(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
I have not seen Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, but comparisons to the original aren’t necessary to discuss the new remake starring Colin Farrell. Len Wiseman’s version is bad enough on its own terms. In a summer crowded with loud blockbusters, Total Recall isn’t even enjoyably mediocre. The movie’s impressive (though unoriginal) production design is completely overshadowed by a fundamental mishandling of story and character and, more disappointingly, a lack of thrilling set pieces.
Seeking an escape from the drudgery of his middle class life, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) decides to sample Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories in the brain. Something goes wrong, and after some explosions and eye-rolllingly convenient expository dialogue, Douglas finds out he’s not quite the loser he thought he was. It turns out he’s Carl Hauser, a former agent for the chancellor (Bryan Cranston) who sided with the resistance. His “wife” Lori (Kate Beckinsale) turns out to be an undercover agent, and Melina (Jessica Biel) comes along as a lover from his unremembered past who’ll kick ass alongside him.
Total Recall’s very premise begs for uncertainty and a crisis of identity, but in no time at all, it’s completely clear to Douglas and the audience whom he should trust. The unfolding of the mystery plays out oddly similar to Jason Bourne’s detective work in The Bourne Identity: he doesn’t know who he is, he can kick ass, and an account number leads him to a box with passports that point to his true identity. And yet, even the wildly overrated first Bourne movie manages to be more enigmatic about its protagonist’s past.
This complete lack of mystery defuses the tension of seemingly important turning points. Douglas and Melina find themselves cornered, and Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) arrives to convince his old pal that he must shoot his female companion to wake up from his out-of-control dream. It’s one of the first moments when our protagonist is given a choice regarding his fate, but there’s never a doubt about what he should and will choose. It’s an awkward scene with screaming and plenty of gun pointing, but the movie has done nothing to make us believe that Douglas might be dreaming. And if it’s actually a dream, it’s not clear why it’s so necessary that he wakes up.
The uninspired plotting is also plagued by a complete lack of existential weight despite a premise that demands it. While it’s unreasonable to expect every blockbuster to have the depth of Blade Runner or The Matrix, Wiseman’s Total Recall had an opportunity to at least tease questions of memory and human experience. But any sort of identity crisis is completely undercut in a convenient conversation between Douglas and resistance leader Matthias (Bill Nighy). The old man offers fortune cookie wisdom about how it’s not about what you did but rather who you are, and Douglas (now embracing his Hauser) nonchalantly eats it up, even cutely regurgitating the lesson of the day in a hand-to-hand brawl with Cranston’s baddie. This movie seems little concerned with dramatic weight or thematic import, everything mere connective tissue for expensive action scenes.
Somehow, even the set pieces of Total Recall prove ineffective. An early hover car chase seems promising, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The editing here has little regard for spatial coherence, and there are no unique touches that make the scene remotely as memorable as the speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi or even the podracing scene in The Phantom Menace. A climactic save involving a gunship proves less a badass display of hardware than a cop-out. The only truly memorable detail involves an electric lasso, the sort of device that people talk about walking out of a science fiction movie. But it’s onscreen for such a short time, a mere spark of imagination in an otherwise dull action flick.
The set pieces also fail to excite in part because there’s no reason to take interest in any of these characters. Characters only matter to the extent that they progress the plot, and they’re all one-note sketches, lacking the sort of inner life that would make them more than pawns in this game. Beckinsale’s Lori and Biel’s Melina appear to be strong women on the surface, but they are completely defined by their allegiance to the male protagonist. They have little agency, completely driven to by their desires to kill or save the man of the hour. But even worse is the complete waste of Cranston as a villain. The gifted actor is hardly on screen, and the villain never has a moment of true menace.
Though subversion shouldn’t be expected from such a film, I can’t help but think this could have been a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Hollywood blockbusters in more talented hands. Our protagonist seeks escapism from the boredom of his everyday life by seeking new, artificial memories (like movies) that may or not be invading the clarity of his consciousness. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner toyed with the possibility that anyone could be a replicant, whether it’s in Deckard’s characterization or mise en scene suggesting our only frame of reference for a future Los Angeles is the implanted memory of film noir. Perhaps a Christopher Nolan could have imbued the action of Total Recall with grander, more profound ideas. But the reboot we’re given is not smart enough to crack the joke, and it’s not even competent enough to deliver the thrills. In other words, it doesn’t have the muscles or the brains.