Worth Remembering: Which Total Recall Reigns Supreme?

A head-to-head battle!

By David Wharton | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

It’s been twenty-two years since Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled a walnut out of his sinus cavity and told himself to “get your ass to Mars.” Now moviegoers are returning to Recall with a reboot from Underworld director Len Wiseman, and a cast including Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bryan Cranston. In a head-to-head battle, which Recall will be worth remembering? Let’s find out.

The Leading Man: Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Colin Farrell
Arnold is an icon for a reason. When he was in his prime, people would go to a Schwarzenegger movie and know exactly what to expect. Over-the-top action. Carnage. One-liners. The guy’s very nearly his own damn genre. And that’s fine, but it’s one area where the original Total Recall suffered. The whole concept is that Douglas Quaid is supposed to be a nobody, and average schmuck with a crappy day job and an improbably hot wife. So then, when he gets “activated” and kills a dozen guys without taking a deep breath, Quaid is supposed to be disoriented and terrified by what he just did. “I’m normal!” he thinks. “How the hell did I just do that?”

And therein lies the problem. When Arnold kills a bunch of guys, there’s nothing surprising about it. He’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and regardless of what the title on the movie poster is, the audience is expecting him to play Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sure, he might have a different name, and his personality might change a little from film to film, but he’s still Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course he killed a bunch of guys. That’s what he does. Farrell, on the other hand, can pass for average, albeit unfairly handsome, damn his marvelous Irish genes. Also, with apologies to Arnie, Colin is a better actor, so he sells Quaid’s surprise and confusion in a way Arnold never did. By not looking like a muscle-bound action-movie he-man, Farrell’s Quaid plays closer to the original intent of the story.

Winner: Colin Farrell
For pure popcorn entertainment, you can’t go wrong with Arnie. But I wanted to see a version of Total Recall that really was about an average guy experiencing all this, and Farrell delivers on that front.

The Duplicitous Wife: Sharon Stone vs. Kate Beckinsale
This is a tough one. The role of Lori, Quaid’s presumptive better half, is a crucial component of both Total Recalls. Her betrayal is the moment when Quaid realizes just how much trouble he’s in, and that he can no longer trust the one person he thought would always stand by him. The actress playing Lori has to be capable of essentially playing two different characters: the loving, concerned spouse; and then the deadly, disdainful killer once she realizes Quaid’s memory blocks have been damaged. She’s got to be able to handle herself in action scenes, especially the one where she and Quaid fight after she tells him the truth. And she’s got to be dead sexy, the sort of wife that would encourage your brain to work really hard to believe the fantasy that she’s yours.

In the looks department, how can you pick a winner between 1990 Sharon Stone and 2012 Kate Beckinsale? I declare it a draw, and the winner is us. Seriously, though, each Lori brings different strengths to the table. Kate is extremely adept at the action side of things, having high-kicked her way through several Underworld movies. Stone, on the other hand, pretty much defined the femme fatale during the early ’90s, culminating with her legendary leg-crossing role in Basic Instinct. Stone could play Lori in her sleep, and you’d still crawl across broken glass to win a night with her.

Winner: Sharon Stone
It’s hard to overestimate the power of Kate Beckinsale in white booty shorts, but Stone takes the lead and leaves Kate with an icepick in her brainpan. You don’t mess with the lady who played Catherine Tramell.

The Girl of Quaid’s Dreams: Rachel Ticotin vs. Jessica Biel
That’s more than just a turn of phrase. As dueling Melinas, both Rachel and Jessica are first introduced in Quaid’s dream. In the original, he’s on the surface of Mars with her. In the reboot, he’s in the midst of an escape. Both serve the same function: to drop in about halfway through and provide Quaid with some real answers about who he is…and who he was. Like Lori above, Melina has to be smart, capable, and able to hold her own against whatever is thrown her way.

Both actresses fit the bill nicely. Ticotin earns a few extra points by literally being Quaid’s ideal woman. When he’s first plugged in at Rekall he describes her perfectly, and depending on your interpretation she’s either a fantasy construct or such a powerful memory that he remembers elements of her even through his memory blocks. Both actresses are adept at both kicking ass and taking names. This is a tough one. If I was a recently reactivated secret agent on the run from people trying to kill me, I’d be glad to have either of these ladies at my back. (And once the gunfire lets up, at my front, if you follow me.)

