Have you ever been on a car trip and come across a college or local public station that digs up a novelty covers album? Like, I dunno, a bluegrass version of Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon?” And at first you'll be listening and think, huh, this is kind of fun. Then, about halfway though, you'll think, gee, I dunno, what's really the point of this? Then, by the end, you'll be shouting stop, stop, on the soul of Syd Barrett please make it stop! That is precisely what watching Len Wiseman's “Total Recall” is like.
The tune is the same - a blown-out action bonanza riffing on Philip K. Dick's (extremely) short story about memory, experience, Cartesian dualism, specious temporality and, to keep the intellectuals happy, high-speed chases and gun battles. The 1990 version directed by Paul Verhoeven is a winning mixture of bone-crushing action, heady sci-fi and seductive Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liners. This new version is true to the first in nearly all of its story beats, but is dressed up with modern day flash. The special effects are better (or at least more prominent) the action is faster (or at least there's much more of it) and the explosions are bigger. This isn't so much a bluegrass version so much as a louder and faster version.
The one major change is the setting. Douglas Quaid is no longer a mild-mannered (but muscular) construction worker dreaming of a trip to the politically volatile colony on Mars. This time we're on a dystopian future Earth where pollution and war have destroyed most of the world's livable space. The rich folk live in the United Federation of Britain, a giant city in the sky with lot and lots of elevators and people who, I suppose, have gotten over their fear of heights. The bulk of humanity lives in “The Colony,” a “Blade Runner”-esque slum that's a mix of rainwater, brutalist architecture and Asian signage. It's no fun!
Everyone there is miserable (you can tell because there are sleazy prostitutes in one scene!) and they all have to go work their stupid jobs in the UFB. To get there, you have to travel through “The Fall,” a big tube that connects the two sides of the planet. That's what Colin Farrell does, slaving away, manufacturing synthetic police droids.
He dreams of something bigger, of action, and the ads for “Rekall,” a memory-implantation service really strike a chord. He goes, but fails to tell them that he's actually a real spy (or is he?) and that trips the programming to go haywire and for everyone to start shooting one another.
Now Farrell must find out who he is, but Kate Beckinsale, the best thing in the movie and the only one who looks like she's having any fun, is hot on his tail. Farrell's journey of self-discovery leads him to lead the resistance movement toward some sort of freedom. Unlike the original it isn't about bringing air to the Martian landscape, but basically giving the citizens of The Colony an excuse for not showing up for work tomorrow.
To compare Wiseman and Farrell to Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger is a bit of a waste of time, but it is impossible not to. I guess that's what you get when your movie is all about basking in your memories. (Further dumb luck: the first title card on the screen is the production outfit “Original Film.” No shortage of chuckles at the critics' screening.) The fact of the matter is the original was much clearer of purpose, had action scenes that were far more visceral and was a fundamentally better piece of entertainment.
Part of the problem (apart from the dearth of fun) is that in this one we begin on the side of the oppressed. We begin with seeing that struggle, figuring out what Rekall is, plus exploring the new world of The Fall. The Rekall hook doesn't stand out quite as much, and the whole endeavor feels a little rushed.
Still, it isn't unwatchable – the buildings look cool, the fighting is fine, Farrell is likable, Beckinsale's a hoot and Jessica Biel, while hardly a master thespian, bats her eyelashes real well. But the movie just has nothing to offer. It has nothing new to say, despite shouting at the top of its voice. It's the same neo-Hans Zimmer music, the same lens flares, the same shot coverage of a gun battle of every forgettable summer flick. It takes a true hack like Len Wiseman to make you realize what a visionary Paul W.S. Anderson can be.
More depressing are the cute winks. Like the novelty cover band, Wiseman's “Total Recall” isn't just about fan service (three-breasted hookers, lines about Mars, an obese women visiting for "two weeks") but going through a checklist of “things you have to do if you do a 'Total Recall.'” Here's where he finds the video of himself. Here's where someone steps in to say it's all a hallucination. Arms ripped off by an elevator? Yeah, yeah, it's in there, too. But in the original, it was a man's arms. Here, a lifeless, nameless robot. I think that just about says it all, doesn't it?