It’s fitting that Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” remake features a gigantic robot army, given that his films have always demonstrated the bare minimum level of interest in actual people. That’s why Wiseman was a particularly poor choice for adapting Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 masterpiece about a man who discovers that his memories are false and he’s actually an invincible agent from Mars involved in an interplanetary conspiracy. The money and the action are there, but none of the human elements that made the original memorable (forgive the pun) are present, even in small doses.
To this day, Verhoeven remains an under-appreciated auteur, even in spite of being recognized for his genius by select cinephiles. His use of wicked humor and utilization of star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconography have caused many admirers and detractors alike to misinterpret the original “Total Recall” as camp, when in fact the director treated the film’s ideas about identity and the intersection of fantasy and reality very intelligently. It was an action picture smartly fused with tantalizing science-fiction (based on a story by Philip K. Dick) and the sensibilities of a Hitchcock thriller.
Schwarzengger’s Doug Quaid, a construction worker, proved to be as good of a role for the star as the iconic Terminator, his fearsome screen presence adding a complex pathos to Quaid’s helplessness in the face of shifting truths. As Quaid transformed from a discontented peon with a mediocre existence to the noble savior of an entire planet, the film itself made a profound statement on individuality.
Wiseman and the crew of the new “Total Recall” can be counted among those who fail to actually see the aforementioned brilliance in Verhoeven’s vision, mistaking the original for merely an above-average Schwarzenegger vehicle with neat futuristic flourishes. To Wiseman, the material is just an opportunity for one action sequence after another; he barrels through the story without regard for human insights or the labyrinthine, boldly surprising notes of Verhoeven’s work. Few moments that should be engaging and tense actually are, and the plot insultingly culminates in the same twist as the original, but with the emotionally and thematically resonant components removed.
Colin Farrell takes over as Quaid, an acceptable choice for a role now written and directed as safely as possible. Farrell can doubtlessly claim to be a better actor than Schwarzenegger, but focusing on this fact ignores another, equally important one: a talented director like Verhoeven can do mesmerizing things with a screen-icon like Schwarzenegger just as easily as weak director like Wiseman can find a way to waste a great thespian (as he does here with Bryan Cranston). Farrell’s Quaid looks competent in battle–the only thing terribly important to Wiseman–but ends up lacking the pathos engendered by Schwarzenegger’s wounded turn.
Most other cast changes don’t even fare as well as Farrell. As mentioned above, Cranston is wasted as the insidious autocrat (who inexplicably leads his troops from the front), failing to inspire any of the menace he so readily radiates on the TV series “Breaking Bad.” Then there