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The Gods Themselves

I never learned to try in middle school. I just didn’t have to. Year after year, I strolled unchallenged through the standard curriculum. My favorite subjects were art and reading comprehension, where a buoyant personality could massage the result. Conversely, math (and the later sciences involving it) caused me the occasional stumble.

Coasting into junior high, I believed my weaknesses negligible and my ability to spin a positive outcome supreme. This resulted in an intellectual thrashing. Grades seven and eight were a full menu of honors classes, half of which were too fast for me. I realize now that my classmates were a mix of dreamers, frauds, and kids who could actually study and achieve goals. I couldn’t do any such thing. I kept my own casual pace throughout high school, despite being asked, for my own sake, to run.

I’ve since absorbed the lazy student stage of my own evolution; like the fetus with gills, he’s long gone. But such growing pains helped teach me the scent of intellectual and artistic laziness. And Hollywood’s traditional Summer Blockbuster season, with its smattering of dreamers, its legion of fakers, and one or two overachievers, has become quite ripe with the stuff.

The 2012 season, ending with the macho blowout of The Expendables 2, has been instructive. Like last summer, we’ve been treated to reboots and re-imaginings (Total Recall), superheroes and sequels (The Dark Knight Rises), and even some fascinating chimeras (The Amazing Spider-Man). This summer’s most original films, Magic Mike, Brave, and The Dictator, were heavenly mana to their respective audiences (women, children and Comedy Central’s nation of baked couch potatoes). But the vast majority of releases were derived from preexisting concepts; Snow White & the Huntsman, Madagascar 3, Prometheus and Battleship, to name a few. All are fresh examples of a phenomenon that merits discussion: why do increasingly astounding computer effects lack a corresponding rise in originality? If CGI lets the imagination soar, why does Hollywood remain earthbound?

Director Len Wiseman’s remake of the action film Total Recall, like a mockingbird at dawn, seems desperate for center stage. It is a product that, despite jaw-dropping visuals, falls embarrassingly short of the classic to which it owes its broad strokes. The 1990 original, an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle directed by Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop), may as well be a different genre. It’s a gloriously bizarre blend of sleaze and violence, imbedded like a tick in the late 1980s and early 90s machismo zeitgeist. Watching Wiseman’s bigger, blander version, I couldn’t help thinking of myself in the eighth grade. Someone isn’t trying, and sadly, he doesn’t care who knows it.

The Verhoeven film was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story, We Can Remember it for You Wholesale. A flaky, pedestrian read, the tale nevertheless provides the key scenario of a former spy, Quail, who suspects nothing of his past and lives the life of a blue-collar drone. When Quail begins dreaming of Mars, where human colonists live, he decides to get memories of a visit implanted in his brain (which is cheaper than the actual trip). The company Rekal obliges, but at their office it’s discovered that his mind is already full of implants. Rekal sends Quail home with altered memories of that afternoon (which don’t take), and the story ends on a random note of alien invasion.

Schwarzenegger plays a hero in the original Total Recall named Quaid, and that’s the least of the changes and additions to Dick’s material. First, this character actually goes to Mars, where a greedy bastard named Cohaagen sells the colonists air. They live in ghettos, under domes protecting against the red planet’s radiation-hot atmosphere. But shoddy building construction (Cohaagen again) has turned most of them into physically deformed, psychically powerful, mutants. These elements provide for the action-oriented film screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett (Alien) had been going for.

Total Recall establishes a violently campy tone minutes in, as Quaid dreams of Mars, and of slipping down a sandy red dune. He cracks his helmet on a rock, and the harsh atmosphere causes his eyes to bulge from the sockets amid hysterical gasping. When someone is shot, syrupy red explodes from exit wounds as the actor somersaults to the ground. Schwarzenegger, when strapped to machines or fighting for his life, sounds like he’s in labor. And of course, the villains abuse each other like stepchildren. These winking atrocities are the fruit of grimmer 80s hits like Predator, Aliens and RoboCop.

