A pastiche of almost too many movies to count as a remake of just one, “Total Recall” is mindless, middling fare that fails to utilize – much less expand – the provocative concepts at the core of its iconic 1990 predecessor. Len Wiseman, whose “Die Hard” sequel effectively betrayed every one of the central tenets of that franchise (save for the casting of Bruce Willis), applies his personality-free technical proficiency to a re-imagining whose focus on what’s cool in the moment consistently undermines what any of it collectively means, not to mention why the hell audiences should care. Passable but uninspiring except for a standout performance from the never-better Jessica Biel, “Total Recall” plays directly into the hands of metaphor-wielding critics eager to highlight how a movie about a man recovering his memory can manage to be quite so forgettable.
The film stars Colin Farrell as Douglas Quaid, a factory worker in Earth’s predictably dystopian future who dreams nightly of daring escapes and dangerous close calls with a comely female soldier named Malena (Jessica Biel). Awakening to the reassuring embrace of his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), he trudges off to his day job, where he commiserates with his buddy Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) while building robot soldiers for a security force run by benevolent despot Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). One night after work, Doug wanders through the front doorway of Rekall, a high-tech travel agency that implants vacation memories into the heads of people who can’t afford to travel. But Doug’s “ego trip” as a secret agent is interrupted when the attending physician McClane (John Cho) discovers that he’s already been implanted with memories – and worse, he actually is an undercover operative.
After narrowly surviving a faceoff with a dozen soldiers – using fighting skills he didn’t know he possessed -- Doug flees Rekall to consult Lori on his next course of action. But he arrives home to discover that Lori is in fact a government agent herself, their marriage is a sham, and she’s only too eager to get to the “‘til death do us part” part of it. Finding himself on the run not only from the authorities but now his homicidal spouse, Doug is more confused than ever – until he gets rescued by the woman of his dreams, Malena, who promises to help him remember his past.
Per a thousand loglines, the pretext for a remake is to create a version of a familiar or iconic property for a whole new generation of fans – which is to say, studios aim to attract ticket buyers based on their familiarity with a film’s predecessor, and filmmakers hope to do the same based on their ignorance of it. And for the first 45 minutes or so, “Total Recall” satisfies the ambitions of both parties with almost nonstop references to hallmarks of the first film that, in a new context, are virtually meaningless. Mars, for example, is merely an option for Quaid to choose while ordering his “mind trip” at Rekall, and it never appears again, making the much-touted three-boobed prostitute a futuristic oddity (albeit an awesome one) at best.
Meanwhile, its departures from the original are ideas that at best function as 1:1 political analogies, at worst as sci-fi concepts that exist literally because the filmmakers thought “that would be cool.” There’s an endlessly detailed dystopian future, a subway system that pointlessly tunnels back and forth through the center of the Earth on a daily basis, and an oppressed working class stranded between a totalitarian leader and a violent resistance act. Quaid lives in a metropolis that looks like Wiseman took two cityscapes from “The Fifth Element,” stacked one on top of the other around the labyrinth from “Cube,” and then bow-tied the whole thing together with the multi-tiered freeways from “Minority Report.” Suffice it to say all of this provides a fertile backdrop for Wiseman’s set pieces, which supply the actors with an abundance of obstacles to jump from, shoot through and smash into bits. But that drowning abundance of production design (not unlike action scenes themselves) only serves as a distraction from the lack of thought beneath it, or misdirection from the rest of the film’s collective lack of substance.
For better or worse – and even if you didn’t notice it – one of the great things about the original “Total Recall” was the fact that the whole thing could literally be the fantasy secret-agent vacation that Schwarzenegger’s character paid for in the opening scenes. The undercover agent “plot” of his memories closely resembles the description that the doctor gives him, and his choice of “love interest” and even some of the locations he sees at Rekall turn up later when Quaid arrives on Mars. And cinematically, Paul Verhoeven cuts away from Quaid after he goes under to be implanted, so that when he awakens, screaming, “you blew my cover!” there is a sense of mystery as to whether he’s a real agent whose cover was blown or he’s simply acting out his “fantasy” within his mind.
