“This is going to be hard for you to believe. Whatever you think you remember, it’s not real. This person you think you are now, it’s all a lie.”
Philip Dick’s original stories We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep made the pulp-age science fiction writer a household name in the 1980’s. The later title became Ridley Scott’s breakout cult classic Bladerunner, while the former title became the troubled Total Recall. I say troubled because the film went through 40 actual script rewrites, three lead actors, and several directors before it finally made it to the big screen in 1990. The result was memorable for the Arnold Schwarzenegger camp, an epic tale that involved a race of mutant humans and political control over the planet Mars. We all remember the classic scenes, and the film has had some legs over the years in home video. We recently reviewed the latest Blu-ray release of that film, which you can find Here. It’s now over 20 years later, and Total Recall has found its way into the seemingly endless wave of remakes/reboots/reimagining to reach the box office.
“It wasn’t a dream. It was a memory.”
The first think you likely want to know is what is the same and what is different about the two films. The premise remains basically the same. Douglas Quaid (Farrell) is an average joe with an attractive wife (Beckinsale) and a mundane job. But he’s been having dreams of another life where he is some kind of hero. The dreams inspire him to visit a company called Rekal where they implant exotic memories to allow you to live out an adventure or fantasy. Here you can do it with out a short guy running around with an obsession with planes. The promise is that it will feel very real. But something goes terribly wrong. The procedure conflicts with apparent real memories inside of his mind. The next thing he knows is that the room has been invaded by robot stormtroopers, and instinct kicks in. Before you know it, Quaid has kicked some incredibly huge behind and is on the run. He arrives home only to be told that wife is actually a spy herself on assignment to act as his wife and keep an eye on him. Now she has a new mission…. to kill him.
These elements pretty much fall in line with the original film. Gone is any mention of Mars outside of a quick joke/wink at the original film. Gone also are the mutants with one notable exception. Remember why you might have wished you had thee hands in the original? She’s back, but only for a second. There are also a few clever reproductions of famous scenes from the original. There’s a very nice homage to the fat lady disguise that will catch you off guard and there is a much better version of the attempt to make Quaid believe he’s still in a dream.
“We’ve got to get you some better dreams.”
There are plenty of new elements. Instead of Mars the political upheaval deals with down to Earth issues. A chemical war has made most of the planet uninhabitable. Only two areas of Earth now support life. There’s Britain and a slum area in the Orient. Workers live in squalor in the Orient colony and commute to work in Britain through something called The Fall. It’s the most unrealistic element of the film. This thing travels through the center of the planet to bring you quickly to the other side. It’s what I heard most of my fellow critics questioning when the film was over. No way can a machine travel through the Earth’s core. Still, it’s The Fall that is the symbol of an oppressive government. So the rebellion in this version is very much an Earthbound one. It’s led by Matthias (Nighy) whom the government has been unable to get close to. If you’ve seen the first film you pretty much know how this all plays out. There is little deviation on that score.
The special effects have come a long way since 1990. The look of the film is certainly a quantum leap from the original film. There’s a ton of green screen used to provide a very Philip Dick universe. In style this movie is closer to Bladerunner and Minority Report than it is to the first film. There are a lot of flying cars and stacked living spaces high into the air. The film features synthetic officers that are a big part of what the rebellion wants to stop. These guys look and act like a cross between Lucas Stormtroopers and Cylon centurions. When you have these guys giving chase you know you’re going to see a lot of robot parts getting ripped and torn amid the firepower. A good example of that kind of action scene involves a chase through a series of turbo-lifts that fly up and down as well as side to side. It reminds me of something out of a Ratchet and Clank game. It’s quite an extended chase with plenty of explosive action. The film doesn’t ever really slow down once it gets rolling, and that’s pretty much right away. It’s a new world indeed. It might not be better, but it looks a lot more exhilarating.
The cast is pretty solid. Colin Farrell brings a different kind of character to the Quaid/Houser role. He’s a bit more of a thinking man’s action hero. Gone are the Arnie one-liners and the sheer brute force. Farrell’s Quaid must think faster on his feet to avoid the bad guys. Kate Beckinsale actually replaces two roles from the original film. She takes on the Sharon Stone role as the fake wife, but she also does double duty in the Michael Ironsides role of the determined pursuer who would rather kill than stop the man she’s been ordered to bring in alive. Let’s face it. You don’t bring in Kate for what amounts to an extended cameo. It doesn’t hurt to be married to the director either. Regardless of the reason, she’s the one shining star of the film. I’ve liked her since the Underworld films began, but she showed me more than her ability to fill out a catsuit here. I love moments when actors sell you on a huge moment of change. Al Pacino does it as Michael in The Godfather. Clint Eastwood does it in Unforgiven. There’s a moment in this film after she attempts to talk Quaid down when you know she’s made the decision to kill him instead. As she’s hugging him the camera flashes on her face, and you see the change. You know the exact moment it occurs, and whatever I might think of the rest of the film I love moments like that. Those are the moments true lovers of cinema live for. The change continues from her accent to the way she merely walks. It’s her best performance to date. As her character says in the film, she gives good wife. Bill Nighy is tremendously underused as the rebel leader Matthias. His part is merely an extended cameo. I think he might have added more of a human element to the resistance, something this film falls a bit short on, in my opinion. While Jessica Biel puts in a very strong performance as Quaid’s connection to the resistance and obvious love interest, I don’t really get the same connection to them here that I did in the first film.
That’s ultimately what kept me from loving this movie. While I love the more cerebral lead character and Beckinsale’s great performance, the epic effects and vista of the film keeps me from making any kind of human connection to the story. Bryan Cranston doesn’t deliver near the humanity to Cohaagen that Ronny Cox did in the original. He’s a cardboard politician and I’ve seen that far too much to relate in any way. Sure, the mutants might have been over the top in the original, but you felt for their mistreatment. There was genuine sympathy that just doesn’t exist here at all.
The end result is an entertaining amusement park ride that allows a small thread to connect it to a comfortable old memory. I doubt it will have huge lasting power. But it does have some wonderful moments as well as huge disappointments. “Who gets everything they fantasize about, right?”