This review contains, at the most, minor spoilers for those who have seen the original Total Recall, but major spoilers for those who have never seen the original. Proceed with caution; your mileage may vary.
When remaking a movie, there is a cardinal rule that one should always follow: a remake needs to stand on its own as a singular vision, rather than rely upon the original for simple recognition value. In other words, it should have something new and/or different to say; on a fundamental level, it should be about something else, even if the story, plot, and characters are more or less familiar.
The best remakes, such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing (itself remade last year under the guise of a prequel), give us something new and unexpected. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the notable modern remakes that have stood the test of time are sci-fi movies, either. Science-fiction is a genre that lends itself to the conceit of remaking perhaps better than any other, because at its best, sci-fi is all about ideas realized through cultural allegory; films set in the distant future can serve as a mirror for our own present. Two notable classic science-fiction novels, The War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, have seen themselves adapted into films numerous times over the years, each time tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of a generation in order to reflect our own cultural fears back at us. The original film adaptations, made in the 1950’s, reflected the fears of the Cold War: the silent spread of communism or nuclear annihilation. Later adaptations reflected unease with the New Age movement in the 70’s, an oppressive military-industrial complex in the 90’s, and in the 00’s: a post-9/11 allegory, and the paranoia surrounding global pandemics.
Interestingly enough, Paul Verhoeven’s original Total Recall, made at the tail end of the “Me” decade, was all about the ruthless corporate greed that characterized the Reagan 80’s, where faceless, monolithic corporations rose to levels if power unprecedented since the Gilded Age, building their fortunes on the stooped backs of the lower classes. Sound familiar? Indeed, the original Swarzenegger actioner would find itself just as relevant nearly two decades later in 2012 as it did in 1990.
While Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is similarly set in a world divided between the haves and the have-nots, this version of the story has more to say about elected officials overstepping their authority, using a war on terror to justify an illegal invasion. In other words, it would have been a lot more relevant and interesting eight years ago, whereas the original is more relevant and interesting now. But I digress.
The gulf between rich and poor is represented here perhaps even more dramatically so than in the original. An opening text crawl informs us that at the end of the 21st Century, nuclear war/fallout turned most of the globe into uninhabitable “no-zones,” leaving only two areas of the Earth fit for human life: the upper-crust “United Federation of Britain”, made up of the old United Kingdom plus most of Western Europe, and downtrodden “The Colony”, made up of a post-apocalyptic, overcrowded Australia that has apparently been re-colonized by the remnants of what used to be Asia. And so, the rich and the poor are literally a world apart from each other.
(In the original script, the UFB was called “Euramerica.” I imagine this was changed for the same reason that Colin Farrell, playing the role of Douglass Quaid [made famous by Arnold Swarzenegger in the original] speaks in an American accent rather than his native Irish brogue, which would make more sense in the cosmopolitan world of Recall. I can only guess this was done to make the film more palatable for American audiences. I suppose Columbia Pictures didn’t think American moviegoers would want to root for an Irish New Asian going up against a totalitarian Euramerica. It’s a minor nitpick, but it does hurt the movie’s verisimilitude, especially when Kate Beckinsale, playing the role of the double-agent wife, Lori Quaid [Sharon Stone in the original], starts the film out with an American accent and then switches to her native English accent once she shows her true colours. Is this just another case of lazily using the British accent to denote eeeeevil? Even Bill Nighy, playing the heroic rebel leader Matthias, does his best to affect an American accent [with varying levels of success] during his very brief couple of scenes in which he shows up long enough to cash his paycheck.)
The two worlds of the UFB and The Colony are realized through some absolutely fantastic production design by Patrick Tatopoulos, who outdoes himself with possibly his best work yet. The Federation of Britain is a futuristic, sprawling, vertical metropolis with a metallic, antiseptic sheen. Wiseman and Tatopoulos have constructed a reality built on top of itself, where the bottom levels are much closer to our present reality, with more modern-looking vehicles and roads, and the top levels are futuristic sci-fi, complete with robotic police officers and flying cars. The Colony, by contrast, is an oppressive, rain-soaked slum, piled on top of itself like an unruly dorm room. It’s also evocative of Lawrence G. Paull’s production design for Blade Runner, right down to the numerous Asian influences. Indeed, The Colony was originally referred to as “New Asia,” and includes a mix of Oriental and Russian influences, all built upon flooded, dirty canals and sewers, upon which the rain is perpetually falling. It’s a dismal, dirty, lived-in place.
These two separate worlds are connected by “The Fall,” a massive elevator that goes straight through the centre of the Earth. Lower-class workers from The Colony use The Fall to commute to their jobs in a British factory, making the synthetic police robots (referred to as “Synths”) for the totalitarian UFB government. The Fall is a wonderful sci-fi concept that I haven’t really seen done before, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.
