Blast from the Past: ‘Total Recall’ remake underwhelms

Jill Wong/Staff

You can always tell when it’s August. School backpacks are rushed to the front of the shelves, the weather is caught in a monotonous standstill between the heat of summer and the cool of fall and an entire slew of mediocre movies are thrust upon an audience, fatigued from the latest comic book blockbuster. “Total Recall” is one of those mediocre movies. Already as a remake, of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film has quite literally been done before. So what exactly does this new version offer?

Well, there’s Colin Farrell. He assumes Schwarzenegger’s original role as Douglas Quaid — a run-of-the-mill laborer in the year 2084. He has a wife (Kate Beckinsale) and he has the requisite sidekick for comic relief. But, as the date recalls (in a not-so-subtle nod to Orwell), things are not as they seem. Quaid’s recurring dreams offer an alternate self: he’s a double agent, he’s with another woman and there are a lot more guns than in his normal life. However, what is normal becomes blurred when Quaid visits the local vice parlor, Total Rekall — a place that implants artificial memories as a means of escapism from the dire dystopia of what is now called the Colony (what we would call “Australia, but with more concrete and less kangaroos).

Like “Inception” or “The Matrix” or even “The Bourne Identity,” the film proposes questions of reality versus fabrication, man versus machine and man versus man. But, instead of intriguing provocation (like those movies provide), Quaid’s journey is far more superficial. Even from the opening shots, do we see the classic flaw of style over substance. What made Verhoeven’s film adaptation of the story (originally written as short fiction by Philip K. Dick as “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”) so imaginative was its visual effects. In a vivid wash of technicolor red, Verhoeven’s future was laced in visceral decay — heads split apart and eyes bulged from their sockets with near-comical excess. It’s no surprise the film won a Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects.

Director Len Wiseman’s adaptation is nowhere near as creative. His future is a digital wasteland where touchscreens and palm phones (yes, cell phones embedded in one’s hand) take center stage. In a scene that could’ve been cut, carbon copy, from “Minority Report,” Colin Farrell’s Quaid flits his fingers on a piece of glass with all the ease, elegance and absurdity that Tom Cruise brought in 2002. It’s all so superficial and forced. Out of nowhere, a blinding bit of computer-generated lens flare will flash on screen to remind the viewer that yes, this is the future. Things are digital!

The plot and acting take a similarly shallow approach. Kate Beckinsale does her best Kate Beckinsale — kicking ass, pursing lips. Jessica Biel, as Quaid’s primary love interest, skirts in and out of the film with barely an impact. Same goes for nearly every other cast member. I suppose one positive note could be granted to the pace of the film that races through its near two hours with nary a quiet moment. But, that accelerated pace is also the downfall for “Total Recall.”

While entertaining, the high-octane action sequences take up probably 90 percent of the film — leaving room for little for character or plot. It could be said that is the purpose of a late-summer action flick — style over substance. What is irksome is that “Total Recall” attempts more, but fails. Instead of the whole Mars theme in the first film, Wiseman’s version crafts a tale about an oppressive government regime (the United Federation of Britain) versus the victimized labor class in the Colony. It’s the same fight seen in Christopher Nolan’s recently released “The Dark Knight Rises” (minus a caped crusader). However, Nolan made this theme the central focus of the film. In “Total Recall,” it’s just filler between fights.

Last year, the record was broken in terms of the number of sequels released. There were 27. This number doesn’t even include the number of just plain ol’ remakes which included Colin Farrell once more in the reboot of the 1985 horror film, “Fright Night.” By the end of 2012, that 27 will no doubt be doubled. Is it a sad statement? That remains uncertain. Is innovation dead? That too remains unknown. For one, “Total Recall” does include the first instance I can recall (in this reality at least) where a female antagonist has crotch-punched the male lead in the face. So, things might be looking up. That is, until the fourth installment of the Bourne series is released next week.