The second adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale hit theaters this weekend sporting a larger production budget, boatloads of CGI, and a family friendly PG-13 rating. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is a better looking, better acted version of Paul Verhoeven’s original Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, but, in the end, it is soulless and unmemorable.
This time around Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, the blue collar factory worker who may or may not be an evil secret agent under the employ of the villainous Cohaagen. This version dispenses with the Martian setting of Dick’s original short story, taking place instead on a post-apocalyptic Earth in which every landmass except the U.K. and Australia have become uninhabitable wastelands due to chemical warfare. Known now as the United Federation of Britain and the Colony, the two bodies are connected by “The Fall,” a supermassive elevator that runs through the Earth’s core; the poor and oppressed in this dystopian society live in the Colony and commute to work via the Fall whereas the affluent live in the considerably cleaner UFB.
Quaid lives in the Colony, residing in a dilapidated, water-stained one room apartment with his gorgeous wife (Kate Beckinsale). He spends his days commuting to the other side of the planet to perform menial assembly line work. Living in a state of near squalor and working a job he hates, Quaid goes to Rekall – a company specializing in the implantation of prepackaged memories – for a temporary escape. Everything, of course, then goes terribly wrong.
The chief delights of Wiseman’s Total Recall come in these early scenes. Quaid spends his days and nights shuffling through a squalid, futuristic cityscape that looks nearly identical to the setting of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In fact, the world of Wiseman’s Total Recall is the best rip off of the world of Blade Runner I’ve seen. And despite looking every bit the handsome Hollywood movie star, Farrell is a better choice for Quaid than Schwarzenegger ever was if just for the fact that Farrell looks and sounds like he could possibly be a regular Joe named Douglas Quaid. I love Schwarzenegger in the original movie, but I never believed for a second that he was anything other than an Austrian super agent. Farrell, however, convincingly plays Quaid as an everyman who suddenly finds his entire world turned upside down.
After Farrell straps into a chair at Rekall, federal agents burst into the building intent on capturing him. He kills most of them and escapes to his wife who, surprise, is a highly skilled agent under the employ of Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). It’s at this point that Wiseman’s Total Recall devolves into a series of forgettable chase sequences.
Farrell spends the rest of the film with his face permanently fixed in an expression of surprise and confusion as he runs from a ridiculously unkillable Kate Beckinsale. She chases him through the grimy streets of the Colony, then she chases him in a hover car, then she chases him through a series of elevator shafts, and then she chases him so more for good measure. Meanwhile, Farrell and Jessica Biel throw everything from bullets to bombs at the dangerous femme to no avail; Beckinsale might as well have been playing the T-1000 in this movie. The only director in Hollywood more dedicated to turning his wife into an absurdly overpowered Mary Sue than Len Wiseman is Paul W.S. Anderson. The final two thirds of Total Recall essentially consist of three or four extended chase sequences averaging well over ten minutes apiece. Midway through the hover car chase sequence I found myself suffering from chase sequence fatigue.
There’s far more action in Wiseman’s movie than in the original movie, but nothing here matches the visceral thrill of Schwarzenegger ripping off Michael Ironside’s arms and yelling, “See you at the party, Richter!” By comparison everything here is neutered and tedious: just scene after scene of PG-13 violence with lots of gunplay and no physical consequences.
That’s a shame, because with Farrell as the lead and burdened by a PG-13 rating, this version of Total Recall could have been vastly superior if Wiseman had eased off on the action a bit and spent more time exploring the implications of the plot; Wiseman could have turned Total Recall into Inception 2. Is Quaid a secret agent or is he merely a working class drone, strapped to a chair back at Rekall and on the verge of being lobotomized by a pack of incompetent scientists? Wiseman doesn’t seem to care one way or the other; he’s more concerned with staging an hour of monotonous chase sequences.
Filmed in 1989 but released in 1990, the original Total Recall stands as the last great action movie of the ‘80s. It was cheesy and violent, but ultimately a smart action flick, anchored by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s overpowering charisma. Verhoeven took time in between sequences of bloody carnage to indulge in the mindfuckery of the plot. As a result, for all the changes made to the film to accommodate Schwarzenegger’s larger-than-life screen persona, that movie ended up being more true to Philip K. Dick’s original vision.
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall was a clever film dressed up as a schlocky piece of exploitation. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is a stupid movie covered by glossy sheen of slick production values. Wiseman’s Total Recall isn’t insultingly bad, but it is completely forgettable.