Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall was a trip. It was a crazy, exciting piece of 90s action, blending imaginative sci-fi elements with the big dumb fun that an Arnold Schwarzenegger film consistently delivers. This new adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story, under the direction of Len Wiseman, feels terribly drab in comparison. Sure it has plenty of shiny special effects, but it seems to use that technology to grind the film into a generic gray paste of been-there-done-that action cinema.
In a war-torn future, assembly line worker Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is having dreams of having lived another life, in spite of being happily married to his loving wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale). His dissatisfaction leads him to Rekall, a company that gives people new memories. Quaid takes the treatment, but something goes wrong. It turns out that his memories may not be real, and that his entire life is a lie. With some of his real memories coming back, Quaid is forced to go on the run to discover the truth about his previous life.
The movie does little more than connect a series of set pieces together. There’s little attention paid to the world that the movie has built. Its elements are designed to facilitate the action, the world a mishmash of vague sci-fi elements that don’t quite fit together. There are hovercars, but there are also still normal four-wheeled cars. There exists a needlessly dangerous and complex system of elevators that seems to serve little purpose beyond providing a setting for another interminable chase. The characters are kept remarkably thin, just wisps of personality thrown into appealing packages.
And even though Verhoeven’s version was often ridiculous, it is far more sophisticated than this edition. This edition offers little of the narrative ambiguity of the previous film, burying itself in the drab formula of modern day action cinema. It’s all terribly tame, the film taking no chances with its content or its filmmaking. It just leans on special effects to make things look interesting, building the facade of a world without bothering to fill in the rest of it. It doesn’t want the audience to think: it only asks them to react to the familiar stimuli offered up by the film’s numerous action setpieces.
Colin Farrell has plenty of personality, but it never emerges when he plays a generic action protagonist. He comes off as awfully bland as a hero, his inherent inclination for darkness having no opportunity to shine through. Jessica Biel is equally bland as his leading lady. Biel is a strong physical presence herself, but she defaults to empty line readings when she’s made to play second fiddle. The villains of the piece seem to be having a lot more fun. Kate Beckinsale is just playing a variation of her Underworld role, but it’s fun to see her get dark. Bryan Cranston shines in his villainous turn, injecting a sense of belief and assuredness in the character’s machinations.
No remake really needs to exist. Even if the original film were heavily flawed, one would always prefer that something new emerge from the woodwork. But Total Recall isn’t a failure because it’s a remake. It’s a failure because it’s a drab, overlong generic action blockbuster, lacking the initiative and the imagination to step out of the paint-by-numbers framework of these big mainstream releases. That it is a remake only compounds that failure, since viewers already have a much better option if they want to see this story. Paul Verhoeven’s film holds up as a distinctive piece of cinema. One could never say that about this film.