In the opening seconds of the Total Recall remake, the words “original film” appear on the screen, referring to a production company calling itself Original Film. So before it even begins, the movie delivers its first inadvertent joke.
Original this thing is not, and necessary it’s not, either. Then again, how many big-budget do-overs can be described as strictly necessary? Though director Len Wiseman’s film is more hectic than inspired, it certainly moves. It’s a straight-ahead PG-13 action bash, a goodly distance from director Paul Verhoeven’s madly grotesque and R-rated 1990 version starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Like that one, this one is a project based on a short story (“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”) by the dystopian fantasist Philip K. Dick. The best thing about Wiseman’s movie is the tactile quality of its imagined urban environments. Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos is the auteur here, offering rain-drenched cities built straight up into the sky. These relate strongly to the worlds brought to cinematic fruition in Blade Runner and Minority Report, which also came from short stories by Dick.
Like those films, the Total Recall remake traffics in notions of duality, riddles of identity and, more to the point, hover cars. Hover cars! Honestly, what’s cooler? Very little, that’s what. Total Recall may depend on memory implants and ominous surveillance techniques to imperil our hero, played by Colin Farrell, but that stuff gets chucked out the window (just like Farrell, who’s perpetually leaping off a balcony or a ledge and surviving yet another ridiculous fall) for the film’s most gratifying stretch, an expansion of the hover car chase in Minority Report.
The future may be a grind, and global chemical warfare has reduced the globe to two lousy entities, the United Federation of Britain (UFB) and the Colony, previously known as Australia. But honestly, it’s a good trade, given the hover cars. Verhoeven’s version took the story to Mars and back again. Like the Dick story, the remake remains an earthbound affair.
Farrell’s character, Quaid, lives a decent if nightmare-plagued life; nocturnally, he dreams about running from bad guys alongside Jessica Biel. His wife is played by Kate Beckinsale. (Beckinsale and Wiseman are wife and husband and previous collaborators on the Underworld films.) Quaid’s factory job lies on the other side of the world, in the Colony. Quaid’s daily commute involves taking The Fall, a massive rocket-type elevator that travels through the core of the Earth and out again in something like 20 minutes. The UFB chancellor (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad) schemes to put down a terrorist insurrection for good. Bill Nighy plays the head of the rebellion, which means it’s rebellion with an eccentric and slightly twitchy human face.
For the uninitiated, we’ll simply say Farrell’s life is not what it seems, and that first visit to the dream factory for a memory-implant vacation doesn’t go well. Beckinsale gets to toggle between two accents, and the talented and fiercely physical Biel’s musculature is more expressive than most of the dialogue. Wiseman shows minimal to moderate facility for shaping a complicated action sequence; what he has done, though, successfully, is turn the capital of UFB into a wonderful/horrible futuristic metropolis, something like London if London were built on a Rio hillside and then the hills were erased.
I wish the killing mattered more, and the human stakes were higher. (Much of the carnage is synthetic carnage, i.e., the shooting and dismembering of police “synthetics,” resembling clones from the George Lucas universe.) The synthetics march around in predictable patterns while one of the major characters struts around like an enraged supermodel. The movie marches in predictable formations as well. But when Biel’s rebel pulls over in her hover car and asks Farrell if he’d like a ride, your heart may sing as mine did.
Total Recall (PG-13) ★★★☆☆