It doesn’t forget its roots. It simply overwrites them with some new memories.
STARRING: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy
2012, 118 min, Directed by: Len Wiseman
There’s a big unintentional laugh at the start of Total Recall when the name of the production company appears. It is “Original Film.” This is, of course, anything but an original film. It is a remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie. Indeed, while eliminating the Mars plotline and keeping all the action here on Earth, there are so many nods to the earlier film that this is as much an homage as a remake.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s Nebula Award winning story “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale,” this version faced the same problem as the 1990 movie: the short story is unfilmable. It’s a brilliant piece of science fiction but it largely takes place in the protagonist’s head as the implanted memories of his fake adventures keep uncovering suppressed memories of his real ones. So, as before, the filmmakers have taken some basic concepts and ideas and gone their own way. The result is a slam bang action film with just enough of Dick’s “reality breakdown” elements to keep things interesting.
Colin Farrell stars as Douglas Quaid, a bored assembly line worker a hundred years from now where livable space on Earth has been reduced to Great Britain (where the elites live) and Australia (dubbed “the Colony” and a supplier of cheap labor). This is already an improvement because you can see why he would be frustrated and dissatisfied with his life in a way that never quite made sense with Schwarzenegger. Of course his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is gorgeous but things are not what they seem.
Douglas goes to a company named Rekall to get implanted memories about a spy adventure only to discover that he really is a spy. Or is this part of the fantasy? Is he working for the dictator Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) or for the rebel leader Matthias (Bill Nighy)? Lori turns out to be an agent of Cohaagen and suddenly Douglas is on the run from Lori, robot security forces, and clues that he’s left for himself that make no sense. The arrival of Melina (Jessica Biel) – a woman he’s dreams about but doesn’t recall meeting – just makes things more complicated.
Director Len Wiseman (who happens to be married to Beckinsale and has directed her in the Underworld series) and his collaborators draw on many sources for their inspiration, creating an environment that owes much to Blade Runner, another Dick-inspired film. There are also numerous nods to the original movie including a three-breasted woman Douglas encounters and a scene where his co-worker (Bokeem Woodbine) tries to convince him that the reality he is experiencing is, in fact, a dream.
This is not deep dish science fiction, like Blade Runner or Gattaca, but neither was the original. There are some fun action sequences and some imaginative invention with transportation devices including a chase scene with maglev cars. There’s also “the Fall,” a tube through the Earth that allows commuting between the two surviving land masses. Farrell is an effective hero, while Beckinsale is clearly having a blast as the heavy allowing Biel to provide sympathetic contrast.
Total Recall doesn’t forget its roots. It simply overwrites them with some new memories.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.