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Total Recall Review

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by Casimir Harlow Dec 24, 2012 at 11:09 AM

  • Movies review

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    Total Recall Review
    Reworking my cinema coverage to incorporate a detailed look at the Extended Director’s Cut, this Total Recall review comes complete with at least 50% more lens flare.

    Slick and big budget; action-packed and fast-paced, Len “Underworld” Wiseman’s lens flare-driven 2012 Total Recall remake re-imagines Paul “Robocop” Verhoeven’s Arnie-starring 1990 sci-fi action classic with a futurescape blend of everything from Blade Runner to The Fifth Element, Minority Report to I, Robot. Unfortunately – even ignoring the distinct déjà vu you may feel if you’re familiar with the original (as the remake plods step-by-step through exactly the same plot, twist for twist) – this film doesn’t really stand on its own. It asks for an almost Promethean level of suspension of disbelief in respect to its more ‘scientific’ plot points and, in return, delivers underdeveloped characters, blurred motives and often ill-conceived reality-bending elements with PG-13/12-A neutered violence to top off the blisteringly fast but largely inconsequential action sequences. And it doesn’t even appear to be having all that much fun whilst it’s doing it.

    The story takes its cues mainly from the 1990 film adaptation but also, expectedly, borrows the loose premise from the same Phillip K. Dick (who wrote the stories that would be adapted into the likes of Blade Runner, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau) short story that the other film was based upon, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”. The filmmakers – at various different stages before release – would have had you believe that this new 2012 movie was both a reimagining of the original short story, going in a very different direction to the 1990 adaptation; and then, later, that it was just a reimagining of Verhoeven’s action classic after all. The latter is far closer to the truth, although, to be fair, the original Dick short story only really offered up a clever high-concept premise, and arguably was not quite substantial enough (at least by itself) to carry an entire movie.

    This premise involved a slightly overweight everyman office worker, who was having recurring dreams about going to Mars. In order to quench this subconscious thirst, he goes to a company – Rekal – with a view to getting memories of a Mars visit implanted into his mind. The attempted implant, however, reveals that he may actually be a spy who has already been to Mars on a secret mission, and whose handlers now want to kill him.

    The 1990 adaptation built upon this foundation but introduced some fantastic new elements and developed the initial twist into a series of bluffs and double-bluffs which worked wonderfully at blurring the line between reality, memories and false implants. Before The Matrix and Inception, Verhoeven’s Total Recall was actually a surprisingly satisfying mindf*ck of a sci-fi movie which continues to enthral audiences to this days with its twists and revelations and underlying questions about whether or not what you are seeing is even real.

    22 years later and things have changed even more. For starters, no more Mars...

    It’s the end of the 21st Century and chemical warfare has left most of the planet uninhabitable, the remaining two states – the UFB: United Federation of Britain (which includes the UK and a small amount of Europe) and the Colony (which is basically Australia) – struggling to cope with the massive population and limited living space. Transport between the two states involves a giant gravity lift which passes through the Earth, circumnavigating the Earth’s core, and which takes workers from the Colony to their shifts in the more affluent UFB.

    Douglas Quaid is just such a factory worker, involved in the manufacture of the robot Army that the UFB is building to contend with the terrorist uprising in the Colony. Plagued by dreams about being one such terrorist, he goes to a company which implants artificial memories – Rekall – and opts to be implanted with the memories of a secret agent. During the process, however, the Rekall staff find that he already has real memories of being a spy. Quaid ends up on the run from UFB forces, desperately looking for answers as to who he really is. Is he a terrorist working with the resistance? Or is he actually something far more dangerous to both sides?

    Has Hollywood really run out of good ideas? With the shocking number of remakes that have been made recently – both of old classics (Straw Dogs) and new foreign films (Dragon Tattoo) – as well as the number of ones we’ve got lined up (Oldboy), and the number of ‘reboots’ that we’re already having to contend with (Amazing Spiderman), it seems that Hollywood have given up on original ideas almost entirely.

    I’ve never been a fan of remakes. There are the odd exceptions, but generally they are unnecessary productions which mostly only provide entertainment for those who simply haven’t gotten around to watching the original. However, this is not always the intention from the outset – with many remakes purporting to take the original concept in a different direction. Unfortunately few actually deliver on this.

