Editor’s Notes: For an additional perspective on Total Recall, read Umar Shameem’s review.
There are greater sins then concocting a blistering, incessant, balls-to-the-wall digi-action picture, but it’s hard to get too excited when the material has the potential for so much more. Total Recall suffers from that sort of muted disappointment factor from beginning to end, building to a sustained level of transparently artificial action inundation that is pleasant enough on the shallowest level but not even remotely fulfilling on legitimate terms.
Total Recall suffers from that sort of muted disappointment factor from beginning to end, building to a sustained level of transparently artificial action inundation that is pleasant enough on the shallowest level but not even remotely fulfilling on legitimate terms.
The film is especially empty on the back of its source material, the Phillip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Dick was a writer of grand, complex sci-fi ideas, dazzling the reader as much with the suggestiveness of his futuristic sociological notions as he did with the awesomeness of his concepts. The kinky-pulp, ultraviolent, Verhoeven-Schwarzeneggar adaptation of the material, from all the way back in 1990, still found a way to probe some of those ideas – of dream-versus-reality, the fate of human action versus the fate of inertia, and the ultimate power of choice and belief – even as it waded in Verhoeven’s penchant for the extreme. Here, in Len Wiseman’s “reimagining,” the source text’s underlying ideas are at best suppressed and at worst absent.
One thing to remember is that, though loosely based on the classic short story, this film is more directly based on the Verhoeven film. So rather than attempting to focus the story on the implantation of memories that may already exist, Wiseman opts to focus on high-octane futuristic action and effects. That’s not necessarily evil, though it is devoid of much humanity, both literally and figuratively. And in the hands of Wiseman, who ushered in the toothless Underworld franchise and conducted a similar CG-lobotomy on the Die Hard franchise with Live Free or Die Hard, the action – while certainly flashy enough – is so lacking in tangible humanity that it’s impossible to engage with. Every set piece is essentially a green-screen exercise, and even a lot of the character stunts are digitally embellished to such a degree that the film doesn’t so much require viewers to suspend their disbelief, but rather check it at the door and reclaim it after the closing credits. I never thought I’d find myself yearning for the comparative human grounding of a Paul Verhoeven film, but there you have it.
One smart departure in this screenplay – a patchwork job with contributions from no fewer than five different scribes – is that Mars isn’t a part of the film’s environment. Rather than provide its hero, Quaid (Colin Farrell), with nothing more than shallow dreams of adventures on Mars, the screenwriters imbue the story and character with a more relevant environment for the modern age. Earth as we know it has been decimated, leaving only two sizeable land masses in existence – the former Great Britain, now a federation of the ruling class, and “The Colony,” presumably a vestige of North America, populated by the poor and powerless working class. Colonists travel to the Federation every day via “The Fall,” a mass transit system that underlines the virtual enslavement of the colonists. Essentially, it’s a separatist intergalactic train that bridges the divided land masses but also represents the social division. Quaid is one of the enslaved, married to a seemingly loving wife (Kate Beckinsale), but victim to an otherwise empty existence. In his dreams, however, he is some sort of secret agent working in tandem with a mystery woman. The dreams make him curious enough to visit Rekall, a controversial establishment that promises to ease the pain of life on The Colony by implanting fantastical memories that allow the lowly colonists to think back on grand adventures, fabulous sexual exploits, or more simply, just happier lives. But a funny thing happens on the way to lobotomyville – the Rekall brain scan discovers that Quaid’s fantasies are not fantasies at all. He is actually a secret agent, and his current memories of a humdrum life in The Colony are what were previously implanted to cover up his years of lethal force.
On the surface, it’s a bit evolutionary to deliver a film with two ass-kicking female characters, but when they only exist to kick ass, there isn’t any room to develop any human characteristics.
Quaid’s discovery sets the Federation onto high alert, and essentially sets the film on course for 100 straight minutes of CG ballistics. Beckinsale’s loving wife is, in reality, a sinister Federation operative out to kill Quaid, and the mystery woman from the dreams is Melina (Jessica Biel), Quaid’s former partner – and, of course, lover. On the surface, it’s a bit evolutionary to deliver a film with two ass-kicking female characters, but when they only exist to kick ass, there isn’t any room to develop any human characteristics. Beckinsale dives into her role with zeal, but she is just an action cipher. Biel is worse off, not even permitted to own her character’s skills but rather only employ them in service to her heroic male counterpart. As that male counterpart, Farrell is fine, seeking out what little actual acting the role requires and sinking his teeth into it while acquitting himself nicely in the action sequences.
The supporting characters are similarly wasted. Bryan Cranston gets to chew a little digital scenery as the leader of the Federation, but Bill Nighy is entirely slighted as the leader of the rebellion. Such is the Wiseman way, though – sacrificing story and character for flashy, CG-laden action that is barely comprehensible. I wish I could wipe his entire career from my memory.
[notification type=”star”]38/100 ~ AWFUL. Total Recall is an incessant CG action bonanza that drains all the ideas out of its source material.[/notification]