There are, as I see it, a few different ways to approach a movie like Total Recall. On the one hand, it’s a derivative of a derivative. That said, there’s really no point in its existence. This isn’t legitimate theatre where the word “revival” or “interpretation” can be used to ameliorate a certain lack of creativity in a given story. When we get right down to it Total Recall is nothing more than another cookie cutter action movie courtesy of director Len Wiseman, the heretic responsible for the horror show that was the PG-13 rated Die Hard 4. As a remake of the cheesy but classic 1990 Arnie movie of the same name, Total Recall rates as a far cry from Inception, notably better than John Carter, and ultimately lacking the retro charm of Tron: Legacy.
There you have it. Review over. Move along, nothing more to see here.
What? You’re still here? Okay fine, I’ll keep writing.
Since expecting originally out of Total Recall would be as counterproductive as expecting modesty from a Kardashian, I’ll apply some different metrics to evaluate this movie.
Question 1: How long did the movie last before I started finding plot holes?
Question 2: Were those plot holes anything that other people would care about, assuming that my first paragraph wasn’t a deal breaker?
Total Recall had me for about half an hour before I made like a tedious referee and showed my first yellow card. In this interpretation of Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, the world of the early 22nd century consists of two states: The United Federation of Britain and The Colony. The former comprises the contemporary UK and most of Western Europe. The latter is Australia and New Zealand. The rest of the world is uninhabitable due to prolonged chemical warfare. Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in The Colony and works in the UFB, commuting to work by means of a subway that runs through the core of the planet – more on that later.
After Quaid takes a trip to Rekall, a company specializing in designer memory implants, memories of an old life begin to emerge. Quaid’s wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is actually a spy sent by the Chancellor of the UFB (Bryan Cranston) to make sure that Quaid’s memories of being “Hauser” never resurface.
All of this leads to a protracted hover car chase through the hover streets of London. Prior to a police dispatcher announcing that there was a high speed chase on “Interstate 11” I was doing a great job of suspending disbelief. A subway through the Earth in obvious defiance of physics? Why the hell not? A visual aesthetic that shamelessly pillages from Blade Runner, Minority Report, I, Robot, The Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Hawken, and Mass Effect? Sure, cool beans, man. Why not put every movie I’ve ever seen and every game I’ve ever played in a blender to see what comes out on the other side? On the most shallow and surface level imaginable, Total Recall somehow manages to balance the contradictory ideas of being original through plagiarism. Put a bunch of good ideas together and the product will generally taste good (except for the lens flare, too much lens flare), even if it is terrible for you. But one does not call a highway an interstate when you are a stone’s throw from Westminster Abbey; it’s called a motorway.
That’s when the house of cards started to fall. Quaid’s visit to Quato Matthias, leader of the anti-UFB resistance, is set within a “No-Zone”. These zones are places rendered inhospitable to human life. Yet the zone, with its backdrop of the BT Tower, seems to exist side by side with the blue skied metropolis of future London. I’m no climatologist, but I’m pretty sure the West end and the East end share the same environmental conditions.
Around that time I started to think, “Hey, Colin Farrell is an Irishman playing an Aussie who works in London. Why is he using his American accent?” This question further led me to wonder if Bryan Cranston, who aptly fills the shoes left by Ronny Cox, is incapable of pulling off an English accent, or if the Americans simply conquered England during the wars.
Then there’s “The Fall” the giant phallus shaped vertical subway that links London and Sydney (I guess) via an eighteen minute ride through the Earth. Shouldn’t something that is dropped through the center of the planet find a null point of gravity somewhere in the middle where it will neither rise nor fall after bouncing around like a yo-yo?
Techno babble and hand waving could probably address my questions with respect to the physics of “The Fall” as well as the distinct environmental conditions within London. Yet that never happens. For all the fake news that the movie foists upon its audience as a way of hurrying up the plot, the writers could have included ten seconds on each of those points to tidy things up.
Returning then to my second metric, there are some issues with the writing that go beyond mere pedantry. In the movie’s defence, I only started plot hole harvesting after the highway nomenclature boo-boo. So at least it got half an hour before I raised an eyebrow in disbelief. For comparison, Avatar managed eight minutes before I made like it was Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
In broader strokes, we have to look at Total Recall as a movie that doesn’t simply borrow from other movies, but revels in thematic appropriation. By rights, that should amount to a mishmash. Yet through some strange alchemy the look of the movie works pretty well. The script, which amounts to about 30% repetition from the Verhoeven movie, even manages to feel well paced. It’s not particularly exciting, mind you, but at least I wasn’t bored.
While Bryan Cranston is good bordering on great as Cohaagen, his screen time is tragically scant. Kate Beckinsale is no Sharon Stone, but Jessica Biel is a couple orders of magnitude better than Rachel Ticotin was as Melina. It’s hard to really say much about Colin Farrell’s performance other than to note he clearly showed up for work every day, in the same way that I put on pants every day. Much of Farrell’s role is limited to confused looks and saying “What?” with more frequency than David Tennant as The Doctor. I dare say Farrell’s performance borders on the Keanu Reeves threshold for incredulity. I wouldn’t call what he did acting, so much as speaking with purpose while being supported by other people who were acting.
Still, taken as a whole, Total Recall is not the worst sci-fi action movie I’ve seen this year. Of course that’s not saying much for a year that saw the likes of John Carter. TR 2012 is the “C” student of action films; it gets the job done, but it’s nothing that I haven’t seen before (up to and including a three breasted hooker).
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy, and Jon Cho.
Directed by: Len Weiseman