The new version of Total Recall boasts far superior special effects than the 1990 version starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in Colin Farrell a better actor than Schwarzenegger as the leading man.
But when you get past that, the new movie is just an unsurprising replay of the earlier plot, with an unbearable load of cliches and faux-deep dialogue, fights and chases which seem incoherent when visible through the often murky lighting, and stylistic flourishes borrowed heavily from Blade Runner and — with one element, at least — Star Wars.
Now, those people unfamiliar with the previous film or with the Philip K. Dick story that inspired both productions (as well as a 1999 TV series) may find the new movie an amusing addition to the catalog of Big Dumb Action Movies. That subgenre, which I have long embraced, includes films that are not great in most respects but still amuse in their excessive, bloody way. Only for me, and especially after revisiting the earlier movie, the new Total Recall does not achieve the amusing craziness of its predecessor. Even with a Bryan Cranston performance that would have fit in any number of BDAMs, the new Total Recall is not so much endearingly dumb as glumly stupid.
The new movie takes place in a future where most of the Earth is uninhabitable; the remaining livable space is in and around Great Britain and in the Colony, the region that used to be Australia; a massive underground transport moves people between the two locations in a matter of minutes.
Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a worker in the Colony who is troubled by a recurring dream in which he is in jeopardy. But he is not the only one looking to his dreams in a world that is dirty, dark and plagued by terrorist acts.
So Douglas goes to Rekall, a company that implants memories of great moments and fantasy adventures in people in order to provide a little relief. Only Quaid discovers that there is more in his head than harmless dreams — and that his idea of what is reality is way, way off the mark.
Following that discovery are gunfights, chases, confrontation, plot twists and, of course, the fate of millions hanging in the balance. Quaid’s wife (Kate Beckinsale) proves especially dangerous, and relentless in pursuit (although it has never seemed to occur to her that she might be able to see and fight better without her face framed by long, styled hair).
Quaid gains an ally in an anti-goverment rebel (Jessica Biel) — or does he? Quaid is at odds with the leader of Britain (Cranston) — or is he? Total Recall wants to keep the audience guessing as much as Quaid does, but it’s not very good at it — and fans of the earlier film are always going to be several beats ahead of the characters.
As I said, this film looks better than the earlier one, as you would expect with more than 20 years of additional technology. With a style reminiscent of Blade Runner (also based on a Dick story), the new movie is less glossy than Schwarzenegger’s, certainly not as cartoonish as director Paul Verhoeven made the previous film — and definitely less fixated on phallic imagery often used in Total Recall.
But Verhoeven knew how to make funny, weird fantasy films (see also the original Robocop), where the new rehash — directed by Len Wiseman — is grimly humorless.
Farrell wants us to see Quaid in real terms, as someone genuinely vulnerable, but those performance notes are soon enough washed away in the mishmash of action sequences and forward-moving plot. Cranston, who has been dazzling audiences of late in Breaking Bad, is much more in tune with the excess and absurdity of the story; he not only invokes Ronny Cox’s character in the previous film, he made me wish that Cranston instead of Farrell was playing Quaid,
Now, that would have been a fun movie.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter (as @rheldenfels) and Facebook. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.