Another aspect in which this remake shines is the numerous action scenes and thrilling chases. Len Wiseman is an old hat at action by now, having previously made the Underworld movies (starring his wife, Kate Beckinsale), along with Live Free or Die Hard. In Total Recall, characters run, fight, and leap their way through video game level-inspired set pieces, but special effects technology have advanced to the point at which we can easily suspend our disbelief and get caught up in the action. I admit to several gasps, oohs, and ahhs as I watched Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale fight and chase each other through the futuristic labyrinth of the UFB. There’s a particularly thrilling car chase that ends in a jaw-dropping moment of gleeful spectacle which I won’t spoil here.
Kate Beckinsale herself is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, improving upon the character of Lori in every way. While Sharon Stone’s Lori was more or less a sleazy dame on the company payroll, Beckinsale plays the role like a patriot and a true believer. She chases Quaid down with a hard-fought fanaticism that bespeaks absolute faith and dedication to the cause. She’s truly a formidable opponent here and further demonstrates why her place is cemented among the pantheon of ass-kicking pop-culture women of the 21st century. Wiseman lives up to his name here, “wisely” giving his wife a lot more screentime than her predecessor, and every minute of it is well-earned. She’s a very real and present threat, and a joy to watch.
Unfortunately, Colin Farrell does not fare quite so well. He’s not bad in the movie, but for whatever reason, he’s holding back. I suspect that Wiseman wanted his protagonist to be more of a “regular guy” in this version, but in the original, Arnold Swarzenegger’s Quaid had a likeable swagger that really made you root for him. Colin Farrell as a personality certainly has a swagger all his own, which was on display in last year’s otherwise-terrible remake of Fright Night. But it’s dialed back here, to the movie’s detriment. I found that by the end of the film, even though I was having a blast watching it, I didn’t really care whether his character lived or died.
Bryan Cranston, one of the best actors working today, is wasted in the thankless role of Cohaagen. Cranston is always best when he’s playing conflicted, sympathetic characters, even if those characters are total assholes like Walter White in Breaking Bad (which will undoubtedly end up as the jewel in the crown of Cranston’s legacy). But Cohaagen here is nothing more than a mustache-twirling villain. To be sure, this was also the case in the original, but the 1990 Recall had the brilliant casting of Ronny Cox as Cohaagen, and Cox plays the mustache-twirling villain like no other. His Cohaagen, much like his Dick Jones in Robocop, was positively oozing and dripping with corporate evil. He was the walking incarnation of capitalism at its most ruthless. I love Brian Cranston, but he’s no Ronny Cox here.
The casting of Jessica Biel in the role of Melina is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Biel has a great physicality about her, kicking ass with the best of them. On the other hand, I question the casting of a white actress in a role originated by a Latino woman. Wiseman’s Total Recall is pretty much lily-white through and through, with no notable roles for people of colour. Ironic that a nearly twenty-year old film, with its Austrian star and Hispanic leading lady, would be more diverse than its 2012 remake. Were there no young, ass-kicking Latino actresses who could fill this role? What about Alexa Vega? Or Michelle Rodriguez?
The film also suffers when it feels obligated to hit the most familiar beats of the original. The best example of this is the famous scene in which a character shows up about halfway through the movie to try and convince Quaid that he’s still back in a chair at Rekall. In Verhoeven’s original film, you were never quite sure what was reality and what was a fantasy in Quaid’s head. He played the altered states concepts masterfully, and even after multiple viewings you’re still not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t. As a result, that scene in the original is incredibly tense and nail-biting. By contrast, Wiseman’s version eschews that ambiguity. From the get-go, there is no doubt that everything that is happening is happening in the real world (making the tagline for the posters [“What is real?”] all the more confusing). So when that scene happens in the remake, it’s clearly nothing more than fan service, and you’re sitting there impatiently waiting for them to get this beat over with and get back to another thrilling chase sequence.
Despite this useless scene along with a couple others, and a few clunky lines, Wiseman’s Recall mostly succeeds as a remake. It’s not as substantive as Verhoeven’s film, and it will never take its place as one of the great remakes in movie history, but I don’t think it’ll fall into the category of worthless and pointless remakes either. It’s somewhere in the middle of the road, and it’s solidly enjoyable summer entertainment. I suspect that twenty years ago, when film fans think of a Total Recall, they’ll think of Verhoeven’s original, but that doesn’t mean that this one isn’t worth $5 and a couple of hours of your time for a matinee showing. It looks great, has some fantastic action set pieces, and perhaps best of all, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
Total Recall opens in cinemas Friday, August 3.