Minutes