August 9, 2012
In Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” the writer imagined a dystopian future, its reality made more palatable by experiencing virtual realities available at memory insertion depots known as “Total Recall.”
Because movies are a sort of virtual reality, Dick’s concept has always seemed a natural for adaptation to the big screen. The 1990 version worked well due to director Paul Verhoven’s excellent pacing and its memorable characters, especially Douglas Quaid/Carl Hauser, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The actor immersed himself in the role and the action sequences, but used his larger-than-life presence to create cheeky moments, occasionally poking his index finger through the fourth wall.
In both versions, Quaid is a secret agent who believes himself an ordinary, workaday fellow, until he visits “Total Recall” where he learns he actually was a secret agent until someone wiped his memory clean.
When Columbia Pictures annouced it was planning a remake, Arnie offered his services, but was perhaps deemed too Republican. Then again, Len Wiseman’s adaptation is neither sequel nor true remake so much as it is a reboot. He replaced Arnie with Colin Farrell, Mars with more of Earth, and Quaid’s wife, played originally by Sharon Stone, is played by Kate Beckinsale (Wiseman’s real-life wife).
Farrell could hardly appear more lost. He and Beckinsale exhibit no chemistry, but they do make a pretty pair. Also visually appealing is the film’s production design by Patrick Tatopoulos. He creates floating concrete apartments, and depicts magnetic freeways in the sky. His vision is sufficiently intriguing to make you wish for more.
The main problem is not so much reimagining the story as it is attempting to make it current with uprisings that seem calculated to reflect those in the Middle East, while commenting on America’s shrinking middle class. Rather than creating a persuasive future, screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback deliver science fiction that is at once both serious and ridiculous, each scene falling apart even as it unfolds.
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In this future, Earth is poisoned by chemicals – its only inhabitable areas being Australia, now known as “The Colonies,” and Great Britain – the seat of wealth and power.
The story, and the action, featuring Bryan Cranston as an unctuous politician and Bill Nighy as an ambiguous rebel, are difficult to comprehend. With the exception of one breathtaking car chase, details are inserted that only further confuse while failing to draw us into the futuristic action.
One might expect that Wiseman would greatly expand the role played by his wife, Beckinsale, who maintains her bad-assness of the “Underworld” films (and formfitting leather suit), all while wearing long hair extensions and never-smudge pink lipstick. You can almost hear Wiseman directing her to “pout and smolder.” Thankfully, no such instructions were given to Jessica Biel, who emerges intact from her routine action role, as Quaid’s rebel cohort.
We’re barraged by constant explosions and gunfire in overly long confrontations that add little to our idea of futuristic conflicts. The film’s most revolutionary vision sees cell phones embedded beneath the palm, where we will never lose them and presumably, our own bodies will keep them charged. Think of them as the iPalm. Otherwise, rather than “Total Recall,” Wiseman’s film ought to be titled … whoops, I forget already.