Director: Len Wiseman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy
The saying goes: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That may be true, but flattery will only get you so far. 2012’s “Total Recall” remake at least recognizes this and only imitates the original 1990 film to a point. The result is a very different plot with enough callbacks to make fans of the original exclaim “Aha!” when something familiar appears. This ends up working, at different points, both in the remake’s favor and to its detriment. The plot being condensed to one that takes place strictly on Earth, several characters are excluded. You’d think that would supply the lead actors with more fleshed out roles than their 1990 counterparts. With only one exception, you’d be wrong. The action itself is mostly pretty good, if extraordinarily tame in comparison to the gorefest of its source material. You see, “Total Recall” is more an adaptation of the previously filmed version than of the Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” An adaptation of an adaptation, if you prefer.
Thanks to chemical warfare, by the end of the 21st century, we’ve rendered the entire planet uninhabitable save for two areas: the United Federation of Britain and the Colony (Australia). Sorry, America… looks like you’re screwed. Lowly factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) has been experiencing dreams of being a secret agent. He hears of a place called Rekall, a company that sells false memories of vacations to other worlds, and is very interested in their secret agent program, particularly if it means a trip to Mars. Already bothered by the slow pacing of the opening to this film, I couldn’t believe my eyes when Rekall appeared less like a high tech facility and more like an opium den. Before he can be implanted, a scan of his brain shows that he has in fact been (and is presumed to still be) a secret agent. Confused, Quaid barely has time to think before UFB agents burst through the door and kill all the Rekall employees. Defending himself with instincts he didn’t realize he possessed, Quaid guns down each agent in rapid succession.
I was about write the movie off as a total lost cause half an hour in, when it suddenly regained my interest. As in the previous version, Quaid’s wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale) attacks him when he gets home, explaining that he’s not who he thinks he is and that she had only just met him six weeks ago. This part interested me because Kate Beckinsale expresses Lori’s 180 degree shift in attitude not just with her actions, but with her accent as well. As Quaid’s soft-spoken spouse, Beckinsale had adopted an American accent, but when the time comes for Lori’s character change, Beckinsale reverts back to her normal English accent. In addition, it becomes apparent quite quickly that the character of Richter from the 1990 film has been merged with that of Lori, as she is the one to give chase when Quaid escapes her attempts to murder him in their home.
Not at her best, although still good for eye candy, is Jessica Biel with her take on the character of Melina. Unlike the Rachel Ticotin version, this Melina does not appear half as strong-willed, nor do we get as much of a sense of the past shared by Quaid and Melina. This leaves Jessica Biel with little else to do but look pretty, fire guns, and need rescuing from Quaid (which, I’ll grant you, are all things that were characteristic of Melina the first time around). More fun is Bryan Cranston as Cohagen, originally played by Ronny Cox. Cranston’s Cohagen gets more personally involved in his hunt for the Rebels’ leader, Mathias (Bill Nighy, played by Marshall Bell as Kuato the psychic mutant in the 1990 version). This part of his story arc I approve of very much, even if it does ultimately lead to an embarrassingly one-sided fight between him and Quaid.
When it all comes down to it, the real reason to watch “Total Recall” (2012) is Kate Beckinsale. Director Len Wiseman (Beckinsale’s husband) has seen to that. He seems to have built Lori up as an even more credible threat to Quaid than Cohagen, an amazing feat since Cohagen’s endgame is intended to be the destruction of the Colony. Beckinsale is not known for playing villains, and it’s clear from the moment that Lori turns against Quaid that she relished every moment of the opportunity. There’s nothing Oscar-worthy or especially outstanding about her work here, other than the fact that she is able to pick this movie up, dust it off and send it rolling after those disasterous first 30 minutes. She can’t make up for the lack of an epic score. Harry Gregson-Williams is no Jerry Goldsmith.
Kate Beckinsale’s presence almost makes up for the annoying, J.J. Abrams-style lens flares that intrude throughout. Motion pictures are, of course, a very visual experience, and anything impeding that experience is unwarranted. I can handle the shaky cam style of film (to an extent), but I cannot abide lens flares, especially the deliberate kind. Stylistically, they make little sense to me. Why bother showing an image if you’re going to include a foreign light source that completely blocks said image from the view of the human eye? As much visuals as “Total Recall” has going on in almost every scene, those lens flares present a terrible distraction.
Trying not to dive too deeply into detail about the ending, I will say that, although it dumps the implausible world changing finale on Mars (in part by leaving the action on Earth), it also seems to lose the philosophical angle for a somewhat more straightforward conclusion. Maybe I missed something, but the ambiguity of dream vs. reality doesn’t seem to concern this Douglas Quaid as it did the original. The only ambiguity I see here is in my own reaction to the movie. I love me some Kate Beckinsale, but I miss much of what made the original fun: the soundtrack, the one-liners, the dark humor, Lori repeatedly striking Quaid in his nether regions, and of course Mars. Still, if Paul Verhoeven’s brand of ultra violence doesn’t work for you, then Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” (2012) may be more to your liking.