Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your (Own) Mind?
In the future, people will visit salons in which their memories can be artificially enhanced with experiences more exotic than the ones they already have. It would be great if those places existed today, so that everyone sitting down to watch Len Wiseman's re-imagining of Total Recall could forget Paul Verhoeven's original film--if only for a few hours.
Let's back up.
I only saw the 1990 version once, at age thirteen, and forgot about it a day later. This is blasphemy in some circles, but the movie didn't do anything for me. I remember it being long, convoluted, and pretty funny: as much as I loved Arnold Schwarzenegger in some roles, I found it impossible to accept him as an everyman--which is, ostensibly, what he was supposed to be at the beginning of the movie. And his attempts at dramatic acting were hilariously over-the-top and out of step with whatever grand ideas Verhoeven and the screenwriters were trying to get across.*
Now we have Wiseman's take on the material, which, let's face it, was doomed from the start. Or was it? Fans of the original have been outraged that anyone would dare remake a "sci-fi classic", especially the clown who brought us the Underworld franchise and screwed up the Die Hard series with the "awful" fourth installment. The same people who claim that pointing out The Dark Knight Rises's numerous problems amounts to a nitpicking need for attention also dismiss "Total Remake" because it doesn't take place on Mars and is rated PG-13.**
I had no such baggage heading into the new Total Recall. At worst, I feared being bored by the rumored over-saturation of action scenes. But it turns out Wiseman has created a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment. It probably won't be remembered as a classic, but who says it has to be? In addition to imaginative production design, strong performances by the leads, and some of the most seamless special effects I've ever seen, the new version is packed with big ideas. Writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback sideline questions of identity for contemporary musings on the pervasiveness of technology and government control.
The film stars Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid, a factory worker who assembles humanoid police sentries in a dystopian future. Earth has been ravaged by chemical warfare, leaving only portions of Asia and England inhabitable. A vast transport (known as "The Fall") connects the two, feeding a nation of low-income workers to its technologically and financial superior master-state. Though Doug aspires to a better life for himself and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), his actual dreams are a loop of an elaborate fantasy world where he and a mysterious woman run from government agents.
Against the urgings of his best friend/co-worker, Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), Doug visits Rekall, the aforementioned memory boutique. Moments after being injected with synthetic memories, a police squadron busts through the door, killing everyone except him. In an instant, Doug is flooded with the sense memories of a career as a lethal spy, and he quickly disposes of the cops before fleeing.
On returning home, he learns that Lori is a federal agent sent to keep tabs on him. Iin his previous life, Doug was a double-agent, working for the head of the government to infiltrate an underground network of rebels. While undercover, Doug grew sympathetic to the resistance, and was quickly extracted--with much of his memory (seemingly) erased. His newfound instability makes him a threat, meaning Lori must put him down.
Following several chases through a dingy slum whose Asian and Eastern European influences call to mind Blade Runner, Doug winds up with Melina (Jessica Biel), the woman from his dreams--which turn out to be memories of his double-agent days. Together, they seek out the elusive leader of the resistance, Matthias (Bill Nighy), in the hopes that he can help them stop a military assault on the impoverished colony.
Total Recall is not a noisy, pointless summer blockbuster. Sure, some of the chase scenes go on a bit too long, but the environments in which they take place are a lot of fun to look at. Wiseman's vision of the future is elaborate, well-thought-out, and makes surprising use of practical sets. Aside from the sentries, I didn't notice a lot of CG stunt men flopping around. And I love that this movie has grittier aesthetics than Verhoeven's. Whereas that film was a crayon-colored Martian fantasy, Wiseman grounds the Recall device in a more relatable world, while still preserving some of the more out-there elements (it wasn't until the climax that I wondered, "In the aftermath of global annihilation, who the hell had the resources and know-how to build a subway that runs through the Earth's molten core?").
I was quite taken with Farrell's interpretation of Quaid. As he did in last year's surprisingly good Fright Night remake, the actor plays against type, providing a realistic portrait of a man forced to run for his life while wondering which life he's living. He snaps in and out of uncertainty, confidence, fear, and deadly determination convincingly and sympathetically. Unlike Schwarzenegger, whose interpretation of an identity crisis still looked a lot like bad-ass bluster, Farrell puts his role through recognizable, emotional paces.
The film's villains are also quite interesting. As the fed tracking down her prey, Beckinsale is like the ruthless, female version of Daniel Craig's James Bond, crossed with Darth Vader. Three quarters into the film, I realized that Lori isn't as evil a character here as I remember her from the original. Rather, she's simply trying to eliminate what she has been told by her superiors is a terrorist threat to her country. Sadly, the script lets everyone down at the end by having her choose the wrong side after all the evidence comes in to the contrary, but Beckinsale makes her character's journey fun, regardless.
I should also mention Bryan Cranston as sleazy government head, Cohaagen. He's a straight-up monster who thinks nothing of planting stories about terrorists in the media to drum up support for his quashing a semi-sovereign nation. He plans to use the scorched Earth of the fallen colony to develop another wealthy Utopia, and those pesky rebels are on to him. Cranston does wonderfully nuanced things with a part that reads more like a classic, disposable Big Boss from the 80s. As with everyone else in the cast, he seems determined to give everything to an audience who expects nothing.
Speaking of low expectations, I wasn't ready for Total Recall's nifty slivers of social commentary. In addition to the ideas about what constitutes a "terrorist" versus a "freedom fighter" (or even a "government official"), the movie has a lot to say about where our obsession with technology might lead. Lori uses the phone that's implanted in Doug's hand to track his movements; when he cuts it out of himself in an alleyway, an idiot teenager begs him for it. Unlike the sinister implant that Schwarzenegger had to yank from his nose, the new tracker comes in the form of hot technology that everybody wants--regardless of the fact that it can be used against them. There are a few more such gems lurking under the surface here that make this re-telling subversive rather than superfluous.
In the truest sense of the made-up word, Len Wiseman's Total Recall is a "re-imagining". By sticking with the spirit of the source material, the filmmakers are able to deliver a gorgeous-looking, just-above-average sci-fi blockbuster. How it stacks up to the original is subjective. Honestly, this was not made exclusively for Verhoeven fans--mostly because the studios know that they would rather bitch about the movie on the Internet than actually pay to see it opening weekend. This was made to find new fans hungry for new material (or material they perceive as being new).
Sure, Total Recall is a glossy, disposable cog in a cynical business plan. But as cold, dumb product goes, it at least has a modicum of heat and brains.
*By way of adapting a short story by Philip K. Dick.
**I suspect these are the lowest hanging fruits, because I doubt a trip to the red planet would have made their criticisms any less pointed or less informed. Also, The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13.