In a time where a foreign film can be remade just a couple of years after its debut, I suppose it’s not too bad to see someone wait 22 years before remaking an original science fiction thriller, which in turn was based on a short story published many decades prior. Truthfully, there wasn’t much of a reason to remake Total Recall, but then again, this isn’t exactly a direct remake; it’s more of a re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story from the ’60s, which is a little bit more forgivable.
If you haven’t seen the original Total Recall, the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, you should probably go do that. If you really enjoy it, find the premise exciting and all that was missing was updated special effects, less ambiguity and more action, then you’ll want to give this newer version a look, too. It has all of that, and it also has a few scenes that play off your expectations from the original. Certain parts will start out feeling familiar, and then they’ll go in a completely different way as the film yells “tricked you” and you feel like you’ve been had.
That, to me, is a fun experience. You might find it frustrating. If you want a scene-for-scene remake of Paul Verhoeven’s flick, you’re going to be disappointed. This one doesn’t even take place on Mars, for crying out loud! Here, Earth has been separated into two areas: Britain, where the rich people live, and Australia, “The Colony,” where the lower class lives and works. Living space is Earth’s most difficult resource to have, as most of the planet has been rendered uninhabitable due to nuclear warfare.
Colin Farrell takes the lead role as Douglas Quaid, an assembly line worker who lives in Britain but commutes to The Colony daily via a tunnel dug straight through Earth’s core — which, incidentally, takes only 17 minutes to travel through. He is married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale), and while his life isn’t perfect, its serviceable. He learns of a service which implants fake memories into his mind, making him feel as if he experienced something that never really happened. He wants this, and ends up in a chair, drugged up and ready to take a nice long nap wherein he’ll get the experience of a lifetime.
Fans of the original know that’s not what happened. While Quaid wanted the “secret agent” program — he’d get to be a secret agent in his mind for a while and remember it vividly — it turns out that he already is one, and soon enough, his whole world crashes down around him. The police show up but are quickly killed by him, Lori tries to kill him, tells him that they’ve only been married for 6 weeks and that any memory before that was implanted. He escapes from her, which results in a chase scene that lasts for the majority of the rest of the film, with only short breaks consisting of exposition to break up the chase.
For most of this chase, Quaid has beside him a woman named Melina (Jessica Biel), included because there was also a woman in the original. Her role in this one is far more limited and feels superfluous, but love interests often do. We learn who Quaid used to be, what he was fighting for, and eventually we learn why he’s important and why Lori has to chase him all over the world.
You know what? It’s fun. Total Recall is a fun movie. I was rarely bored, the action scenes are all inventive, and the vision of the future is even more clear and beautiful than it was when Verhoeven did it 22 years ago. $125 million went into this film, and it shows. Wiseman may not be terribly good at constructing a strong plot or deep characters, but he knows how to stage action and he understands how much detail should be put into the background. And the lens flare. There is a lot of that, too, which is admittedly very annoying.
It’s almost an entirely pointless remake, I’ll grant you, and it lacks a lot of the depth of the original — the whole “Is he or isn’t he inside the memory he asked for?” subplot is basically non-existent — and some of the humor is gone, but as a straight-up action flick set in the future, I enjoyed myself. It differentiates itself enough to not be completely the same movie, and it contains enough nods to the original — the three-breast woman makes a brief appearance, nudity and all, for instance — to make you appreciate its understanding of where it came from.
Colin Ferrell (who was the villain of Minority Report, also based on one of Dick’s stories) is no Arnold Schwarzenegger and he doesn’t try to be here. He has far more range than that. But I’m not sure if he has the screen presence of the action star. He’s not the type of straight man that works for this kind of role. Jessica Biel gets nothing to do as the love interest and the one explaining the situation, while Kate Beckinsale plays two characters from the original merged into one, because she needed more screen time considering she’s married to the director. This is, by my recollection, her first villain role, and the look on her first for most of the film is so threatening that it makes me think she should have given it a go a long time ago.
Total Recall, to me, is a lot like last year’s Conan the Barbarian remake, except the original film was more enjoyable in this case. Both remakes change a lot of things, but are fun for what they are. I liked Total Recall, and I especially dug a lot of parts that make it up, like Beckinsale’s villain, the sets, the vision of the future, and the action scenes. The plot isn’t very strong, the characters have no depth and the ambiguity is gone, which makes it a worse film overall, but it’s still fun if you take it for what it is: a fun 2012 sci-fi action movie. It could always be worse. It could be Skyline.