Remake delivers loads of action and toys, but little else to give a new audience food for thought
The only laugh to be had in “Total Recall,” a ripsnorting sci-fi action extravaganza that starts well and works its way down to average, is in the opening credits, where we learn that the movie’s primary production company is called Original Film. Really? You’re giving us a remake of a 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger hit, which itself was based on a 1966 short story by the visionary dystopian Philip K. Dick, and that’s what you want to lead with?
Truth be told, there’s nothing at all original about the new “Total Recall.” But, for the first hour or so, you don’t mind. Colin Farrell is the film’s nominal star, playing a factory drone named Doug Quaid in a post-apocalyptic near future. Visiting Total Rekall, a company that implants fantasy memories — world domination, global fame, things like that — he discovers that his own memories have been erased and he’s actually a highly skilled resistance fighter. Schwarzenegger played the role with his usual mix of quips and brawn, but Farrell wants to get closer to the core idea of a normal schmo who realizes he’s not so normal. That approach might bear fruit if the movie slowed down long enough to let it. But director Len Wiseman — he’s responsible for the profitable, deeply silly “Underworld” series — has things to blow up and digital worlds to create.
The actual stars of this movie are the craftsmen and women, assembled by production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, who create a late-21st-century society of baroque, Asian-accented architectural chaos. The twin states of the United Federation of Britain and the Colony — what used to be called Australia — are all that’s left after chemical warfare has poisoned the rest of the planet, and “Total Recall” imagines them as the elitist yin and slummy yang of futuristic rot. The film’s vision owes everything to 1982’s “Blade Runner,” also based on a story by Dick, but that vision has been busted out into an astonishingly detailed, three-dimensional chess game. Even with the grimy palette of grays and browns decreed by Hollywood’s love affair with computer graphics — remember when movies had colors? — this is state-of-the-art stuff.
Which is to say that as Farrell’s Doug Quaid (or who he thinks is “Doug Quaid”) tears around the two territories pursued by bears — OK, by the synthetic robo-cops who work for dastardly UFB chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston in a tragic blond wig) — you’re seduced by the spaces he’s running through more than what he’s running from. The movie’s toys are equally choice: glowing cellphones implanted in people’s hands, holographic collars that allow the wearer to assume a new face, a prolonged chase sequence on the underside of a magnetic highway in the sky. The film’s characters travel from the Colony to the UFB via the Fall, a behemoth shuttle service that passes through the Earth’s core with a gravity-free zone in the middle. Ridiculous, but you can’t take your eyes off the screen.
Unfortunately, there’s this little business of a plot. As Doug reacquires his memories, he’s chased by Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who he thought was his wife and who is revealed to be an implacable agent for Cohaagen’s police state. In Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 version, Lori was played by Sharon Stone and was dispatched, with much glee, halfway through. Wiseman keeps the character around for much longer, and for good reason: Beckinsale is a mesmerizing combination of prettiness and power, and she’s the film’s only touch of wit — its stressed-out Terminatrix. (Not coincidentally, she’s also Mrs. Wiseman and the star of the “Underworld” films.)
“Total Recall” also stars Jessica Biel as Melina, Doug’s once and future freedom-fighting girlfriend, but it’s a mark of how little the movie cares about actual humans that she and Beckinsale are visually alike enough for a viewer to occasionally have trouble telling them apart. The peerless Bill Nighy turns up briefly as the leader of the rebels, but his gentle stoop signals embarrassment more than humility.
Where Dick’s original story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” bristled with ideas and provocations, and Verhoeven’s film remains pleasurably subversive (it’s good Schwarzenegger but it probably would have been a better movie without him), Wiseman’s remake slowly caves in to conventional genre thinking. The last act is a pro forma trudge through ticking grenade countdowns, and industrial-strength fireballs, and the world is saved once more, ho-hum. Even the matter of whether the movie is ultimately Doug’s fantasy as he lies dreaming in the Total Rekall offices is fumbled. There’s dramatic ambiguity and then there’s mud.
In the end, here’s the worst sin of this slick, high-octane memory play: It’s forgettable.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.