Review: TOTAL RECALL Recalls Totally

It took being foisted into a chair and fed particular stimuli to remember it, but my previous life came screaming back to me, crystal clear. I was a late-blooming sixteen year old, eyeball deep in a dating relationship that would come to be defined by the movies that bookended it (starting wonderfully and frivolously with JOE VS. THE VOLCANO, and terminating a few months later with FLATLINERS), with Paul Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL coming in near the end. To this day I'm not sure how much of my subsequent dislike of that film was due to the bad date I saw it on, or the movie itself. (I did catch parts of it several years later, and for what's it's worth, remained unimpressed. Too many catch phrases, too much gore, and that era of visual effects is difficult to reconcile.) But all of that was a long time ago, the experiences nestled away in the dark recesses of my adult mind... that is, until it was forced back. The chair was a movie theater seat, and the particular stimuli was Len Wiseman's all new version of TOTAL RECALL. Thanks to this, I was remembering far more of the 1990 film than I ever thought I could.
Interesting that Len Wiseman and company opted to build their TOTAL RECALL as a remake of the 1990 Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger overwrought sci-fi blast. What would have been a lot more interesting would be if they had opted to go the route the Coen brothers took with their TRUE GRIT, that of going around the previous film version to get back to the original literary source material - in this case a story by renowned sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick entitled "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale". (Dick's titles are awesome, even if they would never be at home on a cinema marquee.) As it stands, TOTAL RECALL is quite a bit like, well, TOTAL RECALL, albeit with a better actor in the lead, solid contemporary visual effects, and no trip to Mars. (Although taking away the Mars stuff doesn't suck the novelty out of the film the way one might think it could.)

The year is 2084, and Earth has become a completely divided place. (Also, it's become a bigger version of Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER world, but outfitted with Steven Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT future tech. Which makes some sense, considering that those films, both far superior to this one, are also Phillip K. Dick adaptations. It must be said that the level of callbacks, shout outs, and utter rip-offs of other movies glares to the point of distraction.) Two major nation states have emerged, and remain either at war or teetering on the brink of war with one another. Running through the planet is a massive, gravity-manipulating people mover called The Fall. Renegade graffiti sprayed onto dank rain-soaked walls reads "The Fall Enslaves Us All." It's almost as though someone's been reading the Bible; early Genesis to be precise.

But if this film is religious about anything, it's a devotion to the memory of the previous TOTAL RECALL film, if not the structure and aesthetic of the film itself. Every time it calls out that movie, or any other, it thunderingly detracts from the reasonable groundwork it's worked to establish. This groundwork begins with the casting of Colin Farrell as Douglas Quaid, an everyman character that then-reining superstar Schwarzenegger could never sell, regardless of any mush-mouthed charisma he brought to the proceedings. Farrell's Quaid is a bland archetype for today - a dream-sapped dullard with housing problems, an incommunicative marriage, and a sucky job he never wanted. (Is it any wonder he reads vintage James Bond novels? Is it any further wonder that the novel we see him reading is "The Spy Who Loved Me"? No, it is not. Character subtlety does not appear to be Wiseman's strong suit.)

If TOTAL RECALL is rife for remaking, it's because that Wachowski-ian MATRIX notion of a rising a hero amid chronic loss of self is all the more desirable and recognizable today than it was in 1990. The essential puzzle box that TOTAL RECALL needs to be is, for my money, more intact than some of my fellow critics found it to be. Before the film eventually wore me out, I was more or less enjoying this new version. Wiseman (who's work I've never seen until now) is less Michael Bay than John Favreau, with an admirable dedication to tactile, seemingly practical robotics, props, and environments. (Some pretty cool stormtrooper guys in this movie!) His camera and cutting aesthetics compliment what he's going for here, even if he does seem to be checked out by the last plot twist or two. For all that, I can't go truly negative on TOTAL RECALL. Not right now, anyhow.

The fact that Colin Farrell adapts an American accent for his role, even though in 2084 there is no America, is telling of what this is intended to be: A dystopian bit of Westernized mainstream wish fulfillment fantasy wrapped up in a brain-bender styled box. (Never mind that his wish fulfillment fantasy, arguably the result of a bought-and-paid-for mind manipulation from the outset, is far from ever being a path traveled out of selflessness - something all the more Westernized, depressingly enough. Disappointing for me, but perhaps Ayn Rand would approve.) The socio-political angles are pushed considerably harder here than they were back in the Verhoeven hayday, and Kate Beckinsale, as Quaid's double-crossing wife, has far more to do than Sharon Stone ever did in the original.

But for all the nods and winks to the Schwarzenegger version, the fact is that this TOTAL RECALL is made for today's sixteen year olds. Hopefully, the dates they see this on will be better than mine was, back in the day. Then, when they're all grown up in the future, they won't have to sit down to next remake, and be plagued. That is, if the future is all it's cracked up to be...

- Jim Tudor
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