As times change, technology improves, and stories resonate differently with new generations, it’s to be expected that a film remake will differ, sometimes radically, from the original. But while the new Total Recall improves on the vision, themes, and action of the Arnold Schwarzenegger version, it leaves out the essential qualities that made the 1990 movie a classic.
Though the basic premise is the same, the more fantastic elements of the first movie – like the trip to Mars and the strange mutants – are gone, in favour of an Earth-bound story relating to the struggles of the 99%. The world of the future has been decimated by chemical warfare, and the only inhabitable places left are the United Federation of Britain (where the rich live), and The Colony (Australia, home of the poor and oppressed). Each day, factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) and his fellow Colonists commute to jobs in the UFB via a giant elevator-like capsule called The Fall, which literally falls through a tunnel in the Earth, using the force of gravity to propel it out the other side.
Quaid hasn’t been sleeping well, plagued by nightmares of a beautiful woman and a secret mission that ends badly. He’s also unhappy with life, and strangely attracted to ads for Rekall, a seedy entertainment establishment that implants memories in the brain instead of creating actual experiences. Quaid’s visit to Rekall ends badly when the procedure uncovers previously erased memories of a former life as a spy. Suddenly, it seems like everyone’s after him, including UFB Governor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), resistance fighter Melina from his dreams (Jessica Biel), and even his lovely wife (Kate Beckinsale), who turns out to be someone completely different, and far more deadly.
There are lots of great sci-fi ideas on display here that sit well alongside the original story: The Fall, flying cars, implanted cell phones, robot police, cramped cities with buildings rising to the sky. Director Len Wiseman’s visuals are complex and fascinating, supported by excellent modern computer effects. And the action is great – far less violent than previous director Paul Verhoeven’s (for those who care), but more creative.
There’s a huge problem, however. Wiseman and update writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback tip their hat to the original just enough to let us know they’ve seen it (hence the three-breasted hooker and the odd-looking “two weeks” lady), but they’ve completely missed the unique element that made the Schwarzenegger version so engaging. The original was full of side comments, background images, and Easter eggs that continually raised the question whether Quaid was dreaming the whole adventure. Repeat viewings of the 1990 TR reveal an amazing number of paranoid details – even at the end of the film you could easily believe that Quaid would wake up back at Rekall at any moment.
The 2012 TR has none of this, reducing the story to a straight-forward narrative. Only one scene mentions it, and even there it’s clearly just the bad guys trying to mess with Quaid’s head. It’s a glaring oversight for this remake, especially when it’s being marketed heavily under the tagline “What is Real? What is Recall?”
The performances are not bad. Farrell does well with a role that Schwarzenegger easily handled, Biel finds an adequate balance between soldier and love interest, and Cranston is only slightly mustache-twirly. Bill Nighy is criminally wasted as resistance leader Matthias, showing up just long enough to spout some pop philosophy before exiting. Beckinsale should have been much better – scowling from behind long hair may have worked for her as a vampire in Wiseman’s Underworld films, but here it just looks cheesy.
If you’ve lost your memories of the original, you’ll find this new version a perfectly serviceable summer action movie. If not, you’re likely to be disappointed – it may seem similar, but it’s not Total Recall.
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