Filmed before CGI had become ubiquitous, Total Recall boasts some impressive (and grotesquely charming) physical effects. Viewers can enjoy a grimacing model of Schwarzenegger’s entire head in no less than three separate scenes. The alien Quato, who’s just the face and arms of a baby growing from another man’s torso, is a masterpiece of gross-out humor. There’s even a three-breasted woman. But it’s Mars’ miniature city and mining complex, explored in hallucinogenic detail by a tracking camera, that are breathtaking.

Love these images or leave ‘em, they make Verhoeven’s Total Recall a clever, visceral experience. When the remake was announced, devotees no doubt scrambled their imaginations to envision Quato and Mars updated by sleek digital effects. But then the trailer debuted. Len Wiseman, a capable action director known for the Underworld films, seemed to have adopted the rain-soaked bleakness of Bladerunner (1982). Also adapted from a Dick story, Ridley Scott’s thoughtful thriller, so imported, felt like a welcome friend at a reunion. I thought Wiseman’s version might pay tribute to two films that shaped my adolescence.

Now, that klaxon isn’t the sound of precious air escaping under a red sky. That’s the sound of the word WRONG, buzzing in my brain, keeping me awake during a colorless two-hour movie. And with all that the new Total Recall lacks, I may as well start with what it has. The acting, from Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, is fine. Their naivete, bitchiness and earnest pleading garnish a dry script that leaps haphazardly for the gloom of Shakespearean tragedy. Beckinsale’s duplicitous line, “I give good wife,” is the closest thing to humor you’ll hear.

The only genuine pleasure in Wiseman’s Total Recall comes from the world itself. Chemical warfare has rendered Australia and the U.K. the only livable parts of Earth. They’re connected by a massive transit channel that passes the planet’s molten core, ferrying Aussie wage-slaves to and from European factories. Down under, we get a gorgeously updated vision of Bladerunner‘s realm, full of Asian motifs and neon-drenched streets. Glowing tattoos and hand-implanted phones are cute bows to our actual future, which grows more nebulous with each calved glacier. Apartment complexes crowd out a burnished sky like suspended ziggurats,. When Quaid’s double-agent wife starts chasing him, they go over and under patios (and even crash through a few rooftops). The heart can’t help but pound.

The realm above is where the satisfied consumers live (and the viewer’s cringing begins). Robotic police and building interiors are shiny and white, as if designed by Apple’s Jonathan Ive. And while towering city blocks, as well as magnetic freeways, sweeten the view, such industrial future-tech has been better realized elsewhere; I, Robot, The Island and A.I. are all recent films to which Wiseman owes the bulk of his visuals. Still, might not a true glimpse of an overcrowded future include rooftop gardens? Building-sides covered in greenery, to boost CO2 absorption? Both glare as missed opportunities for cleverness, especially when you notice the hover cars are uniformly shaped and colored gray. People have complained of their rides being one color and shape since Henry Ford’s day.

From here, you’d hope that the updated Total Recall‘s tone and plot have new voltage running through them. Well, hope away, friend. Verhoeven’s original is a cheekily balanced thrill-ride, with gore, snark and characters you’ll care about. Wiseman, against all fan expectation, discards these elements to make a film as emotionally stale as Dick’s short story. There are no popped eyeballs, no fabulously made-up mutants, and certainly no Quato. Wiseman’s film, for all its video-game violence and cyber-glam, is nothing but a bloodless trailer for Verhoeven’s superior take.

Why make this vegetarian version of Total Recall, prepared with some, but not nearly enough, of the right spices? Did they expect me, a thirty-something with fond memories, to bring my children? More pointedly, why give viewers a chance to pass early judgment on your 120 million dollar film by naming it after something they already love? Unsurprisingly, this line of questioning extends to next summer, when we’ll have remakes of RoboCop and The Evil Dead to contend with. But the answer has been with us (in its modern form) since 2000, when moviegoers first heard the SNIKT of Wolverine’s claws in X-Men.

