One of the truly great things about the original 1990 film Total Recall was that when you came out of the movie, you didn’t have all the answers. If you were like me, you were asking yourself and your friends, “So, was it all real? Or was it a dream?” It was a bold move for a film that could have easily been less thought-provoking and ambitious and still made a mint, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the prime of his box office supremacy starring and Robocop director Paul Verhoeven directing, and the risk certainly paid off. Ask fans of the film today, more than 20 years later, and they’ll still debate the film’s ending and what it meant.
Alas, it won’t take 20 years for movie goers to perhaps be asking a different question after they walk out of the Total Recall remake: “So, was all that really necessary?”
Now sure, you can ask legitimately ask that question about any remake of a classic, but sometimes with the right screenwriter, director, and cast, an update of a classic can both honor the quality of the original while adding something new and memorable so that the remake stands on its own.
This is not one of those times.
The story should be familiar to you: In a bleak, dystopian future, lowly factory worker Douglas Quaid, played by Colin Farrell this time, looks at his humdrum life and wishes he could change it, or at least live a different kind of life, if only for a moment. He finds himself at Rekall, a company which promises memories of experiences that feel 100% real, regardless of how impossible or fantastical the experience might be. Given the opportunity to experience an adventure as an invincible secret agent, Quaid buys into Rekall’s pitch and lets them hook up their machines and chemicals to his brain.
There’s just one catch: Quaid’s brain has already been tampered with, and it turns out that he’s not just any factory worker.
Once this discovery is made, guys with big guns show up and start shooting, and Quaid finds himself on the run from everyone, including his ridiculously hot “wife” (Kate Beckinsale), who turns out to be a government agent assigned to keeping him happy and unaware of his “true” identity. Quaid eventually finds help in the form of Melina (Jessica Biel), a woman that he’s literally seen in his dreams, who promises to bring him to someone who can give him back both the memories he’s lost and the answer to the question: “What is real?”
Director Len Wiseman, the creative mind behind much of the Underworld film series, builds much of his vision for the world that his Total Recall takes place in by borrowing elements from other films adapted from the works of sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick, primarily Minority Report and Blade Runner. Flying cars, grimy, overcrowded, rain-soaked streets lit by neon and talking advertising on giant LED screens on every surface – it’s all here, it’s done competently, and it feels as familiar as the story does. You really can’t blame Wiseman too much for that, I suppose – if you’re going to borrow stylistically from anyone in Hollywood, you could do far worse than Stephen Spielberg and Ridley Scott. But isn’t the idea behind a remake to put your own unique stamp on something? I know that SOUNDS crazy …
As for the film’s stars, the only one who really worth discussing here is Kate Beckinsale, who clearly enjoys the rare opportunity for her to play a villainous character. The role once played by a pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone has been expanded for Beckinsale in this Total Recall, so in addition to re-enacting that fun moment in the original when loving wife Lori suddenly starts throwing kicks and haymakers at Quaid’s head, she gets to run around with a big gun and chase our heroes at almost every turn. She gets all the best lines of dialogue (she should–she’s the director’s wife, after all) and she tears through her every scene with smoldering eyes and a wicked grin that makes this character sexier and more fun to watch than all of her turns as leather-clad Selene in the Underworld movies. In comparison, Jessica Biel is bland and boring as Melina – her entire screen time is composed of her running, jumping, shooting, or looking worried.
And what of Colin Farrell? To his credit and Wiseman’s as the director, there is no attempt whatsoever to try to emulate Arnold’s take on this character. Instead, they play to Farrell’s strengths and to what he’s done reasonably well before: hold a gun (S.W.A.T., In Bruges) and look bewildered and panicked (Phone Booth, The Recruit). It’s a solid, believable, but ultimately forgettable performance from an actor who is clearly capable of much more, as evidenced when he takes on roles in films devoid of car chases and explosions.
Is it entertaining in parts? Sure, especially if you’ve never seen the original or don’t remember it well. But in the end the whole film, like Farrell’s performance, is forgettable, overshadowed this summer as it is by much stronger action and sci-fi films. The fact that it’s so forgettable is ironic considering that it and the original film were both “inspired” by a short story entitled “We’ll Remember It For Your Wholesale.”
Wholesale might be too expensive to remember this movie beyond next week.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, and Bill Nighy. Directed by Len Wiseman.
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language.
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