Winner: Rachel Ticotin
It’s damn near a draw, but Ticotin’s Melina just feels like a more developed character. While Biel can kick ass with the best of them, we never really learn anything about her. She remains a deadly and gorgeous cypher.

The Bad Guy: Ronny Cox vs. Bryan Cranston
It’s a credit to Bryan Cranston that he does the best he can with the role of Cohaagen, because there simply isn’t that much to him in the new version of Total Recall. We learn that he’s a powerful politician who Quaid used to work for, we learn his diabolical plan, then he shows up and everybody’s trying to kill each other. Anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad knows that Cranston is one of the most talented actors of this generation, and he’s extremely good at playing menacing when he wants to, a trick that works doubly well since he’s not physically imposing. You pretty much can do no wrong by casting Cranston in your movie.

But…he’s up against Ronny Cox. We’re talking the guy who cornered the market on slimy, condescending, USDA-grade evil during the ’80s and early ’90s. Between Total Recall and his role as the vile Dick Jones in RoboCop, Cox pretty much could have retired his jersey in 1990 and taken his place in the pantheon of the greatest movie villains of all time. Cranston’s Cohaagen is a ruthless, calculating SOB. But Ronny Cox? Ronny Cox would tip his grandmother through a woodchipper if it improved his bottom line. Ronny Cox is the Black Plague in a bespoke suit. He’ll kill you and the last thought in your head will be that you’d really like to knock that smug shark’s grin off his face.

Winner: Ronny Cox
Don’t worry, Mr. Cranston. There’s no shame in being beaten by the best. It’s also worth noting that there’s no real equivalent for the original film’s Richter, played by Michael Ironside. Even if the Cohaagens were neck-in-neck, the Ironside factor would tip the scales toward the original Recall.

The Scheme: Martian Air vs. ???
We’re going to remain spoiler-free for the new film here, but we can discuss the original version. As you’ll recall, in the Verhoeven film Quaid/Hauser learns that Cohaagen has discovered an ancient Martian device designed to melt massive sheets of subterranean ice, thus terraforming Mars into a habitable planet and cutting Cohaagen out of his business selling all the colonists and visitors their air. The film’s climax involves Quaid trying to reach and activate the device, with Cohaagen trying to kill him the entire way.

We’ll leave the new Cohaagen’s goals and plans a mystery for those of you planning to see the film, but suffice to say this: it isn’t nearly as cool as the original version. By relocating the action to Earth, they also had to conjure up a new evil scheme for Cohaagen to be plotting, and out the window went the Martian machine, and with it the sense of mystery and wonder that the original film possessed. The new film assigns Cohaagen the most tedious and played-out of motivations, and the third act of the movie suffers for it.

Winner: Mars, by a landslide.
I realize they were trying to set this¬†Recall¬†apart from the original, but if you’re going to ditch one of the best parts of the earlier movie, you’d better have something awesome to replace it. They don’t.

The Action: 1990 Total Recall vs. 2012 Total Recall
This is one area where there’s not much competition. The original has plenty of action, but it’s also very much in the “’80s action hero” vein, and compared to the slick choreography of the new film, it doesn’t compare. Arnold was like a blunt instrument that you pointed at something; he got the job done, but there was no finesse or elegance to it. It’s the difference between using a shotgun or a sniper rifle. Either way the person in the crosshairs is gonna wind up dead, but the latter will require quite a bit more skill.

The reboot almost never slows down, throwing one crazy set piece after another at you. Here, have a gun battle atop elevators racing in different directions. How about a flying car chase? Fine, how about the have a zero-g gun battle while racing through the molten core of the planet? Nu Recall, for any other failings it may have, never disappoints when it comes to the action. Each sequence is well thought out and gives you a clear sense of geography, so it’s never confusing or hard to figure out what’s going on at any given point.

Winner: Do I even have to say? 2012 delivers 1990 Recall a brutal uppercut.

The Final Winner: The Original
Accept no substitutes, the original is the definitive Total Recall by a wide margin. The new film has some spectacular scenes and a better leading man, but time and again the original film shows its strengths. I can’t imagine rewatching the reboot again and again over the years, but I have and will continue to do that with the original flick. It’s a classic for a reason.