I walked into Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake a blank slate. I have never seen the classic 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, nor have I read the original Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. I considered experiencing both versions before watching the remake, but ultimately felt it would be better to judge this film on its own merits instead of providing the endless series of comparisons many of my colleagues will no doubt deliver. At this point, I find such analysis reductive; it orients the conversation away from the work itself, and reduces creative success or failure to a checklist of contrasts.
I explain this so that when I say Wiseman’s Total Recall is a terrible movie, you may understand that I do not dislike the film for failing to ‘live up’ to other versions of the story, but because it is, in a vacuum, an utter creative disaster.
What’s most disappointing about the film is that for as low as it sinks, it starts off reasonably strong. Wiseman and his team have designed an extremely impressive, surprisingly immersive sci-fi landscape, one with plenty of details worth exploring.
Set far in the future after a worldwide war ravaged the planet Earth, only Great Britain and Australia remain inhabitable. Australia has been renamed “The Colony,” a massive, overcrowded city where the impoverished citizens live in cramped, dirty quarters. They travel back-and-forth to Britain to work in factories via a sophisticated underground shuttle system, “the fall,” that moves through the center of the Earth. Life for the people of the Colony is terrible, and certain sectors of the city are devoted entirely to escapism, pleasurable fantasies that take the mind off life’s monotony. One of these escapes is ‘Rekall,’ a business that offers to implant memories of exciting, fantastic experiences in the customer’s head.
The script has a tough time establishing the world’s parameters without extremely clunky exposition, but it’s an intriguing set-up nevertheless, one that raises issues of class, economic oppression, dissatisfaction, memory, and perception. Exploring even one of these thematic avenues in such a setting would make for an interesting sci-fi tale.
Total Recall chooses to explore none of them, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
The film’s actual plot concerns Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker who visits Rekall looking for a good distraction. Instead, armed men storm the building and Doug fights them off with incredible physical prowess he never knew he had. From here, the film becomes little more than a futuristic riff on The Bourne Identity: Doug is a world-class secret agent who has forgotten his old identity, and must search for the secrets of his past while the government guns for him.
I’m not spoiling anything by revealing Doug’s identity, by the way, because the film opens with a scene confirming Doug is, indeed, a secret agent. We aren’t given all the details, but by the time he visits Rekall, most intelligent viewers will have pieced the majority of the story together. It’s an awful decision, sucking all possible tension out of Doug’s situation. We know who he is, so when antagonists try to trick Doug with false information, or Doug himself feels unsure of what he’s been told, it all rings hollow.
Worse still, the film makes no attempt to treat Doug’s identity crisis as anything more than a plot device, something to get the action moving. Good science-fiction takes grand, impossible ideas like this and says something with them, but Total Recall is disinterested in relating any sort of message. Not about the fragile nature of perception, nor the unjust truths of class systems, nor even basic sci-fi concepts like the advancement of dystopian governments. What the film has to say about the issues it establishes amount to nothing more than ‘That’s inconvenient,’ or ‘That’s bad,’ or ‘Gee, isn’t Bryan Cranston’s character mean?’
There’s no time to develop actual ideas among the monotonous slog of dull chase scenes, dense exposition, and atrocious attempts at character work. I don’t inherently mind Wiseman’s decision to make a character-driven action flick instead of a smart sci-fi drama, but if he’s going to do so, he should at least do it well. And there’s nothing remotely exciting about the set-pieces or characters. Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, and Bryan Cranston all do what they can with severely underwritten parts, but none of these people are interesting, and in certain cases, they’re downright insufferable.
And don’t even get me started on Cranston’s evil plan. When ‘building a bunch of robots’ is the central motivation of the antagonist, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Total Recall is nothing more than a lazy, dull, soulless studio effort wrapped up in an enticing sci-fi landscape. Whether you’ve seen the original or not, you’ve seen every single concept, action beat, or character type this film has to offer in dozens of other films, typically done better. There is nothing memorable, inspired, or interesting about the finished product. The only discussion it can possibly inspire – other than confusion over massive plot holes – is why Columbia made the film in the first place, and why, in the crowded summer marketplace, they expect audiences to give a damn.