Whenever you’re remaking a much loved-film, the entire ordeal is always going to be controversial. In the span of just over a year, two of Paul Verhoeven’s cult sci-fi classics are getting the millennial treatment: a remake of RoboCop is currently in production while the new Total Recall is now out for everyone to enjoy.
While 1990’s Total Recall was based on a short story by Philip K Dick, the new version is actually a glossy reworking of Verhoeven’s film. Set in a pseudo-Orwellian future, it shows a world in which the last remaining global superpower is the ‘United Federation of Britain’. Lucky us. The super-shady government (led by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) has effectively forced the Earth’s poor to live on the other side of the world on the withering colony of Australia. In a nice little piece of science fiction invention, workers from the Colony commute to Britain everyday via an enormous lift that drops straight through the earth’s core. The people on the colonies are so poor that the only escape they have is through a service by the name of Rekall, in which they implant false memories to give you the impression that you’ve lived through the experience of a lifetime. If you can’t be a rock star or fly to Mars, you can remember it for a price.
Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a blue collar factory worker who goes to Rekall to deal with a recurring dream in which he’s a spy. (Apparently, therapy is no longer a thing in the future.) But before he can get his memories implanted, the facility is stormed by government soldiers and Quaid goes all Jason Bourne on their collective asses, systematically taking them out using hitherto unseen fighting abilities. Those of you who remember the Schwarzenegger original will know what happens next: Quaid discovers that he might not be Quaid at all but a government-operative-turned-freedom-fighter named Hauser!
Director Len Wiseman delivers the same aesthetic he brought to the Underworld films: glossy, grungy and full of lens flare. His vision of the future is actually rather stunning, with New London’s skyline made up of cities floating on top of older cities. In what has become a bit of a sci-fi cliché, the slums are designed to look a lot like the back streets of Hong Kong. It has almost become shorthand for futuristic squalor.
While he has brought a new look to Total Recall, Wiseman and his writers have also made sure to pay homage to the much-loved original. And by ‘pay homage’ we mean ‘recycle quotable lines and recreate entire scenes’. By remaking scenes from the original, we can only too clearly see the limits of Wiseman’s talents. In the original, Quaid attempts to sneak past a checkpoint disguised as a great big fat lady only for the plan to go south when security deviates from the normal script.
Verhoeven managed to craft a sequence that was strange, tense and darkly funny. Wiseman, on the other hand, rushes through this scene, using it to segue into another noisy gun battle. Of which there are a lot. In fact, the entire project is riddled with peculiar choices made by the film makers . In the early part of the story, Farrell is torn between two women: the one he’s married to and the one from his dreams. However, the two actresses who play those women are incredibly similar: Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel are both boringly beautiful brunettes. Why would Farrell’s character secretly fantasise about Biel when he’s sleeping next to someone almost identical?
We’re perhaps not being entirely fair to the film: there are plenty of nice touches throughout including the lift that goes through the earth and a foot chase that takes place through a labyrinth of lift shafts (this movie is literally obsessed with lifts). Plus, as we all know, any film can be improved by the addition of Bill Nighy or Bryan Cranston – and Total Recall has both of them! As a piece of production design, it can’t be denied that Total Recall is very beautiful indeed, owing much of its aesthetic to Minority Report and Blade Runner – two other well-known P.K. Dick adaptations.
Farrell plays a solid action hero even when the script doesn’t really give him much to work with. As we saw recently in Seven Psychopaths, he can be an incredibly funny leading man but the slightly pedestrian script never calls for it. The noticeable lack of humour in this version of Total Recall is perhaps where the film really falls down. Whereas the classic action films of the 80s and 90s had a great sense of joy and humour, Wiseman’s film tries too hard to be a conventional blockbuster.
But what it really boils down to it this: where the hell is Johnny Cab?