Of all the pointless remakes that have ever been unloaded into the world, Total Recall may just be the pointless-est.
Ignoring for a moment that the original movie is arguably one of the best science fiction films ever produced, difficult as that may be to do, the only new concepts introduced in the 2012 version are either superficial, utterly random or just the strange decision to fuse Michael Ironside and Sharon Stone into a single being, played by Kate Beckinsale no less. It would perhaps be more comforting if Len Wiseman’s version was simply “bad.” Then we could write off as mere Hollywood folly. But instead it resorts to a sort of dreary, ambient competence that you just know will get defended by philistines at a near-future cocktail party, will eventually lead to fisticuffs, and end up giving you a big honkin’ shiner that couldn’t even get you laid, because you got it defending Total Recall.
The original film was more than an action spectacle, and more than a trippy mindf**k that forced you to question reality. It was a subversion and indictment of machismo itself, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger – that paragon of virility – was given the ultimate male power fantasy, complete with playful underscores of masculine insecurity that found the character travelling through space in a large woman’s body, shoving phalluses up his nose and visiting a mutated world of body horror that spoke volumes about his own self-image. The film wasn’t just a dream (provided you agree that it was a dream in the first place), but a dissection of fantasy logic itself that gave the so-called “Badass Cinema” genre a proper goosing before indulging in said genre’s utter and glorious crapulence.
In short, Paul Verhoeven’s film worked on a variety of levels, whereas Wiseman’s only has “levels” in the sense that, like a video game, it plunks you from one location to another. The 2012 version awkwardly introduces a landscape featuring multiple head-scratching conceits, like a world consisting entirely of Europe and Australia in which nobody but Kate Beckinsale has a non-American accent, and in which said continents are connected via a giant tunnel through the Earth’s core in which blue collar workers travel to their grueling day jobs making robotic contraptions called “Synths,” which will theoretically put them all out of work but are in practice only slightly more competent than the droids in “The Clone Wars.”
There also exists in this future a company called “Rekall,” which provides you with memories of a perfect vacation without forcing anyone to take a day off from that pesky factory. This idea we accept, since if nothing else the concept worked in 1990. Colin Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a member of these faceless underclasses who dreams of something more and pays to make that dream more vivid. But no sooner does the “Rekall” process begin than he is ousted from the chair and forced into combat with a squad of soldiers who want to prevent him from regaining what he now knows to be a lost personality, hidden by the very same technology he just paid to use. His fantasies in which he’s a freedom fighter? They’re all true… assuming they’re not just the fantasy he paid for.
What follows is a big chase sequence… then another big chase sequence. It takes up half the movie, and while it is competently shot it distracts from the story’s grander ideas and diminishes any sense of ambition you’d expect to find in the very concept of Total Recall. Quaid does end up with his dream woman, played by Jessica Biel, and he does become embroiled in international intrigue. But the potential for greater intellectual discourse, or at the very least playful suspense surrounding the nature of the storyline, quickly evaporates into the kind of free-running action fare that’s become an industry standard after the Bourne movies.
That it takes place in the future is incidental. That it is called Total Recall is incidental. It just feels like another action movie. If this really is the dream Douglas Quaid paid for, he should ask for his money back. If this is all a reality, then the film simply lacks ambition beyond conventional summer thrills. Why bother remaking Total Recall at all if you’re not going to go anywhere new with the idea beyond adding robots and the world’s least practical transit system? Total Recall may be an action-packed distraction, but ironically, it’s just not very memorable.