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‘Total Recall’ ironically forgettable

Total Recall
Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback
USA, 2012

Taken on its own terms, Total Recall is a passable but not particularly dazzling sci-fi action film that survives almost entirely because its cast isn’t unpleasant to watch. But it’s hard to take this remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle on its own terms. In the early going, Total Recall makes somewhat half-hearted references to the Paul Verhoeven film (if, say, you’re hoping for a certain three-breasted lady to make an appearance, you’re in luck!), as if to placate its fans. Eventually, the film attempts to take the weight of the original off its shoulders but still never manages to be more than merely tolerable.

Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a factory worker living in the Colony, formerly Australia. Earth, near the end of the 21st century, has been so ravaged by chemical warfare that only the Colony and the United Federation of Britain are livable; people on the Colony travel to the United Federation of Britain to work mundane jobs and then go back to their low-class, squalid lives. Douglas is tired of his humdrum existence and chooses to visit Rekall, which purports to implant memories of fantasies people most desire. Plagued by dreams, Douglas chooses to live the life of a secret agent…or does he? As soon as he’s implanted with the secret-agent fantasy, Douglas is beset upon by federal police, revolutionaries led by the beautiful woman from his dreams (Jessica Biel), and a murderous cop who apparently pretended to be his wife (Kate Beckinsale). Is Douglas just an average Joe, or has he always been a government spy?

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Though there are some major cosmetic differences—let’s just say you shouldn’t hope Douglas will visit Mars at any point this time around—much of the new Total Recall hits the same beats as the 1990 version. Both films, based on “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, toy with the notion of reality versus fantasy, but director Len Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback are far less ambiguous in this film. Such mystery isn’t necessary for Total Recall to succeed, but the story’s power feels a bit diminished. By the end of the film, you may wonder what the point of Douglas going to Rekall was to begin with, aside from a near-pointless MacGuffin.

Farrell headlines a decent cast, even if his strongest recent work isn’t in standard-issue action-hero roles like the one he has here. The quirky charm he brought to films like In Bruges and Fright Night is gone as he strides around as Quaid, but Farrell is believable enough once the action kicks in. Biel and Beckinsale are adequate if unsurprising, as they spend most of their time beating each other up. Beckinsale’s no stranger to such action sequences (especially since her husband, Wiseman, directed her in the Underworld franchise), but she seems to relish playing such a villainous character. It’s a shame, then, that her character’s expanded screen time means there’s less time for Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad, as the movie’s ultimate baddie Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen, who wants control of the Colony, to make an impact. He and Bill Nighy, as the head of the Resistance, are both wasted—combined, they may be onscreen for 20 minutes of this two-hour film.

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Wiseman doesn’t skimp on the action, always keeping the movie moving at a decent clip. But there’s no point at which any of what’s happening in the film feels remotely real, making it very difficult to invest in the characters’ plights. And sure, seeing as the story is meant to pose the question of what is real versus what is fake, it could be argued that the synthetic feeling during the setpieces is intentional. However, in the Underworld films as well as Live Free or Die Hard, Wiseman brings this same technique to car chases, fights, and sequences with gunplay. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to shoot action scenes, it’s that he seemingly loves to make them feel like something out of a video game.

Total Recall is not an abomination, nor is it some gross embarrassment. If you’re a die-hard fan of the original film with its practical special effects and unique view of the future, this film won’t do anything to tarnish its legacy or taint your memories. Like most remakes, though, this new adaptation doesn’t feel particularly special or necessary. The pacing isn’t ever sluggish, the action isn’t completely uninvolving, and the cast isn’t too bad. But nothing about Total Recall is worth remembering long after you walk out of the theater.

Josh Spiegel