Another movie joins the list of remakes that have, of late, come pouring out of Hollywood. Total Recall has been reimagined for the CGI era, much changed now but sharing just enough plot and details to justify the shared appellation. As I recall, the first Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was an entertaining bit of science fiction with some action and a satisfying twist or two thrown in. The recent version does not reach the same level, falling short mainly because it invests less in the human element, although it does surpass its predecessor in some areas.
The main characters return with the same names. Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a blue-collar worker with an itch he does not know how to scratch, a vague sense that something is not right with his life. His wife Lori is played this time by Kate Beckinsale, while the rebel Melina is Jessica Biel. When Quaid goes to Rekall, a company that can insert memories of better times into a client’s brain, they discover that the fake memories of espionage and danger that he is asking for are already in his brain, except that they are real.
Quaid has just a few seconds to process this shock before police burst into the facility and try to arrest him. To his own surprise, instincts and muscle memory kick in and he takes out the squad of cops. The chase is on. When he rushes home and tells his wife, she springs a bombshell on him that catapults the plot forward.
There were a few choices made for the film that I found surprising, occasionally to the movie’s detriment. Mars plays no role in the film, for instance, and the rebels are not mutants. For a movie that put a lot of effort into CGI sets and scenery, a trip to the red planet sounds like an excellent opportunity. Instead, we stay on Earth, the surface of which is mostly uninhabitable due to chemical warfare and pollution.
The loss of Mars is a neutral change, I would say, but the loss of the mutants is regrettable. It was their special abilities that necessitated the convoluted scheme whose revelation was such an inspired twist in the original movie (to say nothing of the lost opportunity for costume designers!). Though this same twist is in the new one, one has to wonder why. Whereas in the first movie the twist was part of a brilliant and devious scheme, in the second movie it is just an unnecessary complication to what should have been an old-fashioned double agent espionage mission. The elements of the 1990 version worked together, but the removal of one element in the new one gutted the logical necessity and therefore the impact of another.
The setting and atmosphere, however, are superior in this new version. Technology is used to good effect to create a futuristic, gritty, crowded slum reminiscent of Blade Runner. The movie even takes a little time at the beginning to set things up, time enough to enjoy the look and feel of the world where humans jostle each other in narrow alleys that fantastic buildings crouch over. It is a shame that with one small exception, the entirety of what follows is a breathless chase. We see this world go by in a blur, rather than have an opportunity to delve into it and explore.
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A pause now and then to catch our breath might have been beneficial in the development of some ideas relating to the world. For instance, the rebels have taken to hiding in the wastelands where nothing can breathe. However, other than a mention in an expository script in the opening, this is forgotten until Quaid is eventually taken to them. This aspect of the world should have loomed large over the movie, should have been incorporated more into the plot. Instead, it is a non-factor until the end, and never achieves more importance than to be the location of the rebel hideout. Its unique features, such as the deadly atmosphere, are not taken advantage of in any way and have no more effect on the action than to force the characters to wear gas masks until they get inside a hermetically sealed building.
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Of all the problems the movie has, the greatest is the mechanical indifference with which it treats its characters, which is bound to evoke a similar feeling in the audience. Absent is Quaid’s struggle with the realization of who he was and the decision of who he wants to be. His dissatisfaction with life at the beginning is the only hint of an attempt to create a person, and this is left behind soon enough, to be replaced with fight scenes (if anyone doubts that a movie with fight scenes is perfectly capable of developing characters and relationships, I invite them to watch The Matrix). No one else is the least bit memorable, and few are anything more than scenery. The artistry that went into the creation of the slum where Quaid lives is not supplemented by any attempt to fill it with people. Only extras live there.
In truth, most of what is wrong with the movie has to do with a failure to capitalize on possibilities and develop details. Perhaps the script was written at the same breakneck pace at which the characters fly across the screen. The core of a good movie is there, but a further draft or five of the script would have improved things, one suspects.
There is, though, one decision made that is a pleasant surprise. The heart of this pre-9/11 story still concerns a tyrannical government against a group of downtrodden, separatist rebels bent on their own self-determination. In today’s environment, it is nice to see in a mainstream movie. One could never have an American soldier come to his senses and side with, say, the occupied people of Afghanistan, but the wonder of science fiction is that it can replace the familiar with a more neutral setting, so that ideas can be examined without the stain of prejudice and bias. If Total Recall gets people thinking a little about this topic, it has done enough, even if it was only half as entertaining as it might have been.