Total Recall movie review
Stop me if you've heard this one before: an ordinary factory worker longs for a more exciting life, only to find out he's really a secret agent with amnesia. If you already saw Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, you may want to simply enjoy those original memories. This remake of the 1990 film probably isn't for you.
It's partially my fault for having rewatched the Arnold Schwarzenegger original only a week ago, but with the twists and turns fresh in my mind, this new version lacked the spark of ingenuity present in both the first film and Philip K. Dick's original short story. Even if you're new to the story, the clever bits are obfuscated in a sea of flashy effects and overwrought, corny dialogue.
Colin Farrell replaces Arnold for this one, and if there was one good decision made in this film, that was probably it. Farrell always manages to be pretty great, even when the characters surrounding him are not. The rest of the cast consists of the practically interchangeable Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, and a slew of fine actors (Bryan Cranston, John Cho, and Bill Nighy) that are completely underutilized.
The casting of the female leads is especially unfortunate when you consider the original film, which contrasted Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin as powerful women that couldn't be more different. When Beckinsale and Biel face off, the mish-mash of skinny, white brunettes is almost impossible to decipher.
And that's sort of the theme here; the entire experience of the new Total Recall feels like a cleaned up, watered down, mass-market reboot of a film that could barely sit still in a single genre. The 1990 original may not entirely hold up to today's standards, but the mixture of a seriously clever sci-fi plot with corny action dialogue and extreme violence was undeniably unique. It was messy and dirty and beautiful—this remake is polished silicone in comparison.
There are genuine attempts to give this film a soul of its own, but it mostly falls flat. It throws away the Mars plot of the original in favor of an Earth in shambles. Most of the planet is uninhabitable, leaving Europe and Australia isolated from each other until an elevator is built that runs through the core of the planet. On one side, the rich get richer and everything is shiny and bright. On the other, the less fortunate live in rainy, crowded slums inspired by Blade Runner. The elevator ferries workers over to the rich neighborhoods like a glorified landscaping truck.
It's a cool setting, potentially rich with commentary on modern class structure, but it's all left as a backdrop. Any hints at subtext are lost in all the shooting and chase scenes. Even the plot twists stolen from the original film lose their bite under this remake's dulling fog.
When the script writes itself into a corner in the final act, the bad guys simply walk away so the hero can make a convenient escape. Sure, that's kind of how it happened in the original too, but there was enough context and character development at that point that I bought it. This new Total Recall isn't concerned with convincing its audience of anything, it's simply distracting them enough in hopes that they don't notice.
This remake felt largely unnecessary when it was announced, and I'm sorry to say that the final product isn't any different. It's certainly possible to improve and modernize the original Total Recall, but that's not what happened here. What's worse is that for a new generation, this is the Total Recall they will actually remember, and that's a reality I wish was nothing but a dream.