Total Recall (2012)

The most entertaining moment in Total Recall, the latest needless remake, is the screen logo of the film’s production company, Original Film. Ah, irony. We went down this am-I-really-me rabbit hole 22 years ago, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a futuristic construction worker who doesn’t remember his past as a secret agent. Crudely but vigorously directed by Paul Verhoeven, the movie had its goofball charms, including cartoonishly fun effects by Rob Bottin and a literally eye-popping trip to Mars. The new Total Recall doesn’t go to Mars, and there’s no cartoonish fun (aside from an obligatory rehash of the prior film’s three-breasted prostitute). It’s a grim actioner, full of deep-bass noise and flashing lights and gunfire and bloodless PG-13 violence.

Few would argue that Colin Farrell is not a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as Douglas Quaid, a bored worker who visits the memory-implant outfit Rekall to take a mental espionage vacation and finds himself embroiled in the real thing, Farrell doesn’t get to do anything he does best, which is to be quick and profane and sly and sexual. I don’t think he laughs once in the movie or even smiles much (except ruefully at the featureless drudge that is Quaid’s life); it’s a real waste of a vibrant performer. There’s no time for levity here anyway, hardly even time to breathe before the movie lumbers into its next endless and expensive action set-piece. There is a nice bit when Quaid, who earlier commented idly that he wished he’d learned to play piano, sits down at the ivories at his secret-agent apartment and starts tickling them expertly. It just leads to yet another info-dump (this is who you are and this is what you must do), but it’s a pleasant respite while it lasts.

Vaguely following the 1990 film’s blueprint, Total Recall tries to keep us guessing whether Quaid, in his past life, was an agent working for the repressive government or an agent who threw in with the resistance. Either way doesn’t seem like much of a party: if Quaid was a government man, he was working for Bryan Cranston (a long way from Breaking Bad, in his “I’d better do as many crappy movies as I can while the iron’s still hot” mode, last seen in Rock of Ages); if he was a rebel, he was reporting to Bill Nighy, doing his usual dour turn in his third film for director Len Wiseman (after two Underworld movies). I find, with some surprise, that I have somehow seen all four of Wiseman’s films (including Live Free or Die Hard), and I wonder if four films over a nine-year career is enough evidence to declare a director essentially worthless. Wiseman makes mildly pretty films, full of blues and grays and lens flares, but they’re the definition of bland. Certainly they never risk camp or bad taste, as Verhoeven triumphantly did.

As in the original, Quaid escapes from the government agent he thought was his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and joins up with a resistance fighter (Jessica Biel) he has tucked away in his subconscious. I had heard encouraging things about a take-no-prisoners fight between Beckinsale and Biel, but it takes place in an elevator and Wiseman, who’s hopeless when slow motion or big special effects aren’t involved, loses track of the action. The elevators themselves are interesting, whooshing vertically and horizontally, but they’re part of a massive yet impersonal production design whose best elements are cribbed shamelessly from Blade Runner. There’s even a shot where Quaid leans against his balcony and looks out on his ruined city, just like a similar shot with Harrison Ford in the 1982 classic, except this time the camera does a 180-degree spin, which wasn’t possible in 1982. The point seems not to be Quaid’s ruminations on his surroundings but rather “Look what we can do with computer effects now!”

Both versions of Total Recall are based loosely on a story by the late sci-fi mystic Philip K. Dick (as was Blade Runner). The man cooked up mind-twisting ideas that seem unfilmable without a lot of visual garlic sprinkled on. Every few years someone tries to put Philip Dick on the screen, but the paranoid questions at the heart of his work get smothered by state-of-the-art technology; even A Scanner Darkly was literally coated by rotoscope animation. At least the first Total Recall used its premise for absurdist jollies; it was a loopy chunk of Saturday-night escapism, and it looks better than it did in 1990, compared to the passionless, glum-faced adventures we get now. The new Total Recall seems fanatically dedicated to the chase scene, the shootout, the big bang, and forgets entirely about the who-am-I query at its core. Verhoeven sealed his movie with a certain ambiguity — was the whole movie just Schwarzenegger experiencing a false memory from Rekall? — but there’s no ambiguity here. I never thought I’d say that a Schwarzenegger flick was more provocative and subversive than a film made 22 years later, but here we are.

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