The new version of Total Recall – Len Wiseman’s remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original, which in turn was based on the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by the much-adapted Philip K. Dick –  is dumb.
            Monumentally so, in fact. It’s a big, broad, stupid movie, built on a foundation of bad science and sloppy metaphysics, and set in a grotesquely simple sci-fi milieu that falls apart like a house of cards in a hurricane at the slightest scrutiny. It’s a collection of setpieces rather than a cohesive narrative, populated by one-dimensional characters. And yet, for all that, it’s still pretty consistently entertaining.
            It’s a quality it shares with its progenitor. The 1990 Total Recall is not a particularly brilliant film, but it’s an enjoyable one. Over the years, the Paul Verhoeven-directed Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle has developed something of an undeserved reputation; people seem to think it was a lot smarter than it actually was. Watching it again, it’s clear that Verhoeven was interested in neither plausible speculation – anyone complaining about the “realism” of the new film ought to take a moment to recall that the 1990 version was populated with psychic mutants – or Dickian metaphysics.
            No, what Verhoeven was doing was seeing what he could get away with. It’s a safe bet that the Dutch provocateur was as surprised as anyone else when Robocop was a smash hit and, having suddenly shot to the top of the Hollywood A-List, he decided to see how far he could go. Total Recall represents Verhoeven’s attempt to push the envelope in terms of how much violence he could depict in a mainstream tentpole film, and he would do the same thing with sex in his next film, 1992’s Basic Instinct. Even the most charitable analysis of Recall ’90 would be hard pressed to find anything deeper under the surface – although, to be fair, Verhoeven gets a little more mileage and a shade more nuance out of the material’s “what’s real and what’s fantasy?” conceit than Wiseman does.
            Having said that, although the ’90 Total Recallis a pretty shallow film, at least it has some kind of an agenda, even if that agenda was only to see if they could show Arnie bloodily severing Michael Ironside’s arms without the MPAA having kittens. The 2012 film, on the other hand, has no real aims, artistic or visceral. It’s goals are wholly financial, and in trying to marry a recognizable name to as broadly an appealing narrative as possible, it’s boiled away everything distinctive about the story, leaving a remarkably generic chase movie in the bottom of the pot.
            The thing is, it’s not a bad generic chase movie; if all you’re after is a couple of hours worth of unchallenging thrills and mild visual spectacle, Total Recall fits the remit nicely. On a purely superficial level, it’s entertaining enough. It’s just that the most cursory rumination on the work reveals it for the thin and incredibly unoriginal pastiche that it is.
           
Mild Spoilers For An Uninspired Remake of a Twenty-Two Year Old Film Follow
            Colin Farrell is our mixed-up main man this time around, stepping into the shoes of Douglas Quaid, a near future manual labourer with an improbably hot wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale, wife of the director). Plagued by dreams where he is a spy leading an action-packed life, he goes to Rekall, a company that can implant false memories and fantasies into its clients’ minds. The procedure goes pear-shaped, however, and Doug soon finds himself on the run from the long arm of the government, headed by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan “Just Gimme My Check” Cranston), which includes Lori, who is, as in the original, a deep cover agent assigned to keep tabs on him. Could Doug actually be the  superspy he dreamed he was? Well, of course he is. It’d be a boring film if he wasn’t.
            The basic narrative structure remains intact, but the biggest difference this time around is the jettisoning of Mars as a setting; although this Recall lifts a lot of concepts and lines wholesale from the original, Arnie’s immortal “Get your ass to Mars” isn’t among them. The action is earthbound, split between the relatively wealthy United Federation of Britain (where the dominant accent is American) and the impoverished Colony (Australia – fame at last!), home to the workaday underclass. The rest of the world is shrouded in toxic clouds left over from some terrible war, and is thus uninhabitable.
            It’s a ham-fisted 99% – 1% allegory, tied to a societal problem – overcrowding – that isn’t fully integrated into the setting, and so fails to make much sense on close examination. For instance, why would a society like that, presumably dealing with massive unemployment as a result of the high population and the limited resources available, need robot cops? The only answer that comes readily to mind is so that Farrell can send hordes of villains to oblivion without offending the ratings board, a deduction that’s fairly indicative of the thought processes behind this film.
