It’s ironic that the name of the studio that made “Total Recall” is called Original Picture, when Len Wiseman’s (“Underworld”) new film is the opposite of original. For starters it’s a remake of a 1990 film directed by Paul Verhoeven, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (which in turn was loosely based on a short story by Philip K Dick) and the film’s structure and use of queasy, blurry hand held cameras is reminiscent of a Jason Bourne movie.
Since Wiseman’s picture deserves to be judged on its own merits, all I’m going to say about it in comparison to Verhoeven’s movie is that this new version doesn’t follow it as closely as it could have. This time the characters don’t go to Mars. So O.K., does that mean Wiseman’s film gets a pass just because it’s not exactly like Verhoeven’s? Of course not. The story uses the “run and shoot” formula (used in many action films) in such an uninspired way. The visuals are drab and ugly and the script, in an attempt at wit, succumbs to cheesy action movie lines. Above all “Total Recall” is, like most remakes, pointless. Another empty summer diversion.
The year is 2084. Most of the world has become uninhabitable by a third world war. Only two areas remain: Euroamerica, where the rich live and New Shanghai aka The Colony, which is overcrowded with the poor. In this world lives Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell, although it could have been anyone else), a lowly factory worker who makes one hell of a commute to work in Euroamerica, by traveling through the center of the earth. In order to relieve himself of nightmares he’s been having, he goes to Rekall, a company that can provide you with implanted, artificial memories.
I give Wiseman and his writers (Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback) some credit. Initially they at least try to establish a compelling plot and interesting characters as opposed to just jumping right in to the action. But soon enough, Wiseman abandons that and the movie becomes convoluted and full of cat-and-mouse antics. The Rekall treatment finds that Doug got his memory erased sometime ago. Doug isn’t the man he thought he was.
Out of nowhere federal police break in and try to kill him. Doug is able to fight them off and from there on out the movie uses that run-and-shoot formula I mentioned above. He runs home and finds out that his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is not actually his wife, but a secret agent. So she shoots at him as he runs away. He shoots back at her. Then both of them are running and shooting at each other.
Eventually he stops running and shooting briefly when he meets up with a rebel agent Melina (Jessica Biel) who has to do with his past self. And together, whilst running and shooting they try to find out who Doug really is, in order to stop a major attack of the colony led by Vilos Cohaagan (Bryan Cranston, the guy who plays Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and who made a lasting impression in last year’s “Drive” is now reduced to playing a laughable, one dimensional, villain) the evil Chancellor of Euroamerica, who also knows about Doug’s past.
If he wanted to Wiseman could have made his “Total Recall” much deeper. The Rekall by itself is a fascinating subject (not surprising, since it’s from the mind of Philip K Dick) and early on the film briefly touches on other potentially interesting ideas, like questioning your existence and questioning your daily routine. Wiseman could have made the film more ambiguous, much like Ridley Scott did with “Blade Runner.” Not only that, Wiseman could have further emphasized the class differences parable: The rich Euroamericans and the poor Colonists.
But instead, he goes for a messy run of the mill action/chase movie structure, with some political overtones. As the film goes on it feels like Wiseman is just trying to get through it as fast as he can and be done. The cast includes a number of capable actors and a few great ones (Cranston and sadly Bill Nighy) but none of them are given much to do. The screenplay is filled with stupid, cliché action movie lines like: “I may not know who I was, but I know who I am.”
On top of that, the film is not even fun. That could have made the thinness of the plot more tolerable and the entire film could have been entertaining in a pulpy way, sort of like Oliver Stone’s latest “Savages.” The cinematography by Paul Cameron and the production design by Patrick Tatopoulos are so dim and dreary that it’s almost like watching a poorly converted 3D movie without the glasses. And to make things even worse, hand held cameras are used during the action scenes making them more chaotic and muddled.
Look, “Total Recall” isn’t the worst movie of the year by any means and I appreciate that it isn’t a shot by shot remake. But that’s not enough to make the movie worthwhile. In the end it’s still a jumbled, unexciting, overly serious and hollow sci fi action film.