'Total Recall': Forgettable
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
A remake of a 1990 film roughly inspired by a 1966 short story, "Total Recall" is formed like some half-mutated beast out of both Philip K. Dick's paranoid tale "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" and Paul Verhoeven's burlier, bigger film version inspired by that tale. While it borrows the title from the 1990 film and claims more fidelity to the original story, it borrows its look, feel and attitude from pretty much every other science-fiction film released in the past 22 years. It is slick, sleek and technically, though soullessly, well-made, and it is directed by Len Wiseman of the "Underworld" films and released by Sony, and both those facts will tell you a lot about the film.
Wiseman is a chrome-cold technician, so he never does anything as crazy as Paul Verhoeven's mutant-messiah Quatto or Schwarzenegger's balloon-faced decompression makeup or, for that matter, casting Schwarzenegger in the first place. At the same time, Wiseman never does anything as crazy-good as Verhoeven at his best-worst, and the film stays a little too smoothly on its CGI-greased rails. Sony's release of "Total Recall" is alongside "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Men in Black 3" this summer as if there were a formal corporate strategy of only making remakes and sequels, which seems brilliant only until you recognize this system will eventually need originals and first films to prime the pump. But for now, it's kinda working.
Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a robot-factory worker living in lower-middle class squalor with his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), in a horrible future ravaged by devastating chemical warfare. The only way between the two last habitable places on Earth, the United Federation of Britain and the Colony (Australia/Asia), is a mega-elevator that goes between the two through the Earth itself, a device more spectacular than smart in terms of storytelling or realistic mass transit solutions.
The UFB profits from the Colony's work. Ruled by the fascist smoothie Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the world of the UFB and the Colony is so impoverished, even its visual design and sets and props are taken from the junk heap where Ridley Scott threw away his "Blade Runner" materiel 30 years ago. Doug is haunted by dreams of another life, one of strong danger and strong feelings where he saves a beautiful woman's life through bravery in a time of crisis ...
And so, in the one thread connecting "Total Recall" to Dick's short story, Doug goes to the local Rekall offices, where smiling technicians help craft neurochemical vacations to juice you up with false memories that are part of your life forever. You can "dream" you're a superstar, a pro athlete or a secret agent. The problem is that when Doug goes to get his new set of chemical memories for a neural vacation, specifically requesting "spy," because of his dreams, it turns out that fantasy is a little too close to his existing neural patterns ... which means that Doug Quaid, factory worker and married man, may be a fake memory in and of itself. But if this isn't a dream, why is it Doug now fights, thinks and runs like a trained agent?
I feel little need to protect the "pertinent plot twists" of a 22-year-old film based on a 56-year-old story, so let's just note Doug Quaid was an amnesiac secret agent long before Jason Bourne swam along. Lori is now chasing him to kill him; the girl from his dreams is not only real, but played by Jessica Biel, and was Quaid's contact in the resistance against Cohaagen; Doug's been brainwashed and hidden in "average life" ... but by whom?
Wiseman directs his film as if it's a shark: It moves constantly, perhaps for fear of it keeling over dead if it should stop. But really, it's more of a carp, shiny and pretty but fat and dopey, fed on nothing but scavenged leftovers. The magnetic-car chase stuff is fun, racing over around and through and upside-down across the underside of a multilevel city, like M.C. Escher designed Manhattan alongside Robert Moses. But it's also nothing we haven't seen in other sci-fi films, and other Dick adaptations, like "Minority Report" or "Blade Runner," or even the lesser, non-Dick "I, Robot."
Farrell and Cranston look to be having fun, to be sure: Farrell's open face and manner makes for nice moments as Doug realizes he's awesome and in horrible danger, and Cranston gets to combine the boyish, electable hairpiece of a young politician with the seamed, unsmiling face of a man with no interest in free elections. But Beckinsale (also director Wiseman's partner) is the MVP here, hurling herself into action sequences and grade-A B-movie acting with fearless enthusiasm. Wiseman's film is adequate rainy-day science fiction, until you remember the fact that (like Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man,") it's a needless remake of a film with all the crazy directorial idiosyncrasies and style removed and bland marketability in the name of shareholder profit replacing it like so much beige padding. "Total Recall"? More like "Complete Amnesia."
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.