            Listing all the logical fallacies in Recall ’12would eat up far too much time and column inches, but it’s worth noting that it does have a few things going for it. One of these is a beautiful Big Dumb Sci-Fi Idea in the form of The Fall, a giant elevator right through the centre of the earth that connects Britain and The Colony. It’s kind of goofy, and completely impossible according to our current understanding of physics and engineering, but it’s a big, cool gadget, and the second its introduced, you just know that it’s going to play into the climax of the film somehow. It’s a thematic echo of the  1990 film’s Big Dumb Sci-Fi idea, the Martian atmosphere-generating machine, a concept no more plausible, and one of the few instances where screenwriters Mark Bomback and Kurt Wimmer veer away from the source material to good effect.
            However, the most enjoyable – the most surprisinglyenjoyable, we should say – is Kate Beckinsale’s performance as Lori. The rest of the cast are satisfactory without being impressive; Farrell does all that’s required of him, Cranston gives good villain, and Jessica Biel and Bill Nighy, who crop up as the requisite love interest and the saintly leader of the good guys, respectively, don’t disgrace themselves, even if you could plug pretty much anyone into their places in the film and get much the same result. Beckinsale, on the other hand, seems to be really having fun here, and gets the majority of the film’s best moments. This is largely due to the script having the good sense to conflate the role of Lori with that of Richter, the evil henchman played by Michael Ironside in the original; here, Beckinsale is the major threat that Farrell’s Quaid contends with, which is a nice, quasi-feminist variation on the usual. Having said that, we shouldn’t discount the fact Wiseman built his career on his ability to frame Beckinsale’s lithe form and porcelain scowl, so making her look good must be second nature by now.
            Wiseman is also a competent, if uninspired, director of action – or at the very least, his second unit crew are. Recall ’12rarely stops for breath, and the chase and fight sequences are consistently propulsive and kinetic, while at the same time being just this side of uninspired. It’s the craftsmanship on display here that leverages the film up into the realm of the acceptable. There are gunfights, fistfights, car chases, foot chases, jumps, falls, crashes – all the usual stuff. It’s all mounted handsomely enough, and Wiseman, at least, knows what a tripod is for, which puts him at least a few lengths ahead of some of his contemporaries.
            No, the big problem with Recall ’12 isn’t the action that fills it, it’s the milieu that action moves through. It might sound disingenuous to accuse a remake of being unoriginal, but the frequent call-backs to Verhoeven’s film – the three-breasted hooker, the new riff on the old body horror “removing the bug” scene – aren’t the issue. The issue is that Recall ’90, like so many other science fiction films, looks like another movie. One that’s eight years older than Recall ’90. One that’s also based on a Philip K. Dick story.
            Total Recall looks like Blade Runner.
            It’s hard to imagine anything more redundant than a nostalgic science fiction film, and yet here we are: it’s thirty years later, and we’re still living in The House That Ridley Built. It’s almost as though production design as an artform just stopped dead in its tracks after Blade Runner was released, and even those sci-fi films that don’t mimic it are only avoiding doing so because they want to crib from 2001 instead. Wiseman takes it further than most, though, “homaging” so many elements that it’s pretty obvious which Dick adaptation he’d have rather been remaking.
            Rainy, overcrowded urban landscape? Check.
            Neon, neon, neon? Check.
            Noticeably large Asian population? Check.
            High tech revolvers instead of semi-auto pistols? Check.
            Flying cars? Check.
            Transparent raincoat? Check.
            Existential revelation while noodling on the piano? Oh, you better believe it’s a check.
            There may even have been a light-up umbrella or two in the background. The similarities are both numerous and obvious. It speaks to an endemic problem with many younger filmmakers currently working in the industry: the desire not just to be inspired by the films they love, but to recreate them. Consider Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Consider pretty much everything that Zack Snyder has ever done. Consider Total Recall. They’re members of a generation of directors with an incredible grasp of the technical aspects of filmmaking, but only the most superficial understanding of theme, character, and story (to be fair, we may be being a bit harsh on Singer, but whatever – Superman Returns is the ur-example of the problem). Their works are all broadly similar: overly concerned with not just style for its own sake, but with aping the style of the past, mildly distracting rather than truly entertaining, and bereft of any real meaning.
            Which sums up Total Recall almost perfectly.

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