Total Recall is a two-hour-long chase scene that leaves you breathless. I wish I could say that’s a recommendation. Please note that I don’t.
The picture is a remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, which was likewise an inflation of a very short 1966 sci-fi story by Philip K. Dick. Dick’s knotty tale involves a man who longs to go to Mars, and also to be a super-spy. Knowing he’ll never be able to do those things, he decides to allow realer-than-real memories of them to be implanted in his brain. In the process of having this done he discovers that he has already been to Mars, and that he already is a super-spy. Brain-twisting reality complications ensue.
The new movie, directed by Len Wiseman (founder of the tedious Underworld franchise), tosses out the earlier film’s Mars element and ladles in some brazen cinematic appropriations—the trashed-out urban rainscape of Blade Runner, the deposit box filled with cash and passports from The Bourne Identity, a herd of hard-shelled Star Wars-style storm troopers, even a passing bit of weightless business lifted from 2001. If only Wisemen had borrowed some of those movies’ style and fun, or at least coherence.
The original movie looks dated today, but it still offers some snazzy pre-digital effects and of course Schwarzenegger’s enjoyable self-parodying performance. Wiseman’s more expensive approach surrounds the nonstop running-around with floor-to-ceiling CGI, buttressed with homelier matte and modeling effects; and his star, Colin Farrell (wasted in this clamorous claptrap), is buried in all the overwrought technology.
Farrell takes over the Schwarzenegger role of Douglas Quaid, a factory drone in a post-apocalyptic world composed of only two habitable areas: the prosperous United Federation of Britain and, on the other side of the world, the grubbier Colony (possibly Australia, hard to say). Quaid and his fellow workers commute from the UFB to their jobs in the Colony in a fantastical subway that takes them straight down through the Earth’s core (not the broiling experience you might expect). Quaid is a poor man living in a photogenic slum, but he does have a beautiful wife named Lori (Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman’s wife and the star of his Underworld films). Still, he yearns for a more exciting life. So he makes an appointment at the Rekall clinic to be fitted out with synthetic memories of having been a top espionage agent—a spy who defected from the UFB regime of the evil Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, of Breaking Bad) to join a resistance movement led by one Matthias (Bill Nighy, another overqualified Underworld vet).
As before, everything goes wrong. After single-handedly wiping out a dozen government troopers, Quaid rushes home. There he discovers that Lori…well, she’s not really who he thought she was. After a wild fight scene, the chasing begins. Quaid is suddenly scooped up by a Colony resistance fighter named Melina (heavily holstered Jessica Biel). There’s a long pursuit, followed by much more pursuing, finally leading to the Colony itself, where the pursuits continue. (Unfortunately, the only one appearing to enjoy all of this is Beckinsale, who’s in top form throughout in regulation skin-tight pants.)
A lot of the digital action effects—like the long chase-battle on a hovercraft freeway, and the long chase-battle in a plunging elevator—are executed with a great deal of craft; and even the familiar soggy environments are certainly atmospheric. But there’s so much of this stuff, and so much of it is disorientingly ill-defined, that a haze of fakery soon gathers around the proceedings, and never disperses.
Wiseman has eliminated a number of memorable characters who appeared in the first film (although the three-breasted hooker survived the cut). And while he has added new dialogue, some of it almost defies utterance. (“The past is a construct of the mind,” one character says. “The heart wants to live in the present.”)
The movie wasn’t screened for the media until two days before it opened—almost always a bad sign. One can imagine that the studio knows it has a dog on its hands and is just hoping the picture can hoover up some money in its opening weekend, before The Bourne Legacy takes over the box office next Friday. Raise your wallet if you’d like to help out.