Guest Movie Review: Total Recall
Critics tend to scoff at remakes. To many, these copies represent the worst that Hollywood has to offer, blatantly repeating stories that were successful in the past, rather than risk trying anything new. As movie stars demand higher and higher salaries and major motion picture budgets often surpass $100 million, it’s easy to see why studios (which are businesses) would be wary of taking a chance on new content. But the remake machine often gets out of hand, a notable example being 2010’s Death at a Funeral, a remake of the 2007 British film of the same name – British as in, it was already in English. They both even cast Peter Dinklage in the same role.
But while remakes often seem like a dumb trend worth repealing, people often forget that some of the best movies they’ve seen were in fact replicas of earlier efforts. Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans trilogy would be nonexistent without the Rat Pack-studded original. 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale was an underrated western thriller released fifty years after the one starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a better-than-expected copy of the first of the excellent Swedish trilogy. True Grit saw Jeff Bridges outdraw the Duke himself. And though it’s often forgotten, Martin Scorcese’s The Departed was based on a Hong Kong film called Internal Affairs. My point is that there is such thing as a remake living up to, or in some cases even surpassing, the original, allowing the same story to be introduced to a new audience, sometimes in a completely different way.
Thus, a new Total Recall, brought to us by Len Wiseman, the man behind the action-packed Underworld series. A remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, Recall is still a risky venture for all involved. Verhoeven and “The Governator” were on the tops of their respective games in the early ’90s, turning Total Recall into a major hit. While Wiseman did help make Live Free or Die Hard a blockbuster success in 2007, there’s little to say that he could do the same for a Total Recall starring non-superstars Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel. Still, the story tackling inequality seems perfectly suited to this era of the 99%, and there are worse things in life than a decent remake of a science fiction classic.
It turns out that beyond a few cosmetic differences, there’s not a whole lot of difference between 2012’s Total Recall and its 22 year-old descendant. In the not-too-distant future, chemical warfare has rendered most of planet Earth uninhabitable. The only superpowers remaining are the United Federation of Britain, which comprises almost all of Western Europe, and “The Colony,” otherwise known as Australia. While the UFB manages to retain most of the world’s economic strengths, The Colony finds itself mostly under the UFB’s thumb, and workers travel through a tunnel in the Earth to Europe for nothing more than low-wage, go-nowhere jobs. Tired of his monotonous factory life, Douglas Quaid (Farrell) decides to visit Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting artificial memories into the minds of those who want them. Inspired by his recurring dreams to take on the memory of being a secret agent, Quaid is shocked to discover actual memories of being a spy hidden away in the recesses of his brain. Soon he is on the run, as both the UFB and a group known as the Resistance want to find and recover the information hidden in his head, information that could be used to tip global power in the favor of the victors.
To those asking “What about Mars?” – sorry folks. While mentioned, Mars is never a major factor in this current version of the story, nor are the mutants who live there. Strangely, there are still three-breasted women, but most of the females in this film are of the more conservatively-endowed variety. Besides those items, Wiseman retains the haves/have-nots struggle between the UFB and the Colony, and in fact makes several references to the 1990 original. Carefully, he wriggles away from the campiness of the first film (and Schwarzenegger’s performance) by using the advances in technology to convincingly create a whole new Earth for us to look at. I was reminded of Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (in a good way), seeing the future Earth build vertically to accommodate the rapidly-overcrowding population, and Total Recall does a great job in expressing just how jam packed this new world is. While there are a few unaccounted items (I don’t see any domes, so what’s keeping the habitable areas free from contamination?), there aren’t many slow spots that allow you to care about more than the action on the screen.
The movie also proves a fine vehicle for its stars, not all of whom have been given their due credit. Farrell in particular hasn’t had the type of career you would have expected after his starring turns in Phone Booth, Minority Report, and The Recruit. Despite his obvious talent, most people have focused on his “Bad Boy” persona, paying more attention to his drug problems and sex tapes than his actual work. It’s a shame, as those folks have missed some great performances in the past few years, including one as a young country star in Crazy Heart, In Bruges’ well-meaning hitman, a psychopath in Horrible Bosses, and a deadly vampire in Fright Night. Here he does a wonderful job of playing the unassuming hero, far more subtle in his transformation from lowly factory worker to secret agent than the infinitely-larger Schwarzenegger. Also amazing is Beckinsale, who changes even her accent when she reveals herself to be not Quaid’s loving wife, but a relentless assassin determined to take him down. Beckinsale deserves to be a star in her own right, and it’s terrible that the only real chances she gets these days are when her husband (Wiseman) is the man in charge. It’s a great role, though, and her scenes are among the best in the film. Unlike the other leads, Biel doesn’t show that she has earned a bigger role in Hollywood. Still, while she won’t take home any awards for her work, she’s a solid contributor who plays well enough off of her co-stars. And while John Cho and Bill Nighy do well in bit parts, the unheralded star of Total Recall has got to be Bryan Cranston, whose award-winning turn in the AMC show Breaking Bad has led to his appearance in ten major films in 2011-2012. Cranston is so versatile an actor that he can go from a dramatic role in Drive to a more comedic one in Rock of Ages, and finish up as Recall’s villainous Cohaagen. In short, he is the perfect actor, and I’ll always be interested in seeing a film in which he appears.
I’m a bit surprised that this title wasn’t converted to 3D (Wiseman did it with his last Underworld outing, and 3D is a big seller overseas), but the special effects are sharp enough without the added tech. Wiseman’s eye for action and an excellent cast are the main reasons you should see this movie, but there’s also a decent science fiction story that feels as fresh and relevant now as it did over two decades ago. In ways, it’s a far better tale than the one told in Prometheus, which requires far too many leaps in logic. Total Recall is the kind of popcorn film that used to be an automatic crowd pleaser not that long ago. It won’t be as popular or successful as the original, but I for one enjoyed myself – more than I did at Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and almost as much as this year’s Batman and Spider-Man titles. I think you will too, if you can shake that remake-inspired chip off of your shoulder.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for his latest film reviews.