In the film world, remakes get a bad rap and it’s mainly because most of them don’t offer anything new. Just the word “remake” can make people irk. Sometimes a remake comes along that can beat the odds, gain a new audience and impress existing fans with the update; sadly, this is not one of them…but it’s not like anyone was holding their breath. Len Wiseman (the Underworld series, Live Free or Die Hard) gives us a new spin on both the 1990 Paul Verhoeven action-classic and the Phillip K. Dick short film which inspired it. But what do we get with this face-lift? Not very much, which is disappointing because Wiseman has assembled some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, throws oodles of neat looking sci-fi tech at us and uses the source material from a very popular and beloved film. Sounds like a home run but as things do start off very appealing, what ultimately spells doom for this hopeful looking film is poor execution, one-dimensional characters, mindless action and series of plot holes.
Simply put, Total Recall is about a question: What can you trust if you can’t trust your mind? The entire film is centered on this dilemma that may or not be an apparent delusion and one that nobody, least of all the main character, is sure is really happening. It’s an interesting concept and one that this version of Total Recall presents rather well. In a very smart and self-aware scene the main character Quaid/Hauser wrestles with this fact and actually states, before starting his journey (or delusion), that “an illusion, no matter how convincing, is just an illusion“. Better still is when the implant technician McClane tells him that “the past is a construct of the mind” and since memories aren’t real, we’re only ever dealing with the present. Unfortunately that’s about the extent to the wit that Len Wiseman’s convoluted film has and like an inevitable lobotomy, is about as satisfying as this sci-fi remake gets…pretty much before things even get started. Pity. The rest of what we get is more or less a carbon copy of Verhoeven’s film that gives us a very telegraphed and dull adventure thanks to a nauseating series of nods and homages as well as action that just won’t quit.
It’s not easy to evaluate a film when the original is so ingrained in our culture and to some, the idea of a remake is complete and utter blasphemy. Being as fair as possible, Wiseman didn’t set out to remake one of the greatest movies ever (let’s be honest, Verhoeven’s fun and ultra violent film not exactly Casablanca) but it was probably an uphill battle to say the least. Wiseman makes action flicks and his strengths have always been and continue to be his visuals. Like Underworld, Total Recall is notably sleek and this glitzy yet gritty version of the future trades brains for vapid style. Further it attempts to keep our disbelief not only suspended but, like “The Fall” (the subway that literally goes through the Earth bridging Australia, now “The Colony”, and the UK, now “The United Federation of Britain”), sent clear to the other side of the planet in an effort to distract us from asking questions about the story that just don’t make sense.
With no less than 6 writing credits (4 with nothing stellar to their credit and the 2 original screenwriters probably credited just for the criminal number of references to the 1990 film as ‘source material’), this emotionless and tiresome series of chases is void of compelling story and plays like everyone in the band wanting and getting a solo. It wears you out more than it’s entertaining or satisfying. In a positive light, the film does have a great deal of high concept futuristic design and is admittedly one of the coolest futures seen lately. From home appliances, to cell phones to Tron-esqe tattoos, and repulsor equipped cars/highways, if that’s the future we’re headed towards then, aside from the near mass extinction and subsequent overcrowding, that’s still a pretty desirable future. Yet all that coolness goes overboard and becomes excessive as each hi-tech chase scene tries to outdo the last one.
The insane levels of action (on par with Michel Bay to give you an idea) really serve to take you out of the film because, boiled down to essentials, there are just no stakes in the game for the two leads; no matter how big the explosions, we know these two will be miraculously unharmed. Beyond that, the chemistry between Farrell and Biel is non-existent which further removes cohesion or gravity from the situations. The action simply punctuates the rather weak story and that’s about it. Finally, as far a plot goes, one thing that’s always seemed odd is the idea of a memory implant. Why get one at all? It’s not like Quaid’s (or any Rekall customer’s) life is going to be any better afterwards. He worked a crap job and would go back to the same crap job making the whole story a moot point. That’s where Verhoeven got it right. Make something that’s less a movie about a savior/typical action hero and change it up to be about a character you’re constantly questioning/worrying about, right up to the end. Frankly, if you find yourself caring about Quaid at all, you might not be watching this Total Recall.
With all the nods and homages paid to the original, the first time Total Recall really presents itself as both inspiring, interesting or truly original is in the finale. There are glints of real potential but it just never rises above what it looked like in the trailer; a glossy unnecessary remake. Perhaps the worst offense in Wiseman’s film is that it casts out the ambiguous nature of the story set firmly in place by Verhoeven. With the 1990 version you really could argue one way or another what really happened to Quaid at the end. In place of a thinking man’s sci-fi we get a relentless chase film that is more about an unlikely hero who will “get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet” rather than offer something for us to think about it as the theater lights come up. It’s unfortunate but with all that’s going on, the entire endeavor, including the talented cast, is entirely forgettable.
In all fairness Wiseman has never made movies that have staying power; he’s simply a popcorn filmmaker. Now there are bits and plot points that work, like the idea of trading a greedy corporation for a corrupt military state is socially relevant as is jettisoning the Mars plot point for a solely Earth-bound setting (though “The Fall” has a very interstellar feel to it) and streamlining/consolidating characters are all solid decisions to help make this remake more than a retread. But for every positive step forward the film then stutter steps as it tries, or feels overly compelled, to shoehorn in every memorable element, situation or quotable line from the original. It is, at times, a fun, fast and energetic but it’s a pity that this check-list approach need to appeal to fans of the original and dazzle the ADD crowd resulted in a hollow, overlong mess. Maybe this film (or the audience rather) should have got a memory implant of a better film.