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Total Recall

August 9, 2012
Total Recall

So we’ve decided to go back and adapt Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale again. Len Wiseman’s new Total Recall is not exactly a remake of Paul Vervoeven’s 1990 version starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it does draw a certain amount of inspiration. And while it diverges from Dick’s story more than Verhoeven’s version — not that that movie was exactly faithful either — I must admit that, as a science fiction action thriller, Wiseman’s version is the superior adaptation. However, it’s not as much campy fun. What it is, for the most part, is bigger.

First off, writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have gotten rid of the whole Mars angle; around the end of the 21st century, the majority of Earth has been rendered unlivable by global chemical warfare. All that remains are two areas: the United Federation of Britain — which seems to include a largish chunk of western Europe — and the Colony — the former continent of Australia. The precise geopolitical relationship between these two is pretty hazy, and that’s probably because what little we do learn of it doesn’t stand up to even the mildest scrutiny. In fact, very little in this movie does.

What’s important is that the UFB is led by Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), and it has been subjected to attacks by a militant faction led by a man known as Matthias (Bill Nighy). What we see of the UFB resembles a multi-leveled recreation of London, while the Colony is a similarly-suspended polyglot slum drawn straight from Blade Runner. The two are connected by a tunnel passing through the Earth’s outer core, known as the Fall, for obvious reasons.

Anyway, we focus on one Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), who lives in the Colony and commutes via the Fall to his job in a factory assembling robotic police for the UFB. He’s got a good friend, Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), at work and a hot wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), at home. It seems to be a decent enough life, but he’s troubled by a nagging dissatisfaction, along with a recurring nightmare involving a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel).

He decides one evening to visit “Rekall”, a company that offers virtual vacations. You tell them what you want to have done, and they give you the memory of having done it. When you start to think about it, that’s often all that’s left of your past anyway. I certainly had no significant impact on anyone over that month I spent in Budapest one summer, but I do have those memories. What would really be the difference if they’d just been implanted after the fact?

Quaid chooses a super-spy adventure, but once he’s on the table something goes wrong; police burst in, claiming that he really is a spy, and he seems to bear that out by killing the lot of them. And from there he’s off to find out who he really is, or if maybe this is all just a Rekall-induced dream.

And if you sit back and relax, it can be a pretty fun ride. Farrell is a lot more convincing than Schwarzenegger ever was, and it’s nice to see Beckinsale and Biel hold their own, each kicking a considerable amount of ass in her own right. And of course nobody, but nobody, does bad like Cranston.

But for all its grandeur and impressive imagery, Total Recall is mostly empty, and it lacks the absurdity that turned Verhoeven’s adaptation into a cult classic. Even its feints in the direction of exploring the actual implications of a technology like Rekall are halfhearted at best. If you want action and special effects, this is your movie; if you want camp and schlock, go for Verhoeven; if you want science fiction, read Dick.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2012 03:28

    One thing I liked about the original was that it at least captured some of Dick’s genius and emotive philosophy, like when Kuato tells Quaid that “we are defined by our actions, not our memories.” I’m wondering if the new one has more, less, or the same amount of this. It seems like Dick’s stories are always “sort of” translated to screen, but the films never quite capture the strange, compelling aspect of the fiction, like with Blade Runner vs. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”

    • August 11, 2012 07:46

      Matthias has pretty much the same speech as Kuato did, actually, but neither film really explores the philosophy in any depth.

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