NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall is twenty-two years old, but still seems too recent to be a remake subject; this is the first US-to-US remake where the source film came out in the 1990s. It’s the sort of movie where the credits tell you exactly what you’re going to get: it’s directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld, Die Hard 4) and scripted by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Ultraviolet) and Mark Bomback (Race to Witch Mountain, Deception), and stars Colin Farrell (who must still only get offered Hollywood projects six other stars have passed on) alongside the confusingly lookalike Kate Beckinsale (I miss the lovely, funny actress who made things like Cold Comfort Farm and The Last Days of Disco – I assume she’s in Wiseman’s basement while Stepford Wife Action Chick Kate walks around wearing her face) and Jessica Biel (Verhoeven knew to cast a blonde and a brunette opposite each other). Busy supporting players Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy and John Cho are along for the ride, none of them with anything like the meaty roles their equivalents in the old movie got. Kaitlyn Leeb (aka Wong) of Wrong Turn 4 has a bit in the classic role of ‘three-breasted woman’, and there’s a misdirection gag involving the lookalike for the fat old lady disguise Schwarzenegger adopted in the older movie.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, Verhoeven’s film was at once a steroided 80s-style science fiction action film and a deconstruction of the same – though it should be noted that Westworld more or less invented and subverted the entire genre way back in 1973. A lot of the changes in this new take on the material, which does not go back to Dick, are just cosmetic attempts to make the future drabber – no offworld trip (‘I’d like to go to Mars’ is a throwaway line), a surgical excision of any satirical elements, a lamentable lack of psychic mutant siamese twin brothers, and a hammering-home of the ‘this might all still be a fantasy theme’ (which the filmmakers scupper by showing some scenes from the objective POV of the hero’s evil fake wife, proving this really is happening no matter how unbelievable it is). CGI-heavy hovercar chases and overpopulated megacities reference Blade Runner, The Fifth Element and Minority Report but look out-dated and tame this month next to the vision of Dredd. The political set-up is also skewed so that in no way could present-day America be construed as wicked (though there are Obama bills in circulation), since a post-chemical warfare world is divided into the baddie United Federation of Britain (which includes Northern France) and the goodie Colony (Australia). Oppressed workers live in Australia and commute to London via a ridiculous giant elevator that slides through the centre of the Earth in 17 minutes, involving a gravity reversal half-way through. This is in the part of the film established as reality, showing an ignorance of geograpphy (Australia is the antipodes, but not antipodal to London) and the physical realities of the centre of the Earth (besides this, The Core looks like a New Scientist editorial). If you live in Alice Springs and work in Glasgow, I’m not sure how that 17 minute Oz-to-Waterloo commute is any help – but the heroic resistance blow up the oppressive elevator-train (‘the Fall’) at the end, freeeing everyone in Australia from paid employment in a manner they’re bound to be grateful for.
Doug Quaid (Farrell) works in a robot factory, manufacting robocops for the state, and reads Ian Fleming. He is tempted by having the memories of a spy adventure implanted, and the whole plot is explained to him by the tech – this is a remake which knows you know the original, so it feels no obligation not to spoil itself – before he goes under. Then, it’s the same old plot, consisting almost entirely of a runaround as double-agent Quaid aka Hauser works with a resistance cutie (Biel) and is chased by his evil fake wife (Beckinsale), taking part in a feud between the top baddie (Cranston) and a wittering rebel leader (Nighy). The climax involves an attempted robo-invasion via Fall of Australia by the evil Brit droids, and Farrell rather joylessly slaughters dozens (he’s an equal opportunity killer of human goons are robots) with no sense that if this were a dream he would quite enjoy it or that if this were a lesson about the dangers of wish-fulfilment he was capable of learning it. Wiseman joins Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, Brett Ratner, Stephen Sommers and too many others in the current crop of action/effects directors who seem to have no idea how to construct an action scene or to present a science fiction/fantasy vision which is more awesome than annoying. Thank the Lord for Dredd and Looper, which prove that this kind of thing can still be vital cinema rather than time-wasting nonsense.