First off, you can’t help but compare this Total Recall with the Arnold Schwarzenegger one from 1990. It’s way-back-when director Paul Verhoeven’s mix of robotics, wires, technology and threats to humanity that makes a difference from Underworld (2003) director Len Wiseman’s version today. In Verhoeven’s films the flesh is always rooted in the present, not really meant to cohabitate with other life-forms or inanimate objects—like say a David Cronenberg film—but the Verhoeven make-up effects and the sort of genre mutation he’s good at is missing from this re-do. Hey, but at least it’s been 22 years since the original before we’re seeing the remake and not five years like some movies we know. That may help this film as new audiences will discover it for the first time and not get bogged down with comparisons.
The Story: Those who haven’t seen the original won’t have Verhoeven’s burned-in images to compare this one too but audiences might inevitably still draw comparisons to other films. In this Total Recall they may see Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible similarities and production design similar to Blade Runner (1982), The Island (2005), Minority Report (2002) and Repo Men (2010). Two of these films were adapted from Philip K. Dick literature just as Total Recall, past and present, is adapted from his short “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” I guess I should say superficial design, backing up there for a second, since what we really get a strong sense of in this Total Recall is production over character. Doug Quaid, or whoever he really is, played by Colin Farrell (Phone Booth (2002), In Bruges (2008), The Minority Report) seems to be missing something in his life and desires a memory implant which in this future society is kind of like going on a cruise without actually doing it. Memories, “from a life you’ve never lived.” The only problem is that he could already have something planted in his memory that others may want.
The Goods: I will say this, Wiseman, who is married to one of the stars of this film, Kate Beckinsale, moves away from the fan protected safety of his vampire films and exercises a new set of chops on relationships and dialogue. For the first thirty minutes of Total Recall, anyway. Then we get into some serious action, chase sequences mostly, on foot, by vehicle, raucously moving us deep into the second act. And Kate Beckinsale who plays Quaid’s wife, Lori, does an excellent job with the action, probably the best she’s ever done. One can’t help but think of The Terminator films.
Most of what we enjoy I think is the mystery of what’s going on with Quaid, the suspense of who he is exactly and what’s at stake. There’s even a neat scene in Quaid’s apartment near the middle of the film when he’s trying to process this amnesiac’s nightmare. It’s a bit of a cinematic departure for director Wiseman in the sense he uses the props in the room and editing to give us a kind of Brian De Palma insight into Quaid’s mental dilemma, showing us a duality of two personalities in the room by way of cutting and mirrored reflections. That’s like nothing I’ve seen in Wiseman’s Underworld films or in his Die Hard 4 movie Live Free or Die Hard (2007).
The rest of this Total Recall is pretty decent sci-fi that is a society partly over-saturated with technology of the future, of things we can envision for the future but haven’t quite seen, while also partly grounded in the practical use of current technology, touch screens, holograms, those sort of things. Combustible engine automobiles running on gas and oil sharing the road with hover mobiles that glide in traffic by way of magnets. Toys like rockets that hit targets and bust up into dozens of tiny cameras assisting troops with reconnaissance from a distance are pretty cool and help sell the atmosphere of this not-too-distant future.
The Flaws: Paul Verhoeven did something pretty neat in the span of ten years which was to make a trilogy of films—Robocop (1987), Total Recall and Starship Troopers (1997)—that really weren’t sequels of one another or part of a franchise but that appeared as a set of uniquely stylized science fiction films that bled into one another by way of Verhoeven’s perspective of space, fantasy, monsters and character actors that he would take from one film to another. Without any one of the films having anything to do with the others he still managed to make a trilogy as good if not better than Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight series, or Lucas’ first three Star Wars films. In the sense of an artist’s cohesive vision.
With sci-fi and fantasy it isn’t enough to just have cool gadgets and features of the future. You must also include something of the strange and bizarre which is what Verhoeven—and Verhoeven’s Total Recall—has over this one.
Because the remake stays true to the original we see more clichés than we might normally see simply because time has brought us many movies patterned on the original, and the original’s pattern from films and books before it. Such as the writings of Dick and Ray Bradbury, for instance, and movies like Logan’s Run (1976), Planet of the Apes (1968), Silent Running (1972); and countless other science fiction films before those. The Star Trek TV series (1966) and The Twilight Zone series (1959) also have significant DNA within the genetics of Total Recall, in today’s and yesterday’s. I know nothing’s original any more but can’t we experiment a little bit? Besides, I like the original’s excursion on Mars more than this one’s “clone” wars at home. But you get the idea.
The Call: Stow the dough. If you saw every movie that came out in the theater what would be left to watch at home?
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language. Running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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