Interested in seeing this new-fangled ‘Total Recall’ remake, then? Okay. Here’s what you do. You stop, shake your head from side to side vigorously and opt to watch the original for the umteenth time instead. Director Len Wiseman (‘Underworld’, ‘Live Free or Die Hard’)'s 2012 reboot is simply going to make you want to revisit the 1990 original starring Arnold Schwarzenegger anyway. Our advice? Cut out the middleman.
In the original Total Recall, the overarching story was about freeing the oppressed people of Mars and overthrowing a malicious pseudo-government. 2012 Total Recall eschews planet-hopping for a strange tale of post-chemical-warfare survivors caught between two cramped outposts of humanity (entertainingly, one is a unified British Empire. The other is the whole of Australia, referred to as ‘The Colony’—and you better believe there were some thick waves of belly-laughter erupting in the theatre after that revelation.) An enormous tunnel spanning the diameter of the planet, ploughing straight through its molten core, ties these two megacities together.
This set-up, the gravity-flipping ride that most commuters take between colonies represents everything unique and interesting in this vision of Total Recall: gargantuan technical marvels, sprawling megacities and cool gravity-stunts. If you love science fiction, this is an objectively grand vision of the future.
Then there’s the story. Hmm.
Look, if you can make head-or-tails of what’s going on here, what the motivation of the rebels is, why the government is so hellbent on oppression and what the hell the deal is with the three-breasted chick (there are no mutants, no trips to Mars and certainly no Kuato – therefore no context for a three-breasted woman), then hats-off to you. We’re stumped.
The film crosses a few key moments that it shares with the original film – sequences designed to keep a sense of familiarity with fans. Colin Farrell (‘Phone Booth’, ‘In Bruges’)’s Douglas Quaid is still the protagonist searching for the answers to his mysterious dreams. A support cast of capable actors including love interest Jessica Biel (‘The Illusionist’), unhinged housewife Kate Beckinsale (‘Underworld’) and despotic leader Cohaagen played with usual skill by Bryan Cranston (‘Drive’, ‘Breaking Bad’) certainly help sell the flimsy story. However, I think the problem is, Colin Farrell just isn’t particularly warm as Douglas Quaid. We aren’t given much to chew on in terms of his back-story and, sadly, the storytelling is generally so po-faced that it’s hard to enjoy what few plot elements are actually coherent and digestible.
The humour and over-the-top gore of the original Total Recall make it intensely enjoyable. Arnie is likeable – he’s such a knucklehead that, when you see him in the context of a blue-collar job and white-picket-fence lifestyle, it’s played for laughs. The world is colourful in a late-’80s-neo-punk kind of way. In contrast, Colin Farrell plays the whole thing way too straight in a world of greys and browns. We never connect with him and he just blends into this equally serious world. When the action kicks in, the combat drones on and we’re lost in a mire of corridor shooting and muddy colour palates.
Really, if you’re really prepared to stump up for the cost of admission, you’ll get some value back in terms of spectacle. There are gracious nods to Blade Runner’s asian-noir slums, and Cohaagen’s army of synthetic soldiers echoes strongly of Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire in Star Wars.
That’s not enough, of course. Total Recall is guilty of so many of the same tired mistakes that blown-out blockbusters continue to make: it sacrifices character development and coherence for sloppy and overly-long action sequences. It fills in story holes with big explosions, performing a kind of sleight-of-hand in front of the audience. I guess the theory is, if you pump enough CG into your film, at a certain point you’re excused from needing little things like meaningful dialogue and capable storytelling. Nuh-uh. Sorry.
Setting aside the deep-seated irony of being produced by ‘Original Films’, or that it proudly proclaims to be “inspired by” Philip K. Dick’s ‘We Can Remember it For You Wholesale’ (in the same way that a Volkswagen Beetle is “inspired by” an insect, I figure), Total Recall is it’s own beast – one that needs to be caged off and held at arm’s length. It is a mess, a wasteful rethink that was never needed and lousy movie at worst. But at best, it’s also big-budget, freewheeling science fiction with a hard-on for dirty future-city aesthetics. Total Recall is a beautiful disaster. You’ll love how it looks, but you’ll be left wishing for a total rewrite – one recalling former glories.