    Both the original short story and the 1990 Total Recall adaptation were, in my opinion, fairly ripe for some kind of Hollywood reworking. Sure, the 1990 film is a sci-fi action-classic, one of Arnie’s all-time best movies (falling just shy of his three best: the first two Terminators and Predator), but Arnie was never known for his acting talent – more for his screen presence – and the story behind the film (and the book) opened things up for a considerably more character-driven reimagining to be done at some stage. Effects had also moved on considerably since the practical-dominated days of the original Total Recall: now a trip to Mars could be more impressively brought to life.

    So I wasn’t actually all that averse to a new Total Recall movie. Perhaps I wasn’t quite up for jumping on the bandwagon to support it, but I certainly wanted to see what they made of the excellent premise.

    2012’s Total Recall gets off to a reasonably good start, injecting us straight into a pulse-pounding action sequence that turns out to be just a dream. Or is it? Our hero is just an average everyday nobody, struggling with a life that neither he nor his gorgeous wife ever wanted – boxed up in a small apartment in a desperately crowded part of the City – but that they both have to live with. A class-split society is established, somewhat mirroring present-day sentiments – as workers have to travel from the other side of the world just to do the bidding of the rich folk.

    When Quaid’s instincts start coming back – Jason Bourne style – the action once again kicks in and we get a cleverly-conceived shootout that looks like something that would not be out of place in a John Woo-directed video game (Stranglehold). It’s smart and stylish, and manages to avoid the need for the kind of gratuitous Paul Verhoeven ultra-violence that made his classics – Robocop and Total Recall – so very restricted in their adult rating (these days the notion of making a big budget blockbuster sci-fi actioner for adults is, of course, ludicrous).

    Yet already we’ve hit a couple of stumbling blocks. Originally (in both the short story and the 1990 movie) Doug Quaid wanted a memory implant of Mars because he keeps having dreams of Mars, and because his wife doesn’t want to visit the place. Here he goes to Rekall because... um, he has dreams about shooting cops? It doesn’t quite make sense. And it’s not the first time that the Mars hook will be missed in the narrative (probably a fatality from Hollywood’s ongoing failure with making profitable Mars-connected movies – Mission to Mars, Red Planet, John Carter from Mars etc).

    Thankfully a nicely executed foot-chase sequence eagerly distracts from these problems, building on the momentum from Quaid’s first Bourne moment and throwing us full-throttle into the upside-down-flats of a steampunk Blade Runner-esque futurescape. It’s a moderately ambitious scene which shows us just how well this CG realm has been thought out; reminding us of the better moments from Wiseman’s Die Hard entry. Unfortunately almost every single scene is ridden with lens flare; as if Wiseman took a leaf out of the J.J. Abrams book of filmmaking and decided that basically there wasn’t a single scene in his movie which wouldn’t look better with a lens flare or two (seriously, try and find a single one). It’s style over substance in the extreme, and, more often than not, threatens to rip you straight out of the movie and have you either shaking your head or doubling over in hysterics. Indeed, it could probably make a good drinking game – spotting all the lens flare shots – if it weren’t for the fact that you’d be drunk within about a quarter of an hour!

    Still, Kate Beckinsale’s treacherous faux wife – dodgy accent(s) notwithstanding – makes for a surprisingly competent opponent to Colin Farrell’s superspy-with-a-defective-memory, posing something of a palpable threat to our hero’s existence. She kicks ass and looks sexy at the same time, and appears to work better in this kind of femme fatale role than she does as an outright heroine in films like Whiteout.

    But another niggle raises its head. Why does she want to kill him? As far as audiences are concerned she’s under explicit orders to bring him in alive. Her immediate decision to disobey her boss (who, by all accounts, is a fairly strict one!) seems based on little more than whimsy; perhaps even jealousy. It makes no sense. Those familiar with the 1990 movie will remember that Kate Beckinsale’s character here is actually an amalgamation of Sharon Stone’s ass-kicking faux-wife from the original and Michael Ironside’s relentless (if fairly ineffective) lead henchman, whose desperate desire to kill Arnie’s Quaid is largely borne out of the fact that Stone is actually his girlfriend, and he’s not too keen on the idea of Quaid being put back into bed with her, literally. Here we have no such motivation. As far as we know, Beckinsale’s undercover agent just wants to kill Farrell’s confused spy because, well, he’s a better agent than she is. Hmmm.

    Nevertheless, it’s not long before another extended chase sequence distracts us back into pure popcorn fun: a kind of blend between the Taxi Cab chase from Besson’s The Fifth Element and the similar hovercar sequences in Spielberg’s Minority Report, with a little I, Robot thrown in for good measure. Again, the action is impressively realised; they cleared spared no expense at crafting superior effects-driven sequences and the end result is certainly viscerally satisfying.

