Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Movie Review: Total Recall

Total Recall
Directed by: Len Wiseman.
Written by: Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback and Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon based on the short story by Philip K. Dick.
Starring: Colin Farrell (Douglas Quaid / Hauser), Kate Beckinsale (Lori Quaid), Jessica Biel (Melina), Bryan Cranston (Cohaagen), Bokeem Woodbine (Harry), Bill Nighy (Matthias), John Cho (McClane), Will Yun Lee (Marek).

I have never been one of those people who automatically dislike remakes. I actually kind of like seeing different directors takes on the same material, and different actors takes on the same characters. Yes, Hollywood relies too heavily on remakes, and the main reason they remake popular films is money – but that doesn’t necessarily mean all remakes are bad. When I heard they were remaking Total Recall, I was hopeful. I do really like Paul Verhoeven’s over the top, violent 1991 version with Arnold Schwartzenegger – that film went for broke, and was a supreme entertainment. And yet, I feel that Philip K. Dick’s short story, We Can Remember for You Wholesale, has a lot of ideas that Verhoeven’s film merely touches on, and doesn’t explore fully. I was hopeful for a more intelligent version of the story. Unfortunately, this Total Recall pays even less attention to the ideas in Dick’s short story. It is nothing but one action sequence after another. They are handled well enough, but the movie never really convinced me to care about its characters – they are even less defined than they were in Verhoeven’s movie.

Total Recall takes place in a dystopian, not-too-distant future, where only two countries – The British Federation and The Colony (Australia) still exist. The richer Brits take advantage of the Colony – who are tired of being exploited. There is a rebel fringe group, led by Matthias (Bill Nighy) who is trying to get equality for his people – but President Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) is trying to quash it.

In this world, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a nobody – a factory drone who is having weird dreams, featuring himself as some sort of spy working with a beautiful woman, Melina (Jessica Biel). He has no idea where these dreams are coming from – and does not tell his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) everything about them. He just feels like there is something missing in his life. He has heard about a company called Rekall, which will implant memories into your head as if you lived them yourself. He decides to go – and that’s where all hell breaks loose. None of them memories he chooses to be implanted in his head can be real in his own life – or else it will cause him to snap and go crazy. He chooses the spy package – and that’s where things go wrong. The scan of his brain shows that he is in fact a spy – and that’s when the police show up and try to arrest him – and acting on instinct, Quaid takes them all done. Needless to say, this confuses Quaid to no end who tries to piece together who he actually is – and it gets even more confusing when it turns out that no one he knows turns out to be who he thinks they are either.

Directed by Len Wiseman, the film has the same problem that his other films – the first two Underworld movies and Live Free or Die Hard – had. All of his films have a good, if directive visual look to them and even an interesting premise to them. But all the movies are merely skin deep. It’s clear in Total Recall that Wiseman wanted to be away from the neon, colorful visual look of Verhoeven’s original – which was probably a good idea because no one does those quite like Verhoeven anyway. The problem is it seems like he has watched another Philip K. Dick adaptation one too many times – Blade Runner. The film wants so badly to recreate the world that Ridley Scott did so brilliantly in that 1982 film, and while the buildings and the cars look like they did in Scott’s film, they don’t have the same lived in feel of Scott’s film. In Blade Runner, the setting felt like a real place, and in Total Recall, it feels like a set.

I could complain about the performances in the movie – none of which are really good – but I don’t see much of a point, because I don’t think the actors really couldn’t have done anything more with the roles anyway. Farrell, who has made some great films in recent years, seems to have been cast more for his physicality than his acting abilities (the same could be said of his work in The New World and Miami Vice, but at least Malick and Mann knew how to use Farrell in this way – Wiseman doesn’t). Jessica Biel, as the “the good girl” and Kate Beckinsale as “the bad girl” really have nothing to do but look good – which they do. Bryan Cranston continues to show up in nearly every other movie coming out – but none of his film work can equal the brilliance he shows every week on Breaking Bad (the only one that has come close is his brilliant supporting turn in Drive). The film wants him to be a snarling villain – which he does – but nothing in the performance suggest an actual, human character underneath.
The bottom line on Total Recall is that it does justice to neither the great short story by Philip K. Dick nor the great action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven. Doing a remake is a double edged sword, because on one hand, you already have a pre-sold brand – a built in an audience for your movie – and on the other hand, there are expectations placed on the film to live up to the original. Total Recall doesn’t live up to anything – in fact, it makes you wish the theater you are in would just place the original.

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