Review: ‘Total Recall’
Take My Mind, Please
Friday, August 3, 2012
The company calling itself Original Film sees no irony -- or hypocrisy-- in slapping its logo on films that are anything but original. The latest is the remake of "Total Recall" ( opening August 3 throughout San Diego).
I would suggest that Original Films change their name to Deja Vu Productions. The company did the remakes of "21 Jump Street," "S.W.A.T.," and "Prom Night" with remakes of "Battle Royale," "Highlander," and "Starship Troopers" on the books. It also has a number of sequels on its resume (various "Fast and Furious" films, as well as multiple "Cruel Intentions" and "The Skulls"). So I have to say that I went in this "Total Recall" expecting to see something familiar (which I did) and with low expectations (even those were not met).
Both versions of "Total Recall" films (Paul Verhoeven's 1990 one and now Len Wiseman's) are "inspired" not "based" on Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." Perhaps if the writers took more from the late sci-fi writer the films would have been better. But at least the 1990 version had Verhoeven's satiric jabs, Rob Bottin's fun practical make-up effects, and a silly Arnie action sensibility. It had a midget prostitute shooting up a bar, Ronny Cox reprising his smug corporate "dick" from "Robocop, some great Arnie one-liners ("Consider that a divorce!"), and at least a nod to Dick's themes about the fragile nature of reality.
The new "Total Recall" is bigger and louder and shinier but even more hollow and nonsensical. It tried to brand itself as different by saying it would not take the story to Mars as the first one did but keep it rooted on earth. The basic plot elements are the same. A man named Doug Wade (Colin Farrell) keeps having the same dream about being a spy and trying to escape pursuit with a beautiful woman (Jessica Biel). But then he goes to Rekall to have a fake memory implanted, a memory in which he would get to be a spy, and guess what? (Spoiler alert if you've never seen the original film or the trailer) Turns out he really is a spy and that the woman (Kate Beckinsale) that he thought was his wife is really a spy who now wants to kill him. Cue chase and that's your film.
If you remake a film you need a reason. When John Sturges remade "Seven Samurai" it was because he wanted to translate it from one country's genre to another. When John Carpenter remade "The Thing" he did so because he wanted to reflect the changing political climate in America. And when Brian DePalma remade "Scarface," it was so he could update it and give an epic spin to the gangster classic. But I can only see two reasons why Len Wiseman remade "Total Recall:" one, he wanted to see his wife Kate Beckinsale be a kick-ass agent in sexy skintight black gear (he seems to get off on this and shots of her ass and there are many who get off on this too) and two, he thought he could make use of new state of the art technology. And while Beckinsale's action scenes are the best thing in the film, that's just not enough to justify the remake or make it entertaining enough to be satisfying.
The other problem is that there's nothing original in the film. Wiseman borrows and steals everything from someplace else but never makes the stolen items his own. Quentin Tarantino is great at stealing or paying "homage" to other movies but what makes it work is that he makes those things his own, he gives them a spin or shows geek appreciation for the source material in ways that are intoxicatingly fun. With Wiseman, you feel he's not paying homage but rather just devoid of his own ideas. So a high speed chase looks lifted from "Minority Report" (also based on a Dick story), even down to the shot composition. The entire film -- with its production design employing huge advertising screens and an Asian influence all under almost constant rain -- screams "Blade Runner" rip off, there's even a piano scene that's very similar to the one in "Blade Runner" where the piano is a memory cue. Then the robotic militia serves up a cross between "Robocop" and "I Robot" with a hint of Clone Troopers thrown in. There's not much in this film that you haven't seen before and seen done better.
The budget was obviously big but the effects are never that spectacular. In part because we never get fully engaged in the story. We don't care much about the characters and so much of the action is so big that there's no detail, and that means there's not much to build tension with or to hook our interest. Big things blow up. Wow. But if we're not worried about the people or the planet then it's no more than a fireworks display.
And the film has no cleverness. Verhoeven, no matter what you may think of him, has always had a sly sense of irony and a bent for satire. He made his "Total Recall" more fun by giving it a more twisty sense of fun as it criticized ominous corporations and big brother government. In Wiseman's film, there's no sense of fun, satire or ambiguity. He pretty much tells us what to think and what the truth is, and that's not in keeping with what Dick's writing was all about. Dick's work was all about never knowing what the truth or what reality was or is. Even the silly Verhoeven film understood that and ended with a nice twist on that.
Wiseman, whose claim to fame are the "Underworld" films and "Live Free or Die Hard," is all about surfaces. His films have a nice look and he can occasionally choreograph action well but that's about it. In "Live Free or Die Hard" all the elements came together in one very silly, dumb but wildly fun package. In "Total Recall," there's a seriousness he aspires to but can't even come close to attaining and that tends to keep the over-the-top potential for just plain fun in check.
"Total Recall" (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language) is what masquerades as an action film in a time of Michael Bays, and its sad that it will probably draw healthy box office and encourage Hollywood to make more films like this than like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or "The Raid" (now THAT'S an action film). But if you like seeing Kate Beckinsale kick ass and show her ass, then you will probably have fun.
And here's a list of the best Philip K. Dick films that I did for About.com.
Companion viewing: "Total Recall" (1990), "Live Free or Die Hard," "A Scanner Darkly"