    But by now the best parts of the film have been chase sequences, and the characters and narrative are either underdeveloped or irritating in their lack of logic. Why is there a hole through the centre of the Earth? Ignoring the fact that the actual faux science isn’t even remotely plausible (a 17-minute trip around the core to the other side of the world? Do you realise how fast you would have to be travelling? Wouldn’t a gravity drop be precisely that, with zero gravity – apart from during the pass around the core – for the entire duration?), the idea doesn’t even work within the realms of this universe.

    Is it really easier to pass through the earth rather than fly round it? Even with chemical warfare damage, wouldn’t 1000 years of technological advancements make this around-the-globe trip much easier than boring a hole through the earth?

    Forget it. Just forget it. Accept the gravity train. Accept the scenario. But without Mars we don’t just lose a lot of the logic (not that the original movie didn’t have its own issues), we also lose a lot of the tension. There’s no lack of air; no desperate need to kick in the alien generators and save the planet (which doesn’t look all that hard to repopulate!); hell, the resistance goes from a bunch of colourful mutants to just Bill Nighy with an extremely dodgy American accent that robs him of anything even approaching a normal, reliably entertaining, Nighy performance. Also, if he’s not a mutant, what makes his powers of ‘detecting’ a spy any more than that of any Johnny-nobody hacker?

    Bryan “Drive” Cranston’s wig-wearing Chancellor Cohaagen is also a pretty paltry villain, neither ranking highly in the realms of deliciously evil uber-bosses, nor convincing on the hand-to-hand combat front, which was a distinctly ill-advised idea.
    And Bokeem Woodbine’s Harry – Quaid’s duplicitous best friend – is given an expanded role that now incorporates that of the Rekall scientist from the 1990 movie. You know, the guy who was sent in to convince Quaid that he’s stuck in one of his mind’s own self-created delusions. It’s one of the best scenes – one of the best ideas – in the original film, wonderfully playing with illusion and reality, and threatening to blow your mind with respect to the genuine ramifications. After all, to this day, we still don’t know for sure if he was telling the truth. In the 2012 version the twist is ineffective, poorly handled and badly delivered. Because there isn’t even the remotest chance that the trick is true, we don’t buy into the tension in the scene for a second; and, if anything, it only makes Colin Farrell’s Quaid look stupid.
    Farrell has to convince as having chemistry with not one, but two lovely ladies – the director Len Wiseman’s own wife, Kate Beckinsale (Contraband, Underworld: Awakening, Whiteout), and the gorgeous Jessica Biel (The A-Team, Stealth, Blade: Trinity) – both of whom are reasonably competent in their roles. In fact, whilst Biel doesn’t really get much to play with, and seldom fully convinces of her freedom fighter part (even if she can do doe-eyed heroine quite effectively), I actually quite liked Beckinsale as the icy, relentless, Terminator-like villain, and she’s got some good moves and some surprisingly cool tactics during the chase scenes (the actual robot opponents are also, for once, fairly well realised – perhaps there’s more than a hint of I, Robot in there but it’s a far cry from the Star Wars Prequels: these droids are actually pretty threatening).

    Unfortunately Farrell himself looks totally bemused as to why he’s even here. The guy surely deserves a break after some of the performances he’s put in over the years. He’s earned a few good movies. 2012’s Total Recall could have been one of them, I guess, but there’s simply not enough for him to get his teeth into. There’s certainly nothing much new beyond the original movie, but there’s also not enough within this movie itself, remake or not, with which Farrell can build his confused, mind-fractured character up a bit. He just looks like he’s going through the motions; following the same character path: Single-handedly take out assassins in the Rekall lab? Check; Escape and evade villainous ex-wife and assassins? Check; Reunite with freedom fighter girlfriend? Check; Try and get across the border with a futuristic disguise that malfunctions? Check; Turn down the propositions of a 3-breasted prostitute? Check (which makes absolutely no sense when you take Mars out of the equation – no Mars, no mutants; if there are no mutants then this girl must have had surgery to add an extra breast. Really? You expect me to buy that?!). Farrell seems content to not only follow in Arnie’s dinosaur-sized footsteps, but also just go through the motions too, seldom injecting anything more meaningful into his rendition of the conflicted protagonist. It’s such a shame, because the twist-laden anti-hero role had so much room for development; so much to play with, had it been reimagined in a more considered fashion.

