Recalling the Remix of Rekall
A Film Review of Total Recall
By: Lawrence Napoli
It must be another reference to the “end of the world” vibe of 2012 when Hollywood has seen fit to reboot a Schwarzenegger classic. As soon as I saw the first trailers for the 2012 version of Total Recall, I instantly recognized the increased graphic fidelity, use of CG and scale from the original. Of course, every sci-fi/action/adventure film has a technological advantage over those made 20 years ago, but it remains to be seen if “making it look better” ought to be the prevailing reason for rebooting in the first place. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to do something drastically different with the story? That’s a little difficult to see when about five (by my count) copy/paste references from the original were revealed in the 2 minute trailer. This brings me back to the question of “why?” It’s clear from the trailers that this film looks so different from the original, that it could easily be a brand new idea. As unique as the original was, it certainly did not set the record book on fire with its take at the box office ($120 domestic take on a budget of $65 million). If the reason for making ANY connection to the original is neither for plot nor major money projections, the only reason left is the worst of all: “just ”˜cause.” “Just ”˜cause” is the reason we’ve been getting the same movies out of Hollywood. “Just ”˜cause” is the lazy filmmakers’ excuse for feigning creativity. “Just ”˜cause” just sucks — and with that here’s the review.
Thankfully, the aforementioned copy/paste segments shown in the sequel were the only shameless rip-offs of the original. However, it would have helped this film out immensely had it borrowed much more. I applaud writers Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill and a partridge in a pear tree for attempting originality despite some misplaced need to stay loosely engaged to the first film. Unfortunately, this crutch truly debilitated the story because I could tell the writers had to stretch the plot to justify its title. Douglas Quaid is still the centerpiece of some epic conspiracy to facilitate some diabolical socio-economic goal of the powerful, but beyond that and a few circumstantial similarities, the 2012 Total Recall is a very different kind of story from the original. The emphasis, reemphasis and over-emphasis of this film is action, explosions, massive CG set pieces and running; lots of running. That’s an absolute plus for entertainment value, but it also sacrifices all the dialogue and character development necessary to build the reality-bending aspects of a story that asks “is it real or is it not?” This is why the story lacks in general, but severely pales in comparison to the original (a movie came up short in the “story department” compared to a Schwarzenegger film?). The heroes don’t have any time to be liked by the audience. Villains don’t have time to be despised. There are no secondary characters to facilitate exposition or develop depth to the story. As a result, the stakes are not as high, the plot has no punch, yet the audience is out of breath for just having digested two hours of quick cutting, CG filled, frames of fury. The writers should have jettisoned the entire Total Recall connection and focused on a simpler story more appropriate for the adrenaline rush they were so concerned with presenting.
This film is not a complete and utter waste of time because all that action really did look good. There truly is a cornucopia of gunplay and explosions, but what I found most impressive were the chase sequences (both on foot and in vehicles). You won’t see any parkour like acrobatics during said chases, but the obstacles, efforts by the actors and framing/angles of the cinematography yield a truly satisfying experience. Vehicle chases are pretty good as well, but not as intense as the foot races. The one element of potential action I was displeased with was the activity level of the robot soldiers that were featured throughout. I was expecting them to be as nimble and dexterous as Sonny and co. from I, Robot, but they labor about like bipedal tanks (they also can’t shoot for sh*t, so they need some serious software upgrades).
The visual style of the 2012 Total Recall is equally impressive. Everything from the costume design, to the gadgets and set pieces (real and digital) looked great, seemed appropriate and added to the overall polish of a true Hollywood production. I was most impressed by both the concept art and the CG execution of that design for the two different cityscapes the audience is introduced to. The Federation of Britain is the first class, clean, efficient and white-walled vision of future life that makes the audience forget the rest of the globe was lost to the apocalypse. The Colony is the economic counter-point, the slums, overcrowded and rife with trash. Both, however, are layered with detail (shops, vendors, signs and lights) which is much more interesting to look at than copy/pasting the same gray walls to fill out the background. I was also a big fan of Hauser’s apartment. It’s like the polar opposite dÃ©cor of Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner.
I’m not sure if anyone remembers the early 90s (or was born before then), but there really wasn’t much happening in Hollywood films for elevating the status of women beyond window dressing in action films. Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall is easily overlooked for doing precisely that by featuring both its leading female and feminine antagonist as not only strong, capable women, but vital to the entire story working in the first place. Fast forwarding to today, we find Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale working in a film that hasn’t made women in action films much more relevant than martial equals to men. As such, both (who have decent experience in action films) produce solid performances as Melina and Lori respectively. Unfortunately, both actresses are capable of doing so much more and the problem is that they have precious few opportunities to develop chemistry with any other member of the cast. We’ve all seen Beckinsale’s efforts elevate an otherwise hum-drum franchise in Underworld to a worthy level of intrigue, while Biel flourished in her love/hate relationship with Bradley Cooper in The A-Team. Neither actress delivers performances in Total Recall that both have proven capable of in the past because the script completely disallows it. These two women are correctly cast for this type of film, but were misused/underused to the point that the audience really doesn’t care about them either way so long as they don’t impede the progress of the protagonist. That falls on the head of director Len Wiseman.
As for the leading men, Bryan Cranston continues to market himself as a bad ass to further distance himself from his Malcolm in the Middle days as the maniacal Cohaagen. He certainly has the look of a Hollywood villain, but I did not buy his performance as an actual combatant in this film. Bookeem Woodbine produces what I’d describe as the most sincere performance of Total Recall as Doug’s best friend, Harry. Once again, script limitations completely neutralize his efforts and are easily forgotten due to the volume of explosions that follow. Colin Farrell is no Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Overall, Farrell is a better actor, but Arnold had a unique charisma in these types of quirky action films that led to some fun chemistry with his fellow cast mates. As such, there’s nothing unique about Farrell’s efforts here which isn’t an attempt to sell him short, but ANY OTHER leading man in Hollywood could have pulled this off. The same could not be said of Schwarzenegger.
It takes a lot to make a Schwarzenegger film look like “art” in comparison, but this film accomplished exactly that. I was always a fan of the original Total Recall, but seeing this film made me appreciate “the governator’s” contributions to film history and his original collaboration with Paul Verhoeven in particular, so much more. The technical, stylistic and pacing upgrades are undeniable for the 2012 reboot, but these do not culminate in a better film. As a matter of fact, these elements barely allow a movie like this to equal a standard action film of today’s standards. The 2012 Total Recall is very average in every way besides visual style, so if you are that starved for explosions, check this film out. Otherwise, pick up the original on Blu-Ray and treat yourself to a very different kind of action film.