Midway through Total Recall, an unsettling thought occurs. Haven’t we seen this story of a futuristic factory worker whose memory has been wiped before? Haven’t we already lived through this? It turns out, of course, that we have.
Total Recall first appeared on our screens in 1990 under the direction of Paul Verhoeven, and with Austrian Oak Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead. The result was one of Verhoeven’s, and one of Arnie’s, best films, a blistering combination of action, sick humour and hilarious satire, an edgy combination that has become the Dutch director’s stock in trade. It may only have been ‘inspired’ by Philip K. Dick’s original story but it’s a far wittier and more intelligent film than many give it credit for.
How ironic then that 22 years later, the storytelling in Len Wiseman’s update has regressed significantly. Colin Farrell steps into Arnie’s loafers as Doug Quaid, an actor who is far more plausible as a blue-collar worker but also much less fun. Whilst living a grimy existence as an Earth-bound worker making the daily commute through the planet’s core from the Australian Colony to the United Federation of Britain, Quaid expresses dissatisfaction with his lot.
His wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is supportive and seemingly kind-hearted but Quaid nevertheless decides to visit a company named Rekall to experience the pleasure of an implanted memory. However, the procedure goes wrong and Quaid is revealed to be a notorious secret agent, whose memory has been erased. On the run from everyone, including his turncoat wife, who was apparently undercover the whole time, Quaid must discover who he is, or was.
For the first 25 minutes, Wiseman’s interpretation of the story is surprisingly engaging. The set-design (metallic architecture meets Asian decoration) is massively derivative of Blade Runner but the storytelling is well grafted to Farrell’s engaging, low-key take on a familiar character. The film, in one of the few improvements on the original, creates a greater sense of why Quaid desires to visit Rekall: so claustrophobic and unyielding is the atmosphere of the Colony that an implanted memory offers an exotic escape.
So far so good but the movie can’t sustain the courage of its convictions and eventually devolves into a humdrum series of chases, several of which are direct lifts from the original, others of which are new additions but utterly tedious. Verhoeven’s movie had loads of chases but crucially, it was all welded to an engaging story of misplaced identity, and benefited from the canny casting of Arnie in the central role, who was neither convincing as an ordinary schmo or a secret agent.
Contrast that with Wiseman’s version which resembles a vacuous pop video: flashy, glossy, expensive but utterly lacking the physicality that made Verhoeven’s original so memorable (Rob Bottin’s make-up effects, an example of in-camera magic, are sorely missed). When futuristic cars collide with each other in this version, there’s no sense of impact; just a lot of computer generated debris flying all over the place. The blatant lifts from the original meanwhile (the two weeks lady/a spin on Richter’s arm ripping) are infuriating distractions: surely the last thing you’d want to do in a remake is call attention to the movie that inspired it?
Of course, the argument will be that people who aren’t familiar with the 1990 version can watch this one instead. But why would you want to when the filmmaking is inferior and the movie itself just isn’t as fun? Farrell for his part deserves a much better vehicle tailored to his convincing portrayal, and if this remake is watchable at all, it’s down to him. But watchable just isn’t enough when the 1990 progenitor knocked it out of the park.
Elsewhere, Beckinsale sets a record for marathon running in high heels but all her flouncing around doesn’t come close to Sharon Stone’s wicked portrayal way back when. Jessica Biel as Quaid’s potential love interest is less a character than a walking catsuit, whilst Bill Nighy pops up sporting a dodgy American accent to no avail. The film even denies Bryan Cranston the chance to do anything juicy with the villain, Cohaagen.
The greatest irony is that, for a movie trading in identity, the 2012 Total Recall has absolutely no idea what it wants to be: a thinly veiled retread of the original or its own beast? In the end, it’s just $125 million worth of movie that goes nowhere.