Total Recall is hella pretty. It has pretty sets designed by Patrick Tatapoulos that create either a bright, shiny future with lots of things that go "whizzzz!", or a damp, broken future that still looks just nifty as shit and way expensive. It has pretty cinematography by Paul Cameron, who finessed a particular brand of gritty-sleek visuals in his work with director Tony Scott, and has brought the basic essence of that style, in a much reduced and slicker form, to this super-moody sci-fi picture. It has pretty people, Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, strutting about and being hot all the time, and Farrell and Beckinsale open the movie by being in just a little bit of clothing as they roll about on a bed, making out, for which I express my sincere gratitude to director Len Wiseman, Beckinsale's husband.
It's good that Total Recall is so pretty, because there's nothing else. It's not even on the film's list of priorites to be as thematically curious as Paul Verhoeven's 1990 original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, nor is it as exciting of a tech-noir mindfuck; considering what a commanding majority of the film's running time is made up of large-scale action scenes and chases in CGI environments, it's disastrous that only one of them is any good (it involves fighting in and on multiple faces of cubes flying through space, and uses all three dimensions in ways that few fight scenes think about); and though Farrell has enough of a perpetually confused Everyman quality about him that's there even when - as here - he's not really doing much "acting", to sneak by, Beckinsale and Biel are both terrible even on the adjusted scale that we have to apply to their careers, and so we have at best one adequate character, really closer to one-half of an adequate character, instead of the three good strong characters the movie wants to have. For, of all the things that the new movie would try to do to distinguish itself from the original, the one that's probably the most unexpected is to increase its focus on character psychology. Maybe this is what you do when you have a lead actor who isn't Arnold Schwarzenegger, I don't know. But I do know that when you want to have a futurist mindfuck action movie and focus a lot on the dynamics of the characters involved, you had damned well better make sure to treat the characters with added respect and attention. Startlingly, the director of Underworld does not succeed in doing this.
The plot, in its broadest strokes, is close to the same thing as Total Recall, though it takes another step away from the source material, Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale": unhappy blue-collar worker Douglas Quaid (Farrell) is plagued by nightmares, and in the hopes of knocking them out of his head, he visits Rekall, a company that can implant fake memories and life experiences. Unfortunately, Quaid is unable to go on his desired Rekall adventure, being a super-spy, because it turns out that he is a super-spy, and his memory of that time in his life was wiped. Also, his wife Lori (Beckinsale) is a government agent assigned to live with him to keep his memories well and truly buried. So now Quaid has to run from the law, piecing together clues he left himself in his previous life to find out who he is, and what this has to do with the rebel cell led by a mysterious figure named Matthias (Bill Nighy), and the pretty rebel girl Melina (Biel) who happens to have featured so prominently in his recurring nightmare.
If the broad strokes are largely identical, the small details have been changed at almost every turn, and for no obvious reason than to give the new film some possible excuse for existing beyond "we thought we could make money from it" (they thought wrong). Even before showing half-nude Farrell and half-nude Beckinsale cavorting, the film's opening gesture is, unpromisingly, an information dump, complete with a transparent globe to help explain the pointlessly difficult situation that serves as the film's backstory: near the end of the 21st Century, biological warfare rendered all of the planet besides northwest Europe and the southeast corner of England, and the whole of Australia. Because travel across the Earth's surface is now impractical, all transit between the industrial and commercial center of the United Federation of Britain, and the continent-sized pool of slave labor now called The Colony is done via a huge elevator, the Fall, that travels directly through the Earth's molten core. There are nothing but reasons that this idea is colossally fucking stupid, even before we arrive at the fact that a straight line from Britain through the Earth's core does not touch Australia (it should be several hundred miles SSE of New Zealand, in fact). But it permits the admittedly fun popcorn movie image of a commuter vehicle that enters a zero gravity zone and has to rotate halfway around as it passes through the core, so on the logic that all Total Recall has going for it is looking fancy-ass, this is one of the best things the movie has to offer.
The rebels, from The Colony, just want to live free; the horrid governor of UFB, Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, finally hitting the point where taking every movie role that he can get his hands on has backfired) wants to send his robot army to kill the Colonists to make more space for the UFB folk to live. Something about Quaid's mysterious unremembered past has to do with the personal vendetta between these two largely unseen men, and when we find out what it is, it is damnably upsetting for lacking the twist of the original movie that before being wiped, Quaid was actually a really nasty piece of work; on the logic that we don't, culturally, like anti-heroes as much as we used to, when Quaid finds out that he used to be a hero, that's all there is to it.
The famous central tension of the original movie, the question of whether or not what we're watching is real, or if it's just the increasingly uncontrolled fantasy that Rekall plugged into Quaid's mind, remains present; there'd have been literally no reason at all to remake the movie and drop that particular thread. But it is not developed in nearly such interesting or complex ways, despite most of the exact same story beats showing up in roughly the same places, and while the film is still, ultimately, ambiguous, it's pretty obvious that Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have a definite opinion on the subject and don't mind if we agree with them. Because even the intellectual complexity of a blow-things-up Schwarzenegger picture from his most reductive phase is apparently deemed out-of-bounds for a filmgoing populace that somehow found a way to make Inception a huge box office hit.
Anyway, the plot is thin and boring, the characters are thin and boring, the ideas are thin and boring. The only real value to the movie lies in looking at it: unlike the Verhoeven movie, which went rather far out of its way not to indulge in too much speculation about what the future would look like, Wiseman's take on the property is to let production design do virtually all of the work of making the film anything whatsoever. It's obvious to the point of dysfunction that the intent was to make a movie that doesn't so much reference as copy Blade Runner and Minority Report, the two most prominent and aesthetically important movies taken from Dick's writing; but hell, Blade Runner looks good, and seeing a film that wants to do nothing but be exactly like Blade Runner but with larger, CGI locations is perfectly satisfying as far as pure homage goes.
The film's ideas of what life in the future will be like is where it starts to fall apart: this takes place in the early 22nd Century, don't forget, with a good eight decades of further development before society collapses, and other than the rather functionally dubious idea of magnet cars on suspended tracks (in the future, apparently, everything is F-Zero), the most "ooh, the future!" notion that Wiseman and co. come up with is finding all sorts of new surfaces to locate built-in iPads. Because in a century, we'll still just barely be catching up with 2018, apparently.
Oh, and lens flares. Wiseman and Cameron love them some lens flares, though they have no other reason for shitting them out all over everything, as far as I can tell, than because somebody on the production team liked Star Trek. And because you can either have a dark, grainy "Nolan" future, or a sleek, plasticky, lens-flaring "Abrams" future, the filmmakers had to pick. I mean, sure, they could have actually gone to the effort of doing something original, meaningful, creative, and enjoyable on any level to watch, but that would have taken, like, hard work.
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