Total Recall Forgets Itself

MOVIE REVIEW: This review appeared on my previous blog. I repost it here for those who did not read the original.

“Get your ass to Mars”, Arnie famously said in the original Total Recall. Unfortunately in the most recent version of the movie there is no Arnie and no Mars, which by, my account are both negative points. The movie has received mostly negative reviews, but I didn’t think it was so bad – perhaps because my expectations were low. The reviews almost put me off, but as a sci-fi buff, I just had to see it.

The new Total Recall is directed by Len Wiseman and stars Colin Farrell, Kate Bechinsale, and Jessica Biel. It’s not a great movie, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

I suspect a large number of people going along to see the movie will have seen the original. Arnie’s version was fun, funny, fascinating and very, very violent. It was an action roller-coaster ride which kept you guessing the whole way. One of the obvious problems with the remake is that (for those who saw the original) you already know half the plot twists. I did write “half”, because the plot of the new version differs considerably. Instead of heading off the Mars, assembly line worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) heads to The Colony, which is on the other side of the world (which I later read is supposed to be Australia). Action takes place in the United Federation of Britain (UFB) after a great war has devastated most of the planet.

Just as in the original, Douglas Quaid decides to visit Rekall, a company that inserts artificial memories. But Quaid does not realise that he is not really himself: his identity has been changed. His previous self was a top spy, and the Rekall process attracts the attention of the authorities. Then Quaid is on the run… for the rest of the movie.

There are some great futuristic ideas on show in Total Recall. The most fascinating and well created is the gravity elevator, which takes residents of UFB to work in the Colony. This giant elevator travels right through the Earth’s core. There are moments of zero gravity when the elevator reaches the centre of the Earth.

Another fascinating technological “innovation” is a phone embedded inside the skin of Quaid’s hand. When placed on a, window, it creates a monitor, which operates as a computer or video screen.

I loved the sets used in the movie. They are strongly reminiscent of another Phillip K Dick movie adaptation: Bladerunner. There is a strong gothic-oriental theme to many scenes. The city-scapes are realistic, detailed and believable. A chase across city roof-tops is also reminiscent of a scene from Bladerunner.

There is obvious homage paid to other sci-fi movies (maybe too many). Scenes involving a robot army are reminiscent of The Clone Wars (Star Wars). Several action scenes remind one of The Matrix. Another scene involves Quaid and Melina (Jessica Biel) in a car chase involving flying cars, which has already been done in The Fifth Element.

One somewhat disappointing feature of the new Total Recall is that it fails to recapture the humour of the original. In fact it doesn’t even try, and the result is that the movie is relentlessly serious all the way through. Perhaps the only humour (that I noted) was a very subtle thing. When Quaid arrives at customs on The Colony, the camera focuses in on a middle-aged woman. In the original movie, a similar scene sees the woman suddenly begin to contort; then she rips her face off, and Arnie appears from within – then starts blowing people away. It is classic Arnie: violent, fun and funny all at the same time. In the current movie the actor appears to be the same woman (though I’m not certain), only the camera then pans across to another man, whose face begins to shift – an electronic disguise – before the same mayhem ensues. It’s a slightly shifty move by the director, and fans of the original will appreciate the “gag”.

Arnold Swarzenegger has always been classed as a B-grade actor of limited ability. However I couldn’t help but reflecting on his talent for comic timing and one-liners while watching the new movie. It was something that really added to the first movie, and was noticeably absent from the current version. Who can forget “Consider dat a divoorce!”, after Arnie shoots his wife in the head (Sharon Stone) – she’s actually a spy. Or “Screw you!” as he sinks a mining drill through the chest of an antagonist. We really shouldn’t laugh, but we do.

The greatest weakness of the new movie is that it relies too much on action scenes and chases of various kinds. And there are just too many of them. Meaningful dialogue is largely absent, as are meaningful ideas. One notable difference from the original occurs when Quaid reaches the Resistance base and meets the rebel leader, Matthias. A conversation ensues in which Quaid laments that he does not know who he is because he has lost his memory. Matthias tells him that the truth of who he can only be found in what he is now; and that the past cannot truly reveal who he is. In the original, the rebel leader on Mars tells Quaid a different answer: “A man is what he does”. I found this to be a very poignant change, and perhaps reflects a shift in the way we understand ourselves. Twenty years ago we were more results-driven, today – perhaps – we are more present-orientated and reflective.

Total Recall begins strongly. I found the first thirty minutes to be very engaging. But the rest of the movie fails to sustain that level of interest.

Ultimately the new Total Recall fails to explore its own themes deeply. Director Len Wiseman chooses action over ideas. And all the great sci-fi movies are, in the end, about ideas. No exceptions. I give it three stars out of five.



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