Total Recall: Film Review

Total Recall One Sheet NEW - P 2012
Columbia Pictures

Total Recall One Sheet NEW - P 2012

A re-imagined sci-fi narrative that never quite gains traction, despite a game cast and robust visual style.

Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel star in director Len Wiseman's reimagining of Philip K. Dick's short "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale."

Re-envisioning a classic is frequently a tricky bit of business, and Paul Verhoeven's 1990 Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is something of a touchstone of contemporary science fiction filmmaking. Drawing again from the seminal Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, the current version directed by Len Wiseman retains the essentials of the original material but twists the action more toward a futuristic thriller.

The outcome is engaging enough, though not entirely satisfying from either a genre or narrative standpoint, lacking substance and a degree of imagination. Brand recognition, along with the curiosity factor and a name cast in muscular action roles, should make for a lucrative first weekend, but falloff could be somewhat steep in subsequent frames.

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Following a worldwide chemical war, postapocalyptic Earth offers a stark contrast between the only two surviving population centers, with the well-off United Federation of Britain (UFB) relying on the cheap labor of the impoverished inhabitants of The Colony to support a massive security force that keeps both regions under the thumb of menacing Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) appears to be just another working stiff from The Colony who commutes on a massive cross-planetary transport to labor in a UFB factory manufacturing exoskeletons for the Synthetics, a robotic security force deployed to suppress the resistance, the shadowy rebel movement seeking to topple the UFB. Although he’s happy enough with his blue-collar life and loving wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), he’s plagued by dreams about a violent past and an unfamiliar woman (Jessica Biel).

Since he’s already imagining himself to be some sort of secret agent, Quaid decides to check out Rekall, a company that offers to create realistic memories for customers with the aid of drugs, electronics and some powerful psychological constructs. Quaid’s session goes way wrong almost before it can begin, when the initial stage of the Rekall process activates his suppressed personality and alerts the UFB security forces. Federal police descend on Rekall, where Quaid kills them all in a shootout while channeling his newly acquired secret-agent skill set.

On the run and unable to remember any details from his violent past after discovering that Lori is an undercover UFB operative, Quaid follows a series of clues leading him inexorably on a search for resistance leader Matthias (Bill Nighy) and the woman from his dreams.

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Stripping the storyline of the original movie’s Mars-travel subplot, the five credited writers cherry-pick from a selection of sci-fi classics to dress up what’s essentially a thriller template with futuristic plot and visual elements. The central narrative concerning a man pursued by mysterious forces with no apparent connection to his present life is familiar from any number of spy thrillers but affords a weak foundation for the current remake.

In the plus column, screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos have devised a fascinating futuristic world with impressively cohesive visual characteristics. In particular, the massive transport vessel known as The Fall that makes the daily cross-planetary trip is an intricately conceived setting for much of the film’s climactic action. Other touches, including a freeway with flying cars and an extensive regional elevator system are familiar from other films but make a robust return here.

Standing in for Schwarzenegger in the lead role is no small feat, and rather than try to emulate, Farrell’s performance emphasizes his speed and acting ability, though this is far from one of his better roles. While he succeeds well enough, the script’s dearth of character development doesn’t give him much to work with. Indeed, there are so few pauses in the breathless action that Farrell barely has the chance to develop the romantic subplot with Biel’s rebel leader Melina before they’re back on the run again.

Biel has the less substantial supporting role but enough screen time to flesh out her character as a badass revolutionary determined to both save the world and the man she loves. Reteaming with husband and director Wiseman from the Underworld series, Beckinsale is relentless if one-dimensional as the UFB agent assigned to take out Quaid, and both women are more than capable in the nearly nonstop combat scenes.

Wiseman shows a strong command of the film’s disparate elements, effectively uniting the street-level scenes set in the squalid Colony with the higher-tech chases through the sleek confines of the UFB. Without much backstory to lend the characters, Wiseman focuses on highlighting the action sequences and setting them convincingly within the futuristic world. Both the production design and the visual effects supervision by Peter Chiang unite the physical and virtual components to create a seamless landscape, while cinematographer Paul Cameron capably encapsulates the film’s paranoid tone and editor Christian Wagner sets a relentless pace.

Opens: Aug. 3 (Columbia Pictures)
Production company: Original Film
Cast: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy
Director: Len Wiseman
Screenwriters: Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback
Producers: Neal H. Moritz,Toby Jaffe
Executive producers: Ric Kidney, Len Wiseman
Director of photography: Paul Cameron
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Editor: Christian Wagner
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes