Total Recall – Movie Review
Brendan Morrow is a contributor for The Huntingtonian. Brendan is entering his sophomore year at Hofstra University where he is studying Communications. He is 18 years old, a life long resident of Huntington Bay, and loves to write about and discuss television, film, and the entertainment industry.
I’ve never really had the aversion to remakes and reboots so prevalent amongst film critics and fans these days. When the trailer popped up for Total Recall, based on the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the same name (itself an adaptation of a short story by Phillip K. Dick), everyone seemed to roll their eyes practically in unison. Well, what’s wrong with reimagining a classic story with a fresh, modern perspective? As long as the director brings something new to the table with his rendition, I don’t have a problem with it. It can be done well and often is, like with Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man last month. This Total Recall, though, is a perfect example of what those cynics are complaining about. While it’s not downright terrible, and may even be worth seeing for certain science fiction fans, practically every change made to the story is for the worse and by the end of two hours, director Len Wiseman has yet to offer a compelling reason why this movie should exist at all.
Total Recall takes place in a futuristic society, where some unspecified nuclear war has rendered most of Earth’s land uninhabitable. What remains is divided into two superpowers: the United Federation of Britain and the Colony. There is a clear case of class distinction between the two, with the Colony consisting mostly of poor, underprivileged workers and the UFB consisting of…well, you get the idea.
We follow Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a seemingly average and completely bland guy working a monotonous factory job in the Colony with a desire for something more. He is made aware of a company called Rekall, which implants memories in their customers’ minds to help them escape from their day to day lives with memories of being an astronaut, a superhero, or whatever fantasy they desire.
Quaid decides to give Rekall a visit and is implanted with memories of being a secret agent. After being strapped to a chair and hooked up to some machines, the action begins when out of nowhere he grabs a gun and takes out an entire room of armed men, much to his own surprise. Suddenly Quaid’s entire existence is called into question when he is informed that he isn’t who he thinks he is, and his mind has been implanted with a series of fake memories. Naturally freaked out, he goes on the run in an attempt to find safety and discover the truth about who he really is.
For a lot of ‘80s kids, Total Recall was the first R-rated movie they ever saw, and it sure must have stuck with them. That film totally embraced its adult rating with crazy, over the top gore, most of which was done with practical effects. This gave it a slightly goofy tone, and director Paul Verhoeven always seemed to be having fun with the premise, not taking the material too seriously. How can you possibly dislike a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger removes an electronic device through his nose and characters’ faces explode in graphic detail on the surface of Mars? This new, glossy, PG-13 version has nothing even approaching that.
It’s not that Total Recall can’t work without gore, but the rating does offer a pretty distinct contrast between the two versions. With the 1990 Verhoeven film, even though it was handling familiar sci-fi concepts, it was simultaneously venturing far off the map with such bizarre little oddities that it always felt fresh and different. The 2012, Len Wiseman version is lacking in that regard. There is practically no gore or R-rated goodness whatsoever, and all those weird little moments that made Total Recall memorable are stripped away. This one feels like it’s never trying anything new, instead just offering us an average rendition of things we’ve seen in dozens of sci-fi movies.
Let’s be honest; Schwarzenegger was never a very good actor. He’s an entertaining one because of his utter sincerity, and his movies always have a silly charm to them, but from a purely technical standpoint, Colin Farrell’s performance is an improvement. There’s a fundamental problem with his character, though. Normally I dislike comparing a movie like this to the original, but in this case I feel it’s necessary to explain where this one is lacking. In the Verhoeven film, early on it’s established that Douglas Quaid is a pretty regular guy who stumbles into a bunch of crazy shenanigans. When he starts killing people, he is left in utter shock that was he capable of doing so. Despite Schwarzenegger’s silly performance, that movie does give us the sense that Quaid is just “some dude,” which helps to give the action stakes.
Compare that to the new movie. One of the first things we see Quaid do is take out an entire room of heavily armored soldiers with a pistol. He kills them pretty easily, and the camera pops around to show him completely in control as if we’re watching a video game. From a storytelling perspective this makes sense, but how am I to be invested in the action if it’s clear Quaid can’t lose, and he knows exactly what he’s doing? The Colin Farrell version of the character, from that point on, is no longer “some dude.”
Visually speaking, Total Recall looks great. The special effects are impressive, and it’s filled to the brim with futuristic gadgets and gizmos to satisfy sci-fi fans. Easily the movie’s biggest strength is in its action, which may be enough to justify a blu-ray rental on a rainy Sunday afternoon. These scenes are well choreographed and occasionally even thrilling, but there are simply too many of them, and often times they go on for too long. The action grows monotonous because it is so commonplace and repetitive. It becomes “here we go again,” rather than “here we go!” For a movie with so many interesting science fiction concepts introduced, like a giant elevator that travels through the center of the Earth, it never seems to do very much with them, instead settling into a standard chase thriller that just happens to be set in the future. And unlike the original, we rarely ever question whether or not what we’re seeing is real.
I feel as if I was at a disadvantage watching Total Recall being a fan of the 1990 film, because for me all I could see was a series of missed opportunities, and changes made for the worse and for the less interesting. Don’t get me wrong, Recall was never a perfect film, but it’s easy to enjoy and embrace if only for how bizarre it managed to be, while still balancing some cool sci-fi thrills. The new, Lee Wiseman version strips all of that away, as if he’s trying to make something that is easily forgettable. Aside from a pretty bad final 10 minutes, this film never quite sinks into “terrible,” but it never rises far above “okay” either. It’s a perfectly decent, rather generic science fiction thriller. Will you enjoy it more if you are unfamiliar with the original version? Maybe, but wouldn’t you rather just stay home and rent that one instead?