‘Total Recall’ Review
Len Wiseman is good at what he does — and what he does is make mindless action films. Unfortunately, that makes him a poor choice to direct a remake of ‘Total Recall,’ since what makes the material so great is the fact that it’s anything but mindless.
Wisemen is totally uninterested in the very thing that makes ‘Total Recall’ interesting — namely its poker-faced presentation of a story with two totally viable interpretations. Is what we’re watching really happening? Or is it all a dream? In investigating the nature of reality amidst a barrage of chases and fight scenes, the first ‘Total Recall’ was a unique pleasure: an action movie with brains and brawn. Wiseman strips away the subtext and ambiguity, puts his head down, and barrels along from one scene to the next.
Stepping into a role originated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a simple blue-collar worker with a gorgeous wife named Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and strange dreams he doesn’t understand. In the original ‘Recall,’ Quaid imagined himself as an astronaut on Mars. This time around, our hero’s fantasies are more earthbound, but no less perplexing: visions of adventure with an exotic brunette (Jessica Biel) he’s never met. With the gnawing feeling that something is missing from his life, Quaid decides to get a set of phony secret agent memories implanted into his brain by a sleazy company called Rekall. But midway through the procedure something goes wrong, and armed police storm the building and kill everyone but Quaid, who suddenly morphs into the secret agent he wanted to pretend to be. He beats up the cops and escapes, setting off on a non-stop chase around the globe to discover his true identity and stop a villainous dictator bent on world domination.
Actually, technically speaking, the chase goes through the globe, not around it. That’s because instead of shuttling between Earth and Mars, this ‘Total Recall”s action bounces between two continents, the only ones left after a devastating war: the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, located on what’s left of Australia. The two nations are connected via a massive underground tunnel called The Fall. The UFB (which has all the wealth) exploits The Colony (which has all the labor) in a way that suggests that at some point in some past script draft, their relationship was intended as an allegory for our modern world of cheap Western goods produced by cheaper Eastern labor. But that was many, many script drafts ago, in a version, I suspect, that also explained why almost everyone in Australia is Asian and all the architecture looks like a futuristic version of Hong Kong.
There’s a lot of other stuff about this movie that doesn’t make any sense but Wiseman doesn’t seem too concerned. The original ‘Recall’ directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, played constantly with the idea that Quaid’s post-Rekall exploits might actually be the implanted “secret agent” package he’d purchased. For Verhoeven, the scenario was an opportunity to raise questions about perception and identity while also having some fun with a sci-fi version of the Hitchcockian wrong man thriller.
For Wiseman, the scenario is an opportunity for stunts, chases, and gunfights, and nothing else. He dutifully includes the scenes where characters try to prove to Quaid he’s dreaming, but even they don’t seem all that convinced. It might not be fair to use the disparity between the old, cleverly cryptic ‘Recall’ and the new, vapidly slick one as a measuring stick of everything that’s gotten worse about Hollywood over the last twenty-two years. But it’s hard not take this as a sign of the times, where spectacular visuals are plentiful and genuine ideas are in very short supply.
Between Verhoeven’s dark sense of humor and Schwarzenegger’s cheesy one-liners, the first ‘Total Recall’ had a personality — something that appears to have gotten erased this time, along with Quaid’s memory. Farrell is a perfectly serviceable hero, but he’s got two personas with zero charisma between them; he might as well be named Doug Genericactiondude. Cranston’s Cohaagen is not much better — and his outrageously phony hairpiece is much, much worse. Biel is a poor, bland excuse for a dream girl. The only person who looks like they’re having any fun is Beckinsale, slinking and shooting her way through the movie with this huge sinister grin on her face. Beckinsale and Wiseman are married, and if nothing else, this ‘Total Recall’ — which makes Beckinsale look like the sexiest, coolest, deadliest woman on Earth — serves as a genuinely touching love letter from a husband to his wife.
Other than the dodgy geopolitics (and Cranston’s hair) there’s nothing excessively terrible about ‘Total Recall.’ But there’s nothing excessively good about it either (except one zero gravity gunfight which, it must be said, is pretty nifty). It’s not like Verhoeven’s ‘Recall’ didn’t have tons of action. It did; it just also found time to ask the audience some provocative questions as well. Wiseman’s version never provokes you in any way. It lulls you comfortably into a waking dream, one that isn’t bad — you just won’t remember it when you wake up in the morning.‘Total Recall’ hits theaters on August 3rd.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’