Total Recall – review

Total Recall - 2012

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in Total Recall. Photograph: Everett/Rex Features

Remaking a much-loved movie is always a tough task, but remaking a much-loved Arnie classic is even tougher. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an action movie demi-god, so any actor following in his footsteps on a film he made his own is up against it. Arnie films are effectively a genre of their own, such is the weight his presence, the ever-quotable one-liners, the hilarious expressions and his incredible physique.

Colin Farrell takes the lead role of Douglas Quaid, the construction worker whose trip to virtual reality experience centre, Rekall, unearths details of a former life as a secret agent. Farrell doesn’t instantly fit the muscle-bound, wise-cracking action hero billing. This is risky casting in an already brave reboot, directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld, Die Hard 4.0), who also casts wife, Kate Beckinsale, as Quaid’s “wife” Lori, previously acted with playful menace by Sharon Stone.

Those between the ages of 25 and 35 are likely to hold Paul Verhoeven’s original Total Recall (1990) close to their heart. It is fun, gripping, vibrant and unashamedly violent. Verhoeven’s plotline stuck fairly closely to the Philip K. Dick short story (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) it was based on.

In the 2084 – in addition to life on Earth – Mars has been colonised and its people are dictatorially ruled by Governor Cohaagen, degrading living conditions – causing the development of a large mutant sector in its population. Quaid has recurring dreams about visiting Mars (though to his knowledge he has never been) and these dreams lead him to Rekall, as he is bored of his mundane day-to-day routine.

He gets an experience package which lets him live out his fantasy of going to Mars, but as a spy. A bad reaction to the machines causes him to realise he has been on Mars before and what he previously believed to be reality is implanted identity and memories.

Wiseman decided to steer clear of the Mars aspect of the story, in attempt to create a reimagining of Total Recall, putting his own stamp on it. The crux of the 2012 Total Recall plot is that in the late 21st Century, Earth has been so decimated by nuclear warfare that there only two habitable zones, namely The United Federation of Britain (UFB) and the Colony – effectively Australia. They are linked by “the Fall”, which is a monolith of a gravitational construction in which people travel via the Earth’s core.

The Fall is mainly used as a commuter transportation of Colony workers to toil in the UFB’s factories, helping build automatons for their burgeoning synthetic army. It is seen by many as a symbol of oppression and a growing Resistance, led by the initially faceless rebel Matthias [Bill Nighy], is concerning the UFB’s statesman, Chancellor Cohaagen [Bryan Cranston], who has turned to creating propaganda and portraying Matthias’ Resistance as terrorists.

When Quaid’s Rekall experience goes haywire, alarms are automatically triggered and he is immediately set upon by the authorities. Quaid stuns himself with his extraordinary ability to instinctively take down multiple highly-trained and armed officers, killing no less than 10 of them before escaping. When returning home he is attacked by his wife, realising she is not who she is supposed to be and that he must flee from her and the police. He has no idea why the authorities are after him, why he can do the things he can do and what part he has to play as the collision course between the UFB and the Resistance escalates.

On his journey of discovery, Quaid encounters Melina [Jessica Biel], who helps him piece together the truth about his previous life, in which he knew both Matthias and Cohaagen and he soon faces mental and physical battles and must make life-changing decisions, without fully knowing who he was, is or should become.

The visuals here are stunning, as are the flying car chases and the fight sequences. We are led on a break-neck, high-octane action and a battle between the oppressors and the oppressed. However, it is hard not to feel that the fun has been drained out of this version of Total Recall.

Wiseman and Farrell have both stressed that the film didn’t want to regurgitate one-liners and the trashy style of the original, but instead was intended to be more serious and Farrell said in an interview with Metro that, “tonally, it’s played a lot more seriously than the original was. I think we should be comparing it to The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan’s stuff – the last two or three films he’s done.”

Farrell is a little presumptuous, as this film is not in the same ball-park as Nolan’s Batman trilogy. If he simply means in the way that Nolan darkened the mood in his epic reboot saga and got to the heart of the characters, making them edgier, then you could argue that this is what Wiseman was attempting, but if so, he is not wholly successful in doing this.

This movie echoes two other film adaptations of Philip K Dick’s prophetic stories. It has the slick pace and futuristic feel of Minority Report, but is nowhere near as clever or exciting and the rain-soaked, neon-riddled and overpopulated dystopia is virtually stolen from that depicted in Blade Runner.

It is still an enjoyable ride and the budget has been well used on shiny technology and impressive sets and if there is “fun” to be had, look no further than two beautiful, energised lead actresses going at it in hand-to-hand combat, calling each other bitches. Inevitably it is not close to matching the Arnie’s Total Recall and there are even some bizarre, ill-advised in-jokes, as if Wiseman is nodding to the original while distancing himself from it.

Total Recall (12A)
Directed by Len Wiseman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bill Nighy, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine.
Running time: 118 minutes

Total Recall is showing at the Hackney Picturehouse throughout September.