Total Recall (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

total sqWhen you remove blood from the action, you also remove stakes, and when you remove stakes, you remove tension—and when you remove tension, no one gives a shit.

 

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In 1966, Philip K. Dick wrote a short story called We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. In the late ’80s, Hollywood decided to adapt this story into a movie, and the project went through various different hands. Most notably, David Cronenberg wrote several drafts of a script, and was going to direct a film version starring William Hurt. That project fell through, although certain elements of the final film seem pretty overtly Cronenberg-ian. Eventually, Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast, the story was amped up to be more of a mainstream action film (the short story gets seriously weird, especially in its final pages), and Paul Verhoeven ended up directing. The result was Total Recall, which, by most accounts, is a classic film.

A few years ago, studios started talking about doing a remake, and sci-fi geeks wondered if it would be a remake of the film, or a more direct adaptation of the original story, more along the lines of what Cronenberg would have done with the material. The casting of Colin Farrell could have meant either option. He tends to vacillate between interesting artsy projects and mainstream blockbusters. But then it was announced that the movie would be directed by Len Wiseman, which pretty much told us everything we needed to know. Wiseman isn’t the worst director out there, but his movies tend to be obnoxiously mediocre. He’s good at replicating things that have been done before without bringing anything new to the table. Here, he continues that trend.

There’s a reason Hollywood latched onto this story: At its core, it’s a brilliant concept. Farrell’s character, Douglas Quaid (Quail in the short story), is a factory worker who wants to visit Mars but can’t afford to do so. He goes to a company called Rekall, which implants false memories of vacations into people’s minds. If you really want an adventure, they will implant a memory in which you are a completely different person. Quaid chooses to have an adventure as a secret agent, but halfway through the procedure, everything goes wrong. It turns out he really is a secret agent whose mind has already been altered. He then becomes a fugitive who has to run for his life, while also learning the truth about who he is. Mars was the setting for most of the Verhoeven film, but here it is relegated to a throwaway line early on in which Quaid says he wishes he could go to Mars. I wish he could, as well.

Despite the fact that the new Total Recall follows the story of the earlier film pretty closely, it seems to want to divorce itself from that version, aside from a few winking nods (including a few frames of nudity which somehow got past the MPAA) that are not particularly amusing. Instead, Wiseman steals a lot from other Philip K. Dick adaptations, specifically Minority Report (which also featured Colin Farrell) and especially Blade Runner. Pretty much every sci-fi movie since Blade Runner has been influenced by its production design and atmosphere, but until now, I’ve never seen such blatant theft. There is even a shot of Farrell with his head resting on a piano, idly hitting keys. In later scenes, I was heavily reminded of the Star Wars prequels, which should not be an influence on anyone. There is one original idea involving cell phones, and everything else about this futuristic world is made up of bits and pieces borrowed from other movies.

I hate to be this guy, but the original film was rated R and the remake is PG-13. If there is one thing Verhoeven loves, it’s big, juicy squibs that tear people apart in a comically grotesque way. I’m not saying I need that level of gore in this story, but it made that movie feel special. When Arnold is running from the bad guys and an innocent civilian gets caught in the middle and ends up being used as a human shield, it stands out; you remember it as an intense moment of realism. Here, Quaid kills about as many robots as people. As far as I can tell, the only reason to have these robots in the movie is that you can do horrible things to them and avoid blood and guts. Will any kid who sees this movie remember a robot getting his arm lopped off by an elevator? Everyone remembers it from the original because it was a person, which means it actually mattered. When you remove blood from the action, you also remove stakes, and when you remove stakes, you remove tension—and when you remove tension, no one gives a shit.

I don’t want to come off like I hate this new Total Recall. I’ve always liked Farrell, even in bad movies like this one. Wiseman is a competent director of action, although here he gets a little too flashy (literally—this movie has more lens flares than, I don’t know, a lens flare store). The biggest problem is that this movie feels strangely joyless. Verhoeven had a great way of mixing serious plotlines with over-the-top humor and finding a perfect balance. Here, the director plays everything straight, which is fine, but then you have to make me care, and I just never did. Wiseman wants to have it both ways, the dour tone of Blade Runner with the entertainment value of Total Recall. Wiseman is obviously a fan of the original, but he doesn’t seem to get what made it so good. People remember that movie 22 years later; I saw the remake a few hours ago, and already, I’m down to only partial recall. | Sean Lass

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