For all of you in search of a dark, humorless dystopian tale, one that’s an inept remake of a celebrated sci-fi epic...one that would be hard to differentiate from a computer game...and one that’s brimming over with cardboard characterizations spouting flavorless, forgettable dialog, look no further. Total Recall has arrived.
Based upon Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the original take was directed by Paul Verhoeven, whose track record includes everything from the terrific Dutch thriller The Fourth Man (1983) to the underpants-deprived Basic Instinct (1992) to the ice-cube-on-the-nipple campy Showgirls (1995).The self-parodying Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as the man who could save civilization and survive Sharon Stone. The result was a joyous, passingly intelligent entertainment that still is repeatedly watchable. It was thrilling. It was clever. It was fun.
Fun is just what Len Wiseman’s Total Recall isn’t. Once you get past a three-breasted prostitute and a depiction of how money will look like in the future, you are left with characters running and jumping and driving fast and jumping some more. This is a film that’s been edited to death, but not in an exhilarating manner as with Chris Rouse’s Oscar-winning work on The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). The choppy cuts here are trying desperately to conceal that this whole endeavor is based upon a negligible screenplay voiced by charisma-less actors.
Colin Farrell, whose career has seldom showcased his rugged sexuality and fine acting chops to the benefit of audiences (In Bruges being a rare exception), appears listless here. Kate Beckinsale as his possibly villainous “spouse” and Jessica Beal as his possibly real sidekick don’t liven up matters much either. Brunettes have seldom been so bland and interchangeable.
Of course, there are the breathtaking sets to ogle, many of which seem heavily borrowed from Bladerunner, especially in the opening shots. In fact, the best visual elements throughout this wannabe summer blockbuster appear to be mooched from such classics as Star Wars, Minority Report, The Matrix, and The Fifth Element, with even a dash of Metropolis thrown in, but to no avail.
What we’re stuck with is factory worker Douglas Quaid (Farrell) living in a future (2084) where post-World-War-III space is at a premium, and a nasty ruler might just want to replace humans with robots. But Quaid is unaware of this possibility; he just wants to be promoted at work. No luck. So after having sex with his wife Lori, he wanders over to a company called Rekall that supplies virtual vacations by tinkering with one’s memories. Uh-oh. Something goes wrong, and Quaid discovers he might not be who he thinks he is. Is his alter ego an infamous rebel trying to bring down the current government -- or is he just dreaming he is?
The premise is rich with possibilities, and as we noted, it has worked well in the past, but only if the characters register as flesh-and-blood entities. You have to not be bombarded by special effects at the expense of a tangible humanity. This is what this Total Recall lacks, and what such similar-themed films such as Dark City (1998) and Gattaca (1997) have in spades.
Which reminds me of the time Pauline Kael quoted Truffaut as saying, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested all those films that do not pulse.”
Total Recall is pulseless. It’s dead on arrival. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "The Arts in New York City," "American Jewish Theater," and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.