That’s right. Taking up permanent residence in Hollywood earlier this century, superheroes like Thor, Batman and Spider-Man now own the imaginative curve. They’ve shredded the old manual on how to impress audiences, and write a new one (with the help of computer effects) that allows everybody to be an action hero, regardless of muscle mass; the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers have been cast aside for teen spider-bite victims and petite storm goddesses. And yet, I sympathize with the expendables from my childhood. In high school, I copied my friends’ algebra homework without understanding the equations. Today, Hollywood clones its greatest hits, unsure why the films worked to begin with.

The real problem is that superheroes make the weirdly spectacular look so easy. They’ve flown in, after all, from a print industry that publishes a thousand fresh ideas each week. Budgetary constraints are non-existent, and only the artists and writers’ minds limit narrative achievement. Watchmen (1986) proves this readily, as we see a fake alien invasion end the Cold War. In Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (1989), we meet a sentient street named Danny. Both are ideas from creators unafraid to drive their craft into uncharted territory.

But comics’ greatest ideas are tempered, for decades, in the scalding furnace that is the opinion of dedicated readers. Superman, for example, is a concept they’ve approved of since his first appearance in Action Comics 1 (1938), and his emblematic S is known by children and adults the world over. Batman, arriving in Detective Comics 27 (1939), is another time-tested character that draws generations of people together in adoration, despite his frequent permutations.

Later creations like the The Avengers (1963) came from collaborators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, whose brilliance still reverberates like a hammer-strike through today’s pop culture. Their idea of grouping flawed, humanistic heroes together inspired the third highest grossing film of all time (1.48 billion worldwide). But Marvel‘s The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, benefited most by being part of the serialized narrative structure that makes reading comics so rewarding. Smaller stories told in a shared universe (between 2008-11, fans saw Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America) brought anticipation for the grander tale to a fever pitch. Whedon, the most reliably talented geek in Hollywood, this May delivered a gargantuan epic that tied the five individual films together. Audiences are still, as of late August, filling theaters to experience the emotional payoff.

How can the average Summer Blockbuster compete with the gods themselves? As of this moment, they simply aren’t. Hollywood at large is creatively coasting, despite wearing the best running shoes available: Computer Generated Imagery. But cannily enough, studios realize that remakes and adaptations (of board games), once announced, become their own hype machines. In lieu of extensive comic fan-bases that are ready to fork over their cash the day a film’s announced, remakes of Total Recall and RoboCop trade on the cult status of their originals. People start talking (and complaining), about a project’s potential, about the audacity of even trying, and the chatter is all free publicity. Wiseman could have easily streamlined and remixed Total Recall‘s plot elements into something familiar, though passably original. This film would have likely garnered more respect, but would as many people have seen it?

Probably not. With the cost of special effects and distribution, studios can no longer take chances on Summer Blockbusters that don’t ring the nostalgia bell. Yet, there is hope for originality, and it rests on smaller films like last February’s Chronicle, about telekinetic teens run amok in Seattle. They zoom through the air, throw objects with their minds, and (unintentionally) cause billions in property damage. The “found footage” aspect makes it all quite believable. And, costing only 15 million dollars to make, Chronicle proves that great CGI is only getting cheaper.

The superhero curve can’t last forever. The lazy students filling Hollywood will run out of classic films to ruin, of fairy tales to butcher, and be forced to squeeze their own brains for material. They’ll embrace the reality that CGI can create anything, and that our craving for the emotionally resonant new trumps a nostalgia trip every time. They’ll eventually generate ideas that rival those found in comic books, the factory-floor of the fantastic. If not, I’ll see you at the premier of Jenga.

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Justin Hickey is a freelance writer living in Boston and completing his first science fiction novel.

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