When I reviewed the original Total Recall, I commented some on the promotion of the 2012 version, which hadn’t yet come out at the time. The trailers for this movie were terrific, and made the film seem like it would be a great update to the original premise. I expected an improvement on visual effects, and although I liked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, I figured Colin Farrell could be an improvement on that front.
I missed my chance to see this in the theatre, so it took me until this week to catch up with it. To be perfectly honest, the film the trailers put in my head wasn’t just better than this, it was vastly better.
The basic plot remains the same, still borrowing from Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, with a great deal of inspiration from the first film. Douglas Quaid (Farrell) is a disenfranchised factory worker, a bit poor but in a loving marriage, but disappointed with the way his life is gone. He is haunted by dreams of action and adventure and a mysterious woman. In the hopes of satisfying his craving for this other life, he decides to go to Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting artificial memories. For a fee, they’ll give him memories of an adventure as a super-spy, and then he can go on with his life. But something goes wrong. They find he really was a spy, whose memory has already been tampered with. The police burst in, Quaid slaughters them instinctively, and then he’s on the run from everyone and everything — including his wife (Kate Beckinsale), who is a highly-ranked officer meant to keep him in line.
The key difference between the plot of the original and the plot of the new one is that 2012’s version does not have an interplanetary component to it. Douglas Quaid doesn’t get his ass to Mars in this one. Instead, it’s set on a divided Earth. Nuclear and chemical war has devastated the world, leaving only Europe (conquered by Britain) and Australia inhabitable. Australia is where the workers live; Europe is where the elite live. Workers migrate every day through “the Fall”, a column through the center of the Earth that is the only transport available. It’s something of a background element, but it raises the most interesting unanswered question in the film: How did this thing ever get built in the first place? Even though it’s supposedly only around a 20-minute trip, it’s hard to picture it getting built during a time when planes are around and a substantial work force is local to Europe. It only makes sense as something that would be needed after the “UFB and the Colony” situation has come about. But then it raises the question of how something so massive could be built between two locations that have no other means of transportation between them. There’s a real chicken-and-egg question here, and it’s more interesting than any of the other questions the film raises.
Oh, there are nominal questions of global socio-political climate and economics, but in changing the setting of the film, the screenwriters seem to have killed the fanciful nature of the original. The rebellion feels more like a version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In grounding the film’s setting, Len Wiseman has perhaps removed too many layers of abstraction. It doesn’t feel like a science-fiction film, even with the occasional (and only occasional) science-fiction element. This is particularly true with the central question: Is it real, or is it Rekall? In the original film, the question of whether Douglas Quaid was really doing these things or undergoing a hallucination caused by a faulty memory implant was central to the film. In 2012’s, it’s more of an afterthought. There’s a nod to it in one scene, but besides playing out as an almost word-for-word reshoot of the corresponding 1990 scene, it falls flat. The faint clue Quaid uses to conclude it’s real is less convincing than in the original, but it doesn’t matter — the film has done such an insufficient job of providing counter-evidence to this point that not only do my original arguments for it’s real still apply (i.e., “why can’t they re-insert somebody?”) but others spring up as well. I don’t recall the original showing anywhere near as many scenes of characters interacting without Quaid’s present (or any, in fact, though I may be misremembering). If it’s all in Quaid’s mind, how is he “remembering” scenes that he’s not even present for? No, in this version it’s difficult to debate the reality of the situation, and it loses something for it.
I also, sadly, have to take the special effects and acting, the two aspects I was sure would be improved, to task. Visually, the quality of the special effects may technically be higher… but the film doesn’t provide anything to look at. CGI skyscrapers and trans-core bullet trains may be impressive technical feats, but they don’t stand out in a world of drab gray. It still feels like a big modern city, when it should feel like a big post-modern city. There are occasional elements of sci-fi that work better visually, such as the hover car, but for most of the film, somebody poking their head in and seeing a few minutes could easily mistake it for something in the Jason Bourne franchise. Compare it to the original, which is always a little bit alien, and it again comes across as disappointing. I also have to note that there was an overabundance of lens flare in this film; normally, it’s something that I would ignore, but in this case, it was sufficiently plentiful to make it difficult to see what was going on at times.
As for the acting… Farrell is a good actor. But he’s not doing a good job of acting here. His rendition of Douglas Quaid is stupefied throughout the whole thing. Really, he’s the strongest argument the film presents for the “it’s all imaginary” argument, as he acts like he’s in a dream the whole time. He never seems focused, he never seems to really believe in what he’s doing. Jessica Biel, as the mysterious rebel woman, feels completely superfluous; she’s there for the eye candy and as a draw to get Quaid moving from place to place. Even Bryan Cranston as the big bad seems fairly bland, though this is probably more due to the writing than Cranston; he doesn’t get as much to work with as Ronny Cox did in the original. Really, the only character who seemed halfway interesting was Quaid’s wife, played by Beckinsale, and even then she was still basically the “tough undercover cop” persona. In this case, though, toning things down from the original actually helped, as she came across more determined and less psychotic.
Now, it’s important to note that this isn’t exactly a bad film. There’s still a pretty good actioner in here. It’s not going to bore the viewer. But compared to how good the trailers made it look, and especially compared to how fun the original film was, it’s a serious disappointment.