In the spirit of things, let me take you back to one of my better IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! entries, Total Recall. The temptation was to execute a remake of that post, as this movie is a remake of a previous movie (which is itself a Philip K. Dick adaptation), but I unfortunately ran out of time. You’ll see why tomorrow, as it has to do with my latest theorycrafting obsession. There was day job stuff too, but that’s boring. Let’s get on with the review. Wait, what am I reviewing? Huh… I can’t remember.
WAIT! I remember now. Phew.
I feel like a rehash of the plot is a bit redundant, but here we go regardless. In the not-too-distant future, Earth is in a bad way. Chemical warfare has done horrible things to most of the continental landmass. The well-to-do live in the British Isles, and everybody else makes do in Australia, also known as The Colony. Travel happens via The Fall, a building-sized elevator that connects the distant islands through a shaft drilled through the planet. Our hero is Dennis Quaid, who lives in the Colony and works on the robotic police that maintain the peace. He’s having trouble sleeping and odd dreams, and to try and alleviate these problems, he goes to Rekall, a company that fabricates memories and experiences, and picks the ‘secret agent’ scenario. Before you can say, “Get your ass to Mars,” he’s taking out entire squads of police and running from his formerly affectionate wife as he is sought by both sides of an impending conflict.
The elimination of Mars from Total Recall eliminates two problems the previous film had. First, it ensures that the overall story and especially the third act is more grounded, even if it is still definitely a sci-fi tale. Moreover, it presents writers and producers the opportunity to hew closer to Dick’s original text. They didn’t do that, unfortunately, but they did craft a story that didn’t include things like off-world colonies and improbable mutants. While there’s still plenty of trappings of futuristic life that might also work in Mass Effect, their implementation feels, for the most part, more realistic. This is a kinder way of saying the filmmakers axed the camp.
Clearly, Quaid chose the “Jason Bourne” scenario.
The problem is, removing the camp and playing this story absolutely straight means that anything that is even marginally ridiculous all the more jarring. Without the pervasive feeling of tongue-in-cheek playfulness that’s intrinsic to all of the work of Paul Verhoeven, the core of the film feels cold and remote. As much as the screen is full of slick technology, rapid action, and happening lens flares, there isn’t a whole lot going on at any particular moment in terms of story development or the exploration of ideas. The one moment the film spares for the head-game portion of the plot causes everything else to come to a screeching halt, and while in the first outing there were hints and teases throughout both before and after that twist, in this version it feels more like a box on a checklist waiting for its tick so we can get back to the gunfire and CGI vehicle chases.
In addition to lacking any real character in its plot, Total Recall from 2012 also lacks actual characters. Our hero feels more like a bland Jason Bourne knock-off IN SPACE than the put-upon everyman that Arnold managed to portray (and how embarassing is it when you get out-acted by Arnold??), Jessica Biel’s character feels like a bare-bones outline of a character rather than a person of any dimension, both Bill Nighy and Brian Cranston are saddled with little more than a name and a position of either idealism or capitalist fascism respectively, and Kate Beckinsale shows some potential in being interesting in her switch from devoted wife to cold-blooded assassin but she’s no more fleshed out than Miss Biel, at least in terms of character. At this point we have no serious plot points to speak of and no characters to root for or despise… so what do we have?
Aww, just in time for Valentine’s Day!
For all of its insubstantiality, the production values of Total Recall are rather high. The movie has a very clear visual style, its action scenes are well-shot without things like shakey-cam or confusing jump-cuts, and the implementation of the technology we see, from covert phones to The Fall itself, is far more interesting than the characters we see using those technologies. In fact, it feels like a lot of the ideas that made it to the screen were a collection of ‘cool ideas’ from the design team than anything that came from the original short story, the previous film, or any new ideas on characters or themes from the minds of writers. A few of the visuals feel geared towards “universal appeal”, meaning they look like things born of futuristic first-person shooters, but hey, at least it’s something, right? I mean, you can’t just make a movie about nothing! Unless you’re M. Night Shaymalan, that is.
All in all, I’d call this new Total Recall competent, well-assembled, and it’s not intellectually offensive even if it is somewhat empty. It is not, by any measure of action movie assembly or modern blockbuster composition, objectively bad. However, it also isn’t good. This leaves it with the unfortunate and uncomfortable categorization of “average” or “mediocre”. You can use whichever term you feel is more appropriate and hurts the least amount of feelings. Of course, if you think mediocrity is a bad thing, you can use far more colorful language.
Stuff I Liked: The palm-phones were a really interesting idea that was well-implemented.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: No major plot changes made while the existing plot is pared down, no characters of any real depth or drive, an overall feeling of austerity and emptiness unseen since The Expendables.
Stuff I Loved: I didn’t feel strongly enough about this movie to love anything about it.
Bottom Line: Total Recall sacrifices the camp of the original film adaptation for a darker, gritter tale that’s heavy on a modern, universal aesthetic and some potentially engaging concepts while being light on character and charm. It’s not bad by any stretch, competently assembled, and clips along at a good pace, but it misses some of the vital parts that make for a good & lasting impression.