There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with the concept of a remake and several classic films that fall under the banner like The Maltese Falcon, The Wizard of OZ, or John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an opportunity to take a decent idea for a movie that didn’t quite work and fix the problems. Trouble is, that’s not really why most remakes are made. The temptation to improve a broken movie is normally set aside in favor of cashing in a popular brand name by doing it all over again (only this time with CGI). The effect is like Xerox, the movie looks the same, but the quality inevitably dips down when going through the same motions for a second time.
That brings us to director Len Wiseman’s “new” version of Total Recall. The original is a dumb action classic with Arnold Schwarzenegger at his cheesy, mass-murdering best. However, it’s also based on an intriguing Philip K. Dick short story and the flick pretty well ditched the “is it reality or a implanted fantasy” conceit in favor of an additional alien boob and more explosions. There’s actually a place for a completely different take on the same material leaning towards Dick’s dark, brooding, thought-experiment sci-fi style. That didn’t happen though. Instead the creator of the Underworld franchise made yet another dumb action movie version, and while it has the required thrills and effects, you can’t help but leave the theater wondering why the hell this movie had to happen. Surely the $150 million or so could’ve been spent on a sci-fi action flick that we haven’t actually seen before.
The basic premise is the same, but the setting is different. No trips to Mars this time. Instead all of the futuristic shenanigans take place on a version of Earth that’s gotten all crappy. Specifically, there are now only two areas of the planet that are hospitable and as a result they are ridiculously overpopulated and divided by class. To travel between the two spots, a giant path through the center of the earth has been built known as “the fall.” This time out Colin Farrell steps into Schwarzenegger’s stretched out shoes as Douglas Quaid, a worker bee who lives on one side of the planet and commutes to the other side everyday to build robots for one of those faceless monolithic corporations that tend to control future worlds like this. Doug is burnt out and tired of working his life away, so he decides to try out this fancy-pants new service called Rekall that implants customers with false memories so that make people feel like they’re living out an adventure. He’s just about to be implanted with a spy adventure scenario when it turns out Farrell is actually a spy with previously erased memories that have been awakened. Now he’s got to stumble into the midst of a battle between a rebellious uprising (led by Bill Nighy) and the evil empire trying to keep things in check (led by Bryan Cranston). To complicate things his old wife Kate Beckinsale turns out to be a secret agent who wants to kill him and he’s got a new rebel girlfriend (Jessica Biel) to kick ass and get funny-in-the-pants with. All the while the guy can’t help but wonder if is this really happening or if it’s just the fantasy he ordered from Rekall (note: this is a summer blockbuster and not a big budget art movie, so no points will be awarded for guessing correctly).
Despite the shift from Mars to a corrupted Earth, it’s fairly remarkable how similar this movie is to the 22-year-old Arnie original. The plot beats are the same, with Wiseman even frequently making references to the 1990 version (don’t worry, you’ll see that pervy 3-boobed alien again) and that really gives you a sense of what to expect from this movie. Wiseman isn’t a filmmaker who was intrigued by the concept of Total Recall and thought it could be pushed further. Nope, he just liked that action movie and thought he’d do it again with the same fleeting moments of recognition of Dick’s ingenious concept.
With CGI being available, the scale is at least dramatically larger this time out, filled with huge rotting and/or sleek future landscapes (one half of the world is ripped off of the design of Blade Runner while the other half is knocked off of Minority Report, which I would consider a clever reference to two other Philip K. Dick adaptations if Wiseman gave any indication that he thought about such things). The action is on a much larger scale as well, filled with flying car chases, gun fights that destroy huge chunks of real estate, and at least one show-stopping chase through roof tops that is an incredible accomplishment of small set n’ blue screen ingenuity.
The trouble is that while Wiseman can whip up some big spectacle, he’s not much of a storyteller (see Live Free or Die Hard). There’s no real rhythm or sense of pacing to his Total Recall. Wiseman’s movies break down into two modes: exposition and frenetic action. That’s it. You can get a big jolt in the audience from one sudden gearshift from dialogue and massive action, but after a while that effect wears off when repeated and becomes a bit exhausting. Some of the set pieces near the end of the movie should in theory be exciting and look polished, but after 90 minutes of the same brand of mayhem, you’ll just feel tired and want Farrell to finally kill the bad guys so that you can have a nap.
Farrell is perfectly watchable in the main role, but he’s no action star like Schwarzenegger. Much like Mark Wahlberg, Farrell got famous enough to be slipped into the action hero casting rotation even though he’s not really comfortable in that the role. He’s better at eccentric characters and seems bored playing bland leads, but he’s at least not an embarrassment. Action movies should just move back to centering on natural big screen personalities rather than pretty boys with acting chops. Kate Beckinsale does her ice queen thing from Wiseman’s (aka her husband) Underworld movies and she’s always a perfectly pleasant lady-asskicker. Nighly, Cranston, and Bokeem Woodbine are also strong in roles as flip-flopping good/bad guys. The performances are all fine to above average. The effects and production are as slick as a blockbuster budget can buy. On the surface, this thing chugs along smoothly. Trouble is, there’s really nothing going on beyond that and the surface pleasures get dull.
The original Total Recall was just as dumb of an action movie and similarly abandoned any sense of creative sci-fi conceits by the third act in favor of additional explosions. The difference there is that with madman Paul Verhoeven calling the shots as the director, the violence was ludicrously, lovingly over-the-top with a tongue planted firmly in it’s cheek. Wiseman on the other hands plays things straight and takes the movie seriously. That’s enough to give it a distinctly different tone from the last crack at this tale, but given how silly and by-the-basics his story is, the serious approach far less entertaining than Verhoeven’s take. Had Wiseman played a little more of Dick’s mind games, this could have been its own beast.
That didn’t happen, so Total Recall 2.0 is just a deeply average action movie. It’s not terrible. It’s not great. It just is. Without the last version it might have even seemed like a pleasant surprise. As remake, the exercise just seems pointless. That said, how high are the expectations for a Total Recall remake? The fact that it delivers all the requisite action beats in a pretty package with a talented cast should be enough for the target popcorn munchers. If you don’t mind getting exactly what’s required with no frills, then there are certainly worse ways to kill a few summer hours in air conditioning. There’s already a movie out there called Total Recall that delivers all that in a better blood-soaked package though. If you can stomach watching movies made before 2000, stick with Arnie and his one-liners. At least that one will make you crack a smile every now and then.