“If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?”
In director Len Wiseman’s remake of the 1990 semi-classic by Paul Verhoeven, the protagonist confronts a major identity crisis. If this movie were capable of sentient thought, would it ask itself that very question? If only. I don’t think “Total Recall” 2012 realises just how confused it really is.
On one hand, Wiseman appears convinced that removing all traces of the fantastical — along with any wit and fun — and replacing it with a dour self-seriousness is the way to go in being taken seriously. On the other hand, he goes and puts a 3-breasted hooker in it. A clear bit of fan service to the original, but the original was set on Mars and featured all manner of mutant creatures. Verhoeven embraced the camp. Heck, he turned it into the movie’s selling point. The result was a barrage of over-the-top thrills tempered by a knowing sense of its inherent silliness.
Now, I’m not saying that a more grounded, “matter-of-fact” tone is wrong. It’s just that something as delightfully goofy as the sight of a girl with three boobs simply feels out of place here. Wiseman never establishes anything else similar in this universe. So it is tonally (if not visually) gratuitous.
Speaking of Mars, that’s another major departure from both Verhoeven’s movie and the short story they’re (loosely) based on, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. Wiseman’s version is set entirely on Earth, with interplanetary travel replaced by a new conceit: The Fall, a massive lift that connects opposite sides of the planet. This movie wants to be its own thing. Or at least it appears to. One after another, deliberate homages to the 1990 movie keep popping up, and it’s hard not to get a whiff of the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it too. To be fair, these nods aren’t in themselves bad. The problem is, they serve as a reminder that there was another one that did it first, and better. And that hurts the movie.
Ironically, the one thing “Recall” 2012 is most clear-minded about is what robs it of any intrigue. Verhoeven had a whale of a time playing around with the esteemed Mr. Dick’s radical themes about the unreliability of memory and how memory informs identity. He made things slightly ambiguous, so that you were never quite sure if protagonist Douglas Quaid was suffering from delusions or if he really was a secret agent. Wiseman, working off a script by Mark Bomback & Kurt Wimmer, chooses to answer that question in no uncertain terms, and then reiterates it at the end. In case we didn’t get it. You know the term “thinking man’s action picture”? Doesn’t apply here.
I don’t necessarily need smarts to go with my action, but I do insist on heart. And here, it’s lacking as well. I simply don’t care about any of the characters, or anything that happens to them. Wiseman is a talented visual craftsman with a keen sense of staging, and he gives us a number of cool action sequences. It’s just that after a while it’s like watching videogame cut scenes. Everything comes across as if it’s moving on rails, with no sense of peril.
It’s not the fault of the leads. They commit to the roles right through the script’s deficiencies. Colin Farrell sidesteps Arnold Schwarzenegger’s enormous shadow simply by being a much better actor, though he hasn’t got the cheesy one-liners at his disposal. Farrell can and does sell the fleeting moments of confusion Quaid goes through, so it’s a pity that this is all he’s given in terms of characterisation. The ladies have even less to work with, and are reduced to playing it either vicious or virtuous. Luckily, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel are very easy on the eyes. The supporting cast get the worst end of the deal. I honestly don’t know you could make guys like Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy boring.
If there’s anything “Recall” 2012 can claim as its own, it’s the production design. From The Fall to the robot police force, to the cool little tech touches (Handphones! Literally!), the look of the film is easily its biggest plus point. The dense and run-down futuristic city screams “Blade Runner” a bit too loudly but if you’re going to copy something, do it well. And this movie does indeed.
Unfortunately, the copying doesn’t stop there. Whether it’s stylistic cues (“Minority Report”, J.J. Abrams’ ”Star Trek”) or entire scenes (“The Bourne Identity”), this is one derivative piece of work. While I’m not overly bothered by this, I do get the distinct impression that “Total Recall” hasn’t got much in the way of its own identity. It is mildly entertaining and reasonably well-made on a technical level.
It’s also totally forgettable.