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Total Recall (2012)

| August 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

The first two things that you notice about the remake of Total Recall: There is no trip to Mars and there are no mutants.  The original 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film centered its plot within a Martian colony inhabited by mutated humanoids living in a place both fascinating and horrifying.  Without a cameo by The Red Planet, this new movie stays earthbound and becomes just a chase picture.  Without mutants, how then do you explain the presence of a three-breasted prostitute?  Not necessary, but we appreciate it.

The 1990 film was, of course, one of Schwarzenegger’s best-loved films.  It too, was a long chase picture but it had some flair, some goofy comedy, some sense of purpose.  This new film is dead serious.  It is all chase and very little personality, just as we feel that we are getting close to the characters having a personality, they are interrupted by gunfire, and we’re off and running.

Both this film, and the 1990 original are based on a classic 1966 short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick, whose work also inspired Blade Runner.  The movie takes place at the other end of this century when the air has become so polluted that most of the earth is uninhabitable.  Only two areas of the earth are able to sustain human life, one is Western Europe, now called The United Federation of Britain.  The other is the former Australia, now simply called The Colony.  People get from one area to the other via a vertical subway train that moves through the earth.  How they keep from getting incinerated at the core is never explained.

A soulless government runs the UFB, which has packed so many people into Western Europe that it has become dangerously overdeveloped and overpopulated.  There is no longer a sense of architecture, only buildings that seem to be built without a plan.  Located within The Colony is a resistance movement bent on overthrowing the oppressive government.  The leader of the UFB, a bull-head politician named Cohaagan (Bryan Cranston), is developing a plan to squash the resistance with his robotic invasion force.  We see this conflict mostly in brief glimpses on television screens.  We hear about it, but never get involved in it.

Within the forbidding landscape of the UFB is Douglas Quaid (Colin Ferrell), a genial good-egg who is married to a beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale) and works as a construction worker, building Cohaagan’s security droids.  He is plagued by the fact that his life seems to have no meaning, no purpose, no excitement.  That’s why an ad for a place called Rekall peaks his interest.

Rekall allows its clients the experience of having memories implanted in their brains that will make their wildest fantasies come true.  Against the advice of his best buddy Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), Doug goes to Rekall.  Strapped to a chair and about to be put under, it is suddenly revealed that he isn’t who he thinks he is.  His memory has been replaced by another.  His whole life as he knows it is a lie, even his seven year marriage.  That’s the film’s first 20 minutes.  The rest of the picture is one long and exhausting chase.

For a picture like this to work, we have to have characters to care about.  Ferrell is a good actor but his role consists of so much shooting and running and jumping that we never get to know him.  There is none of the fear and panic and confusion that you could imagine going on in his mind, or that Schwarzenegger brought to the original.  At Ferrell’s side is a resistance agent named Melina (Jessica Biel) whose entire role is to run behind Ferrell and save him when not being saved herself.  The deeper mystery of the original story, which toyed around with whether or not this was all a dream, is contained in one effective scene in which Harry tries to convince Doug that he is asleep in a chair at Rekall and that all he needs to do to wake up is shoot Melina.  After that, we continue the chase and the whole dream plot is more or less abandoned.

Without characters to care about, our attention focuses on the special effects, which are expertly crafted if not all that memorable.  Do you remember the Schwarzenegger film?  Remember the X-ray machine?  Remember the fingernail polish pen?  The “two weeks” lady?  The Johnnycab?  Those were exciting special effects because they were at the service of creating a future world of ideas and possibilities.  Those effects were so remarkable that the Academy decided that year to forgo the Visual Effects category at the Oscars and give the film the award out right.

This new film isn’t nearly that special.  There are some impressive sights.  Most of the technology is made up of digital holograms and implants, the most impressive being a phone that is implanted into the palm of your hand that can be answered by touching a pane of glass.  Another is a skyway packed with flying cars which offers up the film’s most impressive action scene.  But there is so much to the effects and the set decoration and so little to the story that you feel that this was a wasted opportunity.  It is a well-made film, but ultimately it is a film that you will – I’ll say it – soon forget.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.