A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2011


2012, PG-13, 121 mins.


Quaid: Colin Farrell / Lori: Kate Beckinsale / Melina: Jessica Biel / Cohaagen: Bryan Cranston / Harry: Bokeem Woodbine / Matthias: Bill Nighy

Directed by Len Wiseman / Written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, inspired by Philip K. Dick's story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”

The new retooled TOTAL RECALL has many similar story elements of the Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger original, but rather unwisely forgets what made that 1990 sci-fi flick the classic that it’s regarded today.  The new Len Wiseman helmed production maintains the original's protagonist and its mind and reality-bending futuristic narrative.  Yet, regretfully missing is the original’s detour to Mars, mind-reading mutants that burst out of men’s chests, gleefully over-the-top artery-spewing violence, and, yes, Au-nald himself, whose very presence alone gave the Verhoeven iteration a thrilling sense of goofy, muscle bound machismo and fun.   

Wiseman’s efforts in TOTAL RECALL-redux results in a workmanlike and proficiently made film that’s also a tedious bore and lacking in genuine excitement.  Great remakes pay faithful homage to their antecedents while boldly taking the material in new directions.  The problem with TOTAL RECALL as a remake is not that it doesn’t respect the original picture, nor does it fail to do  anything wildly different with its premise (there are enough changes in this new version to stave off criticisms of it being a lazy regurgitation).  No, the dilemma here for Wiseman and his writers – Mark Bomback (LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD) and Kurt Wimmer (ULTRAVIOLET) - is that their version of the story is fairly mindless and action-heavy and not a theme-centric film of ideas that was the original.  The ’90 version – even with its lustful penchant for schlocky and gratuitous carnage and wry humor – still had provocative things to say about the nature of identity and memories, whereas Wiseman and company seem more fascinated by simply making a good-looking and empty-minded action film. 

This new film still has a man named Douglas Quaid that yearns for something better in his mundane life and still takes place in the distant future.  This film’s future is more bleak and dystopian: Earth has become an uninhabitable hellhole due to previous chemical wars that were waged over most of the globe, leaving just two areas of the planet that can support human life: The United Federation of England and "The Colony" (essentially Australia).  Low-paid and lowly workers slave away on the Colony in factories; they make their daily commutes directly through the Earth via an unimaginably large vessel that is able to burrow from England to its destination in manners never fully explained, even though it all looks rather cool on screen. 



One of the workers, Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell, lacking Arnold’s brawny might, but eclipsing him on the thespian front), is tired of being one of the downtrodden one per cent that works everyday for the Federation, run by a ruthless and ambitious Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).  Even though his monotonous grind of occupational servitude is sapping the life right out of poor Doug, he still has a trophy wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale, who looks remarkably pristine despite the hellish environment she and others reside in).  Nonetheless, Doug is tempted to give “Rekall” a try, a company that specializes in implanting artificial memories into their clients.  It’s never established how a relative poor worker-bee like Doug could afford such a seemingly costly procedure, but never mind. 

His first trip to Rekall ends kind of similarly to the 1990 original: when Doug fails a compatibility test with the computers, the head honcho of Rekall accuses him of being a spy, during which Federation troops rain in on Rekall to apprehend the befuddled Doug.  Yet, Doug is able to easily and instinctively dispose of the dozens of highly trained and armed men like their were flies...without knowing really how he's capable of doing so.  After that bloody confrontation, Doug returns home to his wife, who immediately - much to Doug's increasingly astonishment - attempts to kill him.  He rather quickly discovers that he is actually a spy, but has no memories of that secret life, nor does he remember the brown-haired and beautiful Melina (Jessica Biel), a woman from his past, that shows up and becomes his ally.  Is Doug a secret operative of Cohaagen or does he have loyalties to an underground resistance movement that wants to take Cohaagen down? 

TOTAL RECALL, on a positive, is one of the finest looking films of the summer, thanks largely to Patrick Tatopoulus’ astounding and immersive production design that creates futuristic cityscapes that echo – if not a bit plagiaristically – similar ones seen in BLADE RUNNER.  The art direction and flawlessly executed CGI effects concoct towering and intersecting skyscrapers that appear horizontally stacked one upon the other to evoke a massive metropolis that’s been forced to harbor a planet’s worth of humanity.  The film relishes in envisioning other touches of its day-to-day futuristic life, like mobile phones that are essentially embedded into the palm of your hands (nifty!) that allows you to instantly have video conversations by placing your hand on any glass object (extra nifty!) or levitating cars that seem to hover on magnets, which culminates in one of the film’s show-stopping action sequences where Doug and Melina find highly novel methods of using their flying vehicle to evade Cohaagen’s grunts.  On these primary visual levels, TOTAL RECALL is an absolute visual triumph. 

Yet, you can instantly sense that Wiseman – who previously helmed most of the UNDERWORLD films - is more entrenched in the aesthetic look of TOTAL RECALL and is even more interested in repetitive and increasingly dull chase and battle sequences with synthetic drones (that look suspiciously like clone troopers from the STAR WARS prequels) that drains the film of semblance of tension or nail biting intrigue.  The endlessly banal moments of bloodless shoot-em-up pandemonium take us away from the fascination that the story should have had with Doug’s cognitive predicament.  In the original I was hypnotized with whether or not Doug’s reality within the film was actually reality or the reality within his mind, but Wiseman’s film all but tips off from the beginning that Doug is, in fact, a super soldier spy.  As a result, the story never tantalizes us with what-if scenarios that could have given the film a more satisfying propulsive energy. 

The casting and performances don’t really help that much either.  Great character actors like Bill Nighy (criminally underused as the resistance leader) and Bryan Crantson (even more criminally underused as the nefarious and seldom seen Cohaagen) are never harnessed to their full abilities (when will a movie finally utilize the growling intensity that Crantson has generated on the small screen on BREAKING BAD?).  Biel and Beckinsale are pure window dressing, even though Biel brings a level of breathless urgency to her thinly written role.  Beckinsale, on the other hand, seems pathetically pigeonholed into playing one crudely developed and sullen female killing machine after another in lifeless action movies.   

Then there’s Farrell himself, who is surely a great actor, but perhaps is too stern, stoic, and lacking in self-deprecating charm in the central role to make an impression.  Watching Schwarzenegger in the original – juicily uttering tongue-in-check one liners while literally ripping people’s arms out of their sockets – I was constantly thinking that a remake of it needs a hulking physical presence as the main hero, and one that does not take himself too seriously for better effect (just imagine, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in this remake and you get the idea).  Plus, I never really had a rooting interest this go around for Doug and his thorny predicament, mostly because this TOTAL RECALL is nothing more than a spiffy-looking technological engine churning out lots of noise, chaos, and frenzied action.  For a film about endlessly compelling ideas about the nature of memories and reality, TOTAL RECALL does not have much of a brain in its head.

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