In Total Recall a factory worker discovers he’s a spy and then the spy he becomes wonders if he’s nothing more than the fevered fantasies of a deluded factory worker. Yet it’s not the psychological quandaries of Douglas Quaid which make this movie so engaging, it’s the technological marvels of the futuristic world which surrounds him. Nothing Quaid does can compare to the amazing special effects director Len Wiseman has him fighting his way through. If only Quaid’s story had been as creatively and carefully constructed as his environment, this might have been one of the best remakes of all time. Instead it’s just a lot of fun, a wild romp that’s sort of like a futuristic Bourne minus the tortured, sympathetic persona of Matt Damon’s better spy character.
Of course if you read any of the movie’s advertising propaganda you’ll be told that this Total Recall isn’t a remake of the well-known and much beloved 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the same name. In theory, this movie is only based on the same source material (Philip K. Dick’s acclaimed short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) and not on director Paul Veerhoven’s film. But the similarities between the two films are too great and the differences between them too superficial for the Colin Farrell starring edition to deserve the title of reboot. The new Total Recall is a lot like the old Total Recall and that means no matter what anyone tells you, it’s a remake and not at all a reboot.
That’s alright because while the differences are only superficial it’s those superficial differences which make director Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall worth seeing. This time the story’s set entirely on Earth where, in the future, the world has been devastated by chemical warefare. Only two pockets of humanity remain. The first is in Great Britain, where the elite live in cities that look like shopping malls and drive around in super-cool hover cars. The second is in Australia, now renamed The Colony, where everyone lives in cement blocks stacked on top of each other and the streets have a gritty, grimey, neon Hong Kong feel.
Both places are perfectly realized sci-fi environments filled to the brim with creatively cool technology of the type we haven’t seen on screen since the wizardry of Minority Report. It’s one of those pieces of technology which sets things in motion when aforementioned factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a business called “Rekall”.
Rekall is the ultimate staycation, a company which promises to make it seem like all your fantasies have come true, by implanting any memory you want in your head. Frustrated by his mundane existence in The Colony, Quaid signs up to live out his fantasy of becoming a spy, and things go horribly wrong in the way that things can only in action movies. In other words, he ends up having to do a lot of running around and shooting.
The running around and shooting works but whenever the movie pauses to let Quaid try and unravel the truth of his reality the whole thing sputters. The action revolves around freedom fighters and some sort of government-sponsored robot army lead by an inexplicably pissed off, lion-maned Kate Beckinsale; but the truth is most of that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s never entirely clear why the freedom fighters are even fighting, nor is it clear why the government seems so intent on doing whatever it is that they’re fighting against. Honestly, it doesn’t actually amount to anything and the movie doesn’t seem to care all that much about any of it. It’s all political and politics, as the Star Wars prequels long ago proved, are incredibly boring in an action-oriented science fiction movie. Wiseman has too many toys and he’s having too much fun.
So maybe this isn’t as good as the 1990 movie which, hard though it may be to believe given marble-mouthed Arnold Schwarzenegger as the movie’s lead, did a better job of developing real characters with real motivations. Yet this new Total Recall is a lot of fun in its own right, as a big, flashy summer movie with loads of incredibly cool high-tech ideas standing in for good character-driven ones. To me this seems like exactly the kind of sci-fi movie summer movie-going was made for. Get out of the heat, buy a ticket and see it at least once.