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MovieJay Takes On ‘Total Recall’

Paul Verhoeven‘s 1990 film starring Arnold SchwarzenegerTotal Recall, was a filmed adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, while Len Wiseman‘s updated version plays as if it were the filmed adaptation of the video game based on the story.

Verhoeven’s Total Recall had a darker sense of humor, more graphic violence, and cared more about story. Wisemen’s Total Recall is a pure chase picture. 20 years from now, I’m willing to bet that audiences will want to see the 40th anniversary edition of the first one more than the 20th of this one.

Both films deal with interesting ideas. Gone is all the Mars stuff, but in its place is the equally intriguing notion of “The Fall”, a futuristic high-speed ride that links the last two habitable areas of post-chemical warfare Earth. They are the United Federation of Britain–encompassing much of Europe–and there’s the “Colony”, or what has become of Australia. The period is early 22nd century. Machine guns and paper money are still the preferred weapons and currency of choice (nerd nugget – don’t blink or you’ll miss the faces that are on the bills).

Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a grunt from the Colony, one of a multitude of workers exploited by the richer UFB. Every day he sits next to his buddy Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) on the Fall as they’re transported in mere minutes through the Earth’s core to work on an assembly line where they produce synthetic robots meant for global security of what’s left of the planet. After work, he returns to his wife of seven years, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), whose character is now a combination of Sharon Stone‘s Lori and Michael Ironside‘s Richter from the first one, in order to maximize her screen time.

Class warfare percolates as a backdrop, between the UFB–headed by Cohaagen (Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and an underground rebellion lead by the messianic figure Matthias (Bill Nighy). Large flat-screen TV‘s pump out the news 24/7 and early on they show the bombing of a train, apparently a terrorist attack by anti-establishment forces.

Quaid’s life thus far has been an unexamined one, governed by routine. But lately, something feels amiss. Like he’s a cog in the wheel of a grand plan that is meant to work against him because he isn’t from the wealthier territory. He and his sexy wife live in a small, dingy apartment in the vastly over-populated Colony, which looks exactly like a cross between The Fifth Element and Blade Runner, with society as well as moving traffic stacked on top of each other way, way up into the skies.

He decides to break out of his boring routine by visiting Rekall, a corporation that apparently spends all of its capital on advertising since their facilities look about as sophisticated as an opium den. They supply paying customers with transplanted memories, often the fetishes of lonely blue collar types like Quaid. He fantasizes a life as a secret agent, but just at the moment when the procedure is about to occur, something goes horribly wrong: he already is a secret agent–though he doesn’t know it yet–and it trips some kind of alarm that immediately sends an army of police robots into the place. To his amazement, Quaid defends himself more than adequately, doing away with all of the hapless, police officers.

And so begins a chase that continues for the rest of the picture, as Cohaagen’s army of storm trooper-like creatures–as well as Lori–hunt him down, apparently an enemy of the UFB who we’re told is working for the rebel forces. There are chases on foot, by space car, and one spectacular sequence involving a number of elevators that shoot through a whole maze of dizzying traffic in their own self-contained space. Along the way we meet Melina (Jessica Biel), on the anti-establishment side, who had been occupying Quaid’s dreams.

Both Biel and Beckinsale are good here in demanding physical performances. Cranston as Cohaagen is a rather generic villain with all the customary lines that go with that role. Most people will grant that Farrell has more acting chops than Arnold, but his cinematic presence here is lacking compared to the big guy. He’s lean and economical and is forever a tool of the plot; a victim so swept up in being chased all the time that it dampens all the fun we had watching Arnie trying to work out what was real and what wasn’t.

And that’s the big difference: the first movie keeps you guessing, while this edition never makes you doubt for a second what is happening and on what reality-plane it is happening on. Both films are top-loaded with action, but it’s all so bland here and perfunctory. We know how these things go: baddies shoot everything up real good but never hit their intended target, while the good guys never miss theirs. But the action doesn’t build here, probably because the writing is also generic. There isn’t a line here that crackles with life or humor. Nothing that comes close to approaching Arnold’s, “Consider this a divorce”.

I think with Arnold Schwarzeneger, even though he isn’t the better actor of the two, he brings a cinematic presence that elevates this kind of material. And indeed, the first film was really about our hero’s dilemma and the fun we had discovering the big payoff along with him. Here, we’re three steps ahead of Colin Farrell the whole way while he’s being pulled along by a movie on auto-pilot.

Totall Recall is an adequate movie. The sights and sounds of the Colony are glorious and visionary, and our three leads are capable action stars, but the whole exercise amounts to a routine actioner that just never really dazzles the way the first one did.

Save this one for on-demand.

**½ (out of 4)