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Review: Total Recall (2012)

Total Recall

Rating

Director
Len Wiseman
Screenplay
Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill (Short Story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick)
Length
118 min.
Starring
Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language

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Review
Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, when Arnold Schwarzeneggar was hugely popular, there was something about his personality that turned me away from his films. Sure, I saw his comedy Twins, but everything else I simply refused to see, even his most popular efforts. Among those was Total Recall, a 1990 film based on the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." The film was popular, but hardly one ripe for a remake, but remake it they did, this time with Colin Farrell in the lead.

Farrell isn't an actor I've seen a lot from, his films never really appealing to me; however, this one didn't look too bad from the previews and with my eye towards more sci-fi-oriented films of late, I decided to give it a shot. Going in without the burden of seeing the Schwarzeneggar original allowed me to look it freshly and not fairly or unfairly compare it to the 1990 version. This time around, the plot is quite a bit different (I've been so informed by friends who saw it with me). Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a simple working stiff commuting daily from The Colony. The Colony is what used to be called Australia before biological warfare decimated much of the globe, save the Australian colony and the United Federation of Britain. The UFB uses the cheap labor of The Colony to work its many industrial plants while the low-wage populace goes about their lives wary of the repressive nature of their government, but almost powerless to do anything about it.

Plagued by nightmares, Farrell visits a popular business called Rekall. Rekall's operatives inject the subject with a neural agent that feeds their minds false memories, making them believe they were something more than they are. It's the Wage Slave's escapism in a world that does not appear to have movies (though, I'm sure if it did, they would all be propaganda efforts). After an altercation with cops breaking into the Rekall office as he's about to go under, Doug begins to uncover memories of his past as a ruthless and capable secret agent who was once in service to the UFB but changed sides to support the resistance movement pushing for an independent Colony.

The political espionage on display, along with the thin plot surrounding Doug's attempts to remember his past, make for a rather tedious movie. What pass for plot developments seem to be set pieces designed to drive the action from point A to B to C and so on. The paint-by-numbers structure makes it hard to find someone or something worth getting excited over. Even when the expected major twist comes half-way through the film (the second if you count the one spoiled in the trailer), you've pretty much pieced most of it together and have stopped caring.

It's interesting to me to see the likes of Bill Nighy as the leader of the resistance and Bryan Cranston as the leader of the UFB in this film. Both actors have awards recognition to their names and have an endless supply of quality work to keep them busy. Neither is at the top of their game, but Nighy isn't given much to do and Cranston's paycheck keeps him from questioning the teeth-grinding menace he's forced to project. Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale are no strangers to work for money as they have careers built on such muck. Neither is particularly engaging and other than a few facial expressions, they look almost interchangeable.

Farrell had been getting away from this type of work-for-hire, finding critical success in recent efforts like Cassandra's Dream and In Bruges among others. While his talent isn't fully on display here, he at least conveys a charm and confusion that makes him a rootable character. Farrell's Doug Quaid is a believable and friendly character, easily swaying the audience to his side. Were it not for Farrell's charms, some of the more outlandish elements of the film would have propelled it right to the bargain basement video bin.

The lazy writing of the film can easily be pointed back to the unnecessarily large writing team. When you gather that many people together for a script (unless you're Pixar), it's bound to suffer as a result. This isn't helped by Len Wiseman being at the helm. Wiseman's directorial debut came with a film he also wrote called Underworld, much like Total Recall, Underworld took genre conventions and made them hopelessly bland. His films have shown a notable lack of style or substance, preferring to titillate the audience rather than elucidate them. He didn't continue with the painful franchise that he launched, but pulling Beckinsale and Nighy back into his stable of actors only showcases how far removed the two films are. The only difference Wiseman has made in the decades since his debut with Underworld is that the visual effects are significantly better.

Schwarzeneggar's film took home a special Oscar for visual effects back in 1990 and at least its remake doesn't disappoint in that department. The environment created for the film is vivid, stacked with depth and nearly imperceptible. Watching the film, you're drawn immediately into the tactile environment on display. That much of its stolen from other Philip K. Dick adaptations like Blade Runner only shows how influential that prior film was. This is a high tech future with both a glossy and a gritty side. The British segments are characterized by sleek lines and brightly lit interiors. The Colony side is the opposite, playing on the physical dichotomy of being global opposites. The Fall, a massive transit system driving through the heart of the earth to connect Australia and Britain is ingeniously crafted and builds somewhat on sound scientific principle. The only real error is the proximity to the earth's core is a rather high temperature barrier that seems unlikely to have been adequately broken.

This is one of the key issues I have with the film. As exciting and easy to follow as the action sequences are (one of the few things we can thank Wiseman for), there are an unfortunate number of glaring plot holes. Explaining some of them will undoubtedly detract from what little enjoyment one could have watching the film, so I'll let the audience discover them for themselves.

As entertaining as segments of Total Recall are, it's the kind of movie you could pop into your DVD or Blu-ray player a year later and not have missed anything significant or important. While I was hoping for another solid depiction of a dystopian future, what remained was just a disappointing excuse to blow things up for two hours. And why it had to be two hours, I will never fully comprehend. Dick's stories tend to be absolute fascinating, but the appreciation for the genre master needs to be handled by the same folks who've made superhero films a palatable and profitable enterprises. After The Adjustment Bureau last year and now this, I don't think I can readily sit down to another half-ass adaptation of one of his stories. I do need to read more of them, which is something I would recommend you do while you're waiting for this one to hit home video.
Oscar Prospects
Potentials: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Review Written
August 5, 2012

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