In the 2012 version, Quaid starts to go under, and virtually within the same shot, the doctor shuts down the procedure. Mind you, enjoyment of the original is not fundamentally reliant upon this ambiguity, but it at least leaves a lingering question in the viewer’s mind as he or she watches it. Wiseman’s film gives you only the surface-level conflict of Quaid’s identity crisis, which subsequently requires the rest of the actors to do all of the heavy lifting, plot- and emotion-wise, as Colin Farrell furrows his brow and fumbles his way towards full recovery of his memories.
That said, Farrell is more successful as an everyman than Arnold ever was – charming as a hard-working blue-collar robot builder who discovers that, per another character’s declaration, he is “the greatest intelligence agent alive.” No longer struggling to come to terms with movie stardom and simply choosing projects according to what interests him, Farrell seems at ease even when he’s shivering with fearful excitement that the less ordinary life he wanted to lead has in fact crash-landed in his lap. Meanwhile, Biel is the real standout, almost convincing audiences that the film is the love story she wants it to be instead of the thrill ride that Wiseman and co. crafted. Both tough and tender, she more than holds her own against Farrell as both an actor and a character, which is why it comes as a disappointment that the filmmakers repeatedly make or let Quaid save himself rather than having the woman who loves him do it in a more egalitarian (or even just interesting) manner.
Beckinsale, unfortunately, is the film’s weak link, although perhaps because the director’s (and her husband’s) camera loves her just a little too much. Evidently given the same direction repeatedly to “turn tousle-haired to camera and glower with intensity,” Beckinsale is working way too hard to be tough given the fact that one of her earliest scenes shows how physically dominating (if not deadly) Lori can be. Although there’s an intriguing degree of professional jealousy injected into her pursuit of Quaid – she seems to envy his top-dog status, even if he can’t remember it -- the script deflects more thoughtful motivations for the simplistic paces of Being The Villain, and then doesn’t even have the good sense to really pit her against Biel’s character, and not as some sort of prurient catfight but a metaphor for his pre- and post-memory wipe lives. (Also, she’s forced to say “I give good wife,” which I feel confident in declaring ranks among the worst lines of dialogue in cinema history.)
Then and now, of course, there is a fascinating premise to be explored in the idea of a ordinary Joe who discovers his “company man” past and is forced to choose between the two. But that was actually more effectively examined in the “Bourne” series (the newest installment notwithstanding), not to mention the 2011 Neesploitation thriller “Unknown,” which oddly follows many of the same story beats. But as executed in Wiseman’s film, every idea basically plays as a multi-tiered lie, which collectively makes almost no sense at all when it’s put into any sort of chronological order. According to one character’s version of the truth, Quaid/ Hauser willingly went undercover, then agreed to have his memory wiped so that a lovestruck Malena could later rescue him in order to lead authorities to the wherabouts of a secret resistance location. So does that mean that Quaid was never in love with Malena? And if he wasn’t, what does that say about the gullibility of Biel’s character? Not to mention, why are the bad guys so mad that he blew his own cover, if everything plays out exactly the way some of them claim they intended for it to?
The irony is that despite its myriad problems, there are a handful of interesting sequences in the film, in particular a cool floating car chase that takes those “Minority Report” highways and turns them into a demolition derby. But like one of its less successful sequences, where a Mexican standoff defuses its own tension when two different characters back down from shooting the others, Wiseman’s film promises much more than it delivers – and worse yet, abandons provocative and genuinely unique ideas in order to follow through on much less interesting, conventional ones. This, after all, is a movie where a train that regularly passes through the Earth’s core is filled with explosives (imagine if Quaid’s recovery demanded that a sequel went to Mars, because he blew up the damn planet), but the end of the film plays out like a futuristic “Scooby-Doo” episode. But ultimately, “Total Recall” succeeds primarily in making audiences look back more fondly at even the silliest stuff in the original: somehow, the filmmakers managed to figure out a way to work three boobs in the film, but they forgot about including just one brain. [C-]