    At the end of the day 2012’s Total Recall is a greatest hits compilation album of slick chase sequences and interesting future-tech effects that we’ve vaguely seen before in other, better movies, which desperately try to entertain on a purely visceral level. The action is fairly good; the effects are often impressive, but the whole thing is just one big lens flare in the face of scrutiny. It gets off to a reasonable start, builds up some nice momentum and some welcome tension, and then drops the ball completely; fumbling with it ineffectively for the rest of the duration, all the way to a fairly anticlimactic finale.

    The ideas are poor or borrowed; the characters are insufficiently developed and the plot has been put through a blender. Even the viral campaign highlighted opposite showcased far more inspiration than the movie actually delivered; promising a movie that would threaten to blow your mind. Well, the end result is far from that. At best it feels like any continuing tension in the movie has been robbed by a streamlining of the more effective narrative from the original movie – making for an insubstantial standalone effort – and, at worst, the movie is bluntly predictable because it just follows the exact same key plot twists as Arnie’s superior effort, twist for twist. Hell, even the campy fun from the original has been jettisoned – a loss which would have worked had the remake actually been any good, but now feels like just another thing that should have been retained in a desperate attempt to fix this mess.

    If there’s an argument for making more remakes of other great sci-fi action classics from the era (the upcoming Robocop) then Total Recall only serves to counter it. It’s everything a remake should not be: it doesn’t even do a good job at copying the original (unlike the still-unnecessary Dragon Tattoo), let alone developing the best ideas into a different story, and instead comes up short on both counts. It’s quite rightly been nicknamed Total Rehash and Total Redundancy – and even Total Lens Flare might be appropriate. It’s a Total Recall-lite which will likely disappoint even those who are too young to remember the original, let alone those who know it and love it well.

    Flimsy and frivolous, it’s notional popcorn entertainment for two hours, but most likely to make you take a breath, scratch your head, and put on the Arnie movie to wash away the taste. Disappointing, because this could have been good.

    Theatrical Cut vs. Extended Director’s Cut

    Even before the Theatrical Cut had hit cinemas, director Len Wiseman was talking about an Extended Cut with 20-30 minutes of extra footage. In light of the fact that the film was rated PG-13 / 12A, fans may have been hoping that this would re-introduce some violence into the mix. Well, here we are with the Extended Director’s Cut, running at 130 minutes, offering up just 12 minutes of additional content, none of which really comes close to pushing the age restriction up (hence the maintained 12 rating). Really there’s nothing substantial here, added scenes which drew a few more parallels with the current state of our society – most notably bureaucracy – as well as giving screen time to cameo characters (and pretty familiar actors) who simply didn’t exist in the Theatrical Version.

    First up there’s a brief couple of minutes with Quaid interviewed by Human Resources, just to sign some paperwork declaring that he’s not a terrorist. It’s nothing vital, just a nod to bureaucracy, but it does introduce the uncredited Martin Csokas into the movie (you might recognise him from Attack of the Clones, Return of the King or The Bourne Supermacy). The next noticeable difference is the trip to the Red Light District, which has far more pleasure-bots selling their wares, as well as a few more shots of the three-breasted woman in all her glory.

    Then there’s the first (and perhaps only) alternate scene, which features Ethan Hawke playing the original Carl Hauser in holographic form. It’s a longer, obviously differently-worded bit of dialogue, and I’m not sure it entirely makes sense in terms of the plot – and it’s never referred to again – but it’s a bit surprising to have Hawke (who’s been in everything from Gattaca to Training Day, Daybreakers to Brooklyn’s Finest) just pop up in one of the excised scenes.

    Perhaps the biggest change, however, even if not in terms of additional runtime, is a final twist which basically insinuates that the entire thing was one big Rekall implant. Some might argue that this was the same case with the original 1989 movie, but where that offered up the theory in the form of an ambiguous mystery, this tiny additional moment – where Quaid/Hauser notices that he no longer has the Rekall tattoo marking on his forearm – is fairly conclusive in its positing of the entire movie as being one big Bobby Ewing dream. I don’t think we needed this kind of neon-signposted twist at the end.

    All in all, it’s not a dramatic new cut by anybody’s standards and indeed you wonder whether, even though the cuts were dictated by a runtime-conscious Studio who wanted the film to clock in under 2 hours, perhaps they actually streamlined the movie quite appropriately in this rare instance – and, more importantly, prevented the director from including some rather odd additions, like the Ethan Hawke cameo and the unnecessary forced-twist ending. Stick with the Theatrical Cut, it’ll at least save you an extra 12 minutes of your life.