Total Recall as a remake attempts to mimic the story of the film in real life; do you remember Arnold Schwarzenegger in a different movie of the same name from 1990? We’ll delete that memory for you and add a new one, with Colin Farrell in the starring role. It’s actually somewhat interesting that remakes are now acting as a sort of Rekall service, where the new film overtakes the old in popularity because a new generation of film viewers have never seen the original. As the present overtakes the past, these classic films start to rot away and the remakes take over, even if they aren’t as good.
The case in point is this remake of Total Recall, which, by most accounts, was an unnecessary remake in itself. Based off a story by Philip K. Dick titled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, the original, directed by Paul Verhoeven, was a violent escapist jaunt through science fiction, and it became something of a cult classic with many fans. The remake, despite attempting to adhere more towards the source material, still resembles its film predecessor rather than the story.
Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a man working in a robot factory who begins to have strange dreams of his life as a secret agent infiltrating the United Federation of Britain, led by Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). He also remembers a different woman than his wife – Melina (Jessica Biel), who he saves during a violent encounter. But Quaid continues to maintain his boring lifestyle – get up, go to work in the UFB thanks the Fall (an elevator-like device that divides the Colony and the UFB), and come home to his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale). That is, until he finds Rekall, a company that implants fake memories into people’s brains to give them the fantasies that they desire.
Quaid wants to be a secret agent, but before Rekall can administer the memories, they find that Quaid already was a spy of some sort, and now he’s being targeted by Cohaagen and his wife because he remembers what they wanted him to forget.
It’s all a mind trip, really, but there are always the usual instances where reality and dream collide. It’s not apparent at first if Quaid is actually a spy or if the drug administered to him has given him these memories; working off of that plot line, things can either seem real or fantasy depending on how the viewer wants to interpret them, at least early on in the film. But as the deceit continues, the truth comes out; Quaid really was a spy named Hauser, working for both Cohaagen in the UFB and the rebels who want to destroy the Fall and bring back equality to the people.
Total Recall has flashy special effects thanks to some great sci-fi inventions, and it’s also got tons of action done fairly well by both Farrell and Beckinsale. Entire scenes unfold around chase sequences and explosions, and things get really riled up in the final act. But Total Recall is really missing the key to what makes Philip K. Dick’s original story so intriguing – the people that are influenced by Rekall. Quaid’s life is boring, yes, but the film doesn’t take enough time to show it. It doesn’t seem that bad, really; he’s got a great wife, a place to live, a friend, and a job, and that’s something. The film shows that it certainly could be worse, living in the red light district.
And though the film focuses on the class war between the Colony and the UFB, there’s not enough time spent examining the relationship between them. We’re told things are bad, just like we’re told all about Quaid’s life without getting to see it. But director Len Wiseman wants to skip over the character-driven storylines in Total Recall and get on with the action, which makes the main theme of this story moot.
Once you’ve seen Total Recall in action four or five times, though, things get rather stale and predictable. There’s just too much happening for the film’s own good; at a certain point, the actual meat of the story falls away, and the movie digresses into vapid and pointless action sequences.
If it’s meaningful science fiction story you’re looking for, Total Recall is not the film to see. It’s so focused on action and stunts and flashy cinematography that it’s entirely lacking in script, and the characters are superficial. The film’s not a total failure though; it does make one want to recall the original film, and even moreso the great story from which they’re derived.