It’s one thing to remake a well-known sci-fi movie, but filmmakers should really hide their inspirations better if they intend to borrow from all of them.
Welcome back to the future (no DeLorean required). In a world destroyed by chemical and biological weapons, only two pockets of Earth’s civilization remain: the land in and around Great Britain, and “the Colony” that was once called Australia. Because the rest of the world is uninhabitable, the only feasible way between the two land masses is through the Earth’s molten magma core via a twenty-minute ride on a skyscrapper-sized underground mass transit vehicle (no, really). One of these inter-Earth commuters is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a disenchanted factory worker who decides to risk brain damage by implanting the memories of a more fulfilling life into his head (because sleeping with Kate Beckinsale isn’t enough). When a tactical team breaks into the facility to arrest him moments after the procedure begins, Quaid suspects that his true memory has been a lie and that he is some sort of incognito super spy that must save the world… or is that just the delusion of the implanted fantasy he paid for?
The original Total Recall (based, as usual, on a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel) wasn’t high art, but it was memorable movie fun with Paul Verhoeven directing action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Two decades later, Underworld creator Len Wiseman directs everyman Colin Farrell through a similar romp but to far less effect. It is a beautiful and expensive-looking production that is undermined with remaking not just Total Recall but half a dozen other infamous sci-fi films that make it feel completely borrowed rather than reimagined. If this was the idea, what was the point? Additionally, many of the best elements of the original Total Recall are so trivialized here that what made the original film feel original have been purged, and that makes the finished product feel even more forgettable.
The premise of Total Recall is wonderfully simple: if a supposed nobody acquires the memory of being an actual somebody, how do they know what is real? The original film questioned this at every turn, asking if it is more likely that a blue-collar worker is a really a secret agent or if the fantasy reality is so well constructed that the recipient can’t tell the difference and never wants to wake up. In the remake, the focus is on the action and chase sequences, many of which begin to feel like the same one moved from one set piece to another (every time Kate Beckinsale reappears with her head down and ready to kick someone’s ass, take a drink). To the production designers’ credits, it all looks incredible, but did it have to look like the machines from I, Robot hitch a ride on the magma train from The Core to invade the world of Blade Runner for the benefit of the citizens living in The Fifth Element? If removing the idea that “the colony” isn’t Mars (as it was in the original) wasn’t bad enough, it has been replaced with a world destroyed by chemical weapons that inexplicably never spill over into the inhabited zone (demonstrated by people able to commute in and out of them).
While Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, and Jessica Biel look great onscreen doing their action thing, many members of the cast are a waste, such as a throwaway part by John Cho and a completely wasted Bill Nighy cameo. Also throughout the film, it continuously rains in Australia but is always sunny in England; how’s that for science fiction? Action fans should enjoy the elaborate escape sequences jumping between turbolifts or crashing speeding hovercars, but even these seem all too familiar and offer almost nothing in between to further the plot. If judged as an original production, it feels more like a montage of better sci-fi fare in the same way that Knowing felt like a montage of impending apocalypti. As the film fan debate on whether to remake a movie rages on, Total Recall 2012 is certainly a vote against.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)