Total Recall is one of the most purely entertaining goofball adrenaline rushes ever made.
Combining Arnold Schwarzenegger’s one-liners and ass-kickery with Paul Verhoeven’s camp comedy sensibility, Rob Bottin’s stunning practical make up effects wizardry and all three collaborators’ deep love for ultra-violence made for sci-fi/action magic. While it may merely be dumb fun that barely scratches the surface of the mind-fuck potential of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” that fun is in such ludicrously rich supply and dripping with entrails that Total Recall has to be named one of the finest films of the summer. What’s that? That’s the old Total Recall? Oh, my mistake. I’d better take a look at the new one. Give me a second. Ok, I’m back. Forget everything I just said except for the word “dumb.” Total Recall 2.0: This Time With Colin Farrell is a pure-by-the-numbers blockbuster that manages to strip away even more of the potential of the original concept and makes the Arnie version look like a masterpiece in comparison. Sure the effects are impressive, but what blockbuster has bad special effects anymore? Unless you’ve somehow managed to miss the original film until now, the only thing on your mind when you leave the theater will be “what was the point of that?” The answer seems to be, “well, I guess it will make money.”
Gone are the strange and evocative mutants who worked slave laborers and rented out their naughty bits in the last version as well as all the gore, humor, and charm. Instead the movie takes place entirely on earth, specifically on an earth that has become so polluted only two areas that can sustain life remain and are located on opposite sides of the planet. The poor live on one side where it always rains and the culture is a peculiar mix of North American and Asian (you know, like that other Philip K. Dick movie Blade Runner only not as good). Every morning they have to commute to the other side of the planet in a superspeed elevator to work in factories for the rich in a land of magnetic flying cars and sleek perpetual advertising that covers nearly every surface (you know, like that other Philip K. Dick movie Minority Report, only not as good).
Colin Farrell plays a poor worker who slaves away building robots in a factory, yet is somehow married to the always beautiful Kate Beckinsale (don’t ask). He gets so frustrated with his medial existence that he decides to try out a new service called Rekall that implants memories of adventures for a virtual holiday (you know like that other Philip K. Dick movie Total Recall only…ugh, you get the point). Of course when he plugs in for a spy adventure in turns out that uh-oh, Farrell actually was a spy whose memory was erased! Suddenly his wife turns out to be an undercover agent who wants to kill him and the poor guy is caught up in a battle between have-not rebels led by Bill Nighy and have-plenty totalitarian villains led by Bryan Cranston. Good thing Farrell finds his old rebel girlfriend Jessica Biel to help out with the firefights and even better news that she’s in shape because from this point on the movie is a series of chase sequences. No need to waste time with all that intriguing “is it real, is it fantasy” Philip K. Dick material. We’ve got some tickets to sell here people!
Normally, I’d be thrilled to announce that the last hour or hour and a half of a blockbuster is all action. The trouble is that this time that action is orchestrated by director Len Wiseman who previously brought us the inexplicably successful Underworld movies and the only boring Die Hard movie (Live Free Or Die Hard). Wiseman knows his way around a slick action sequence and expensive effects (there’s a rooftop chase in the early going of Total Recall that is undeniably a friggin’ blast), he’s just never quite figured out how to properly string those sequences along into something resembling competent storytelling. Total Recall essentially has two tones: droning dialogue laying out the plot and frenetic action paced like the original film on fastforward. The first few times the movie pulls a 0-to-100 sudden action shift, it’s a blast. After a while, it gets dull and excessive. Set pieces pile ontop of eachother that seem so similar, it’s hard to care. The effects and design work is the best $150 million or so can by, but lacks any sense of personality or reason. Wiseman simply pulls designs out of previous Dick adaptations and The Fifth Element shamelessly. After a while every expensive set, CGI landscape, and action scene looks the same and you’ll be praying for a mercifully quick conclusion. The movie is just under two hours long, but feels like three. Boredom should never, ever enter into the equation of an action movie. But guess what?
The actors are all talented and stuck in such generic roles you’d never know it. Why Colin Farrell keeps getting cast in action movies is beyond me. When allowed to play eccentric character roles, he can be compelling. But just like Mark Wahlberg, ask him to be an action hero and all personality disappears. Action stars like say Schwarzenegger excelled in this area because their natural personalities could dominate roles that were merely a collection of one-liners and machine gun rampages. Actors like Farrell seem lost because there’s nothing resembling a human being on the page. Cranston and Nighy growl their way through brief, unmemorable roles and Biel also looks quite pretty while shooting people if that’s enough to make you buy a ticket. The actor who fares best in the whole mess is Kate Beckinsale, which I suppose is unsurprising given that she’s married to Wiseman and is essentially just playing her Underworld ice queen again.
If you haven’t worked it out by now, Total Recall really isn’t anything special. All the beats of the first movie are repeated (yes including that extra boob) and no attempt is made to further explore the reality/fantasy themes of the original since the dumb action version of this story has been told. Instead, Wiseman and co. just go through the motions one more time with the violence toned down to PG-13 and the practical effects replaced with CGI. I suppose the scale is bigger, but who cares? We’ve seen CGI sci-fi landscapes way too many times before. When the best you can say about a movie is “Kate Beckinsale is Ok” or “it sure looks expensive,” you know the flick is in trouble or at least that it’s directed by Len Wiseman. I guess that’s kind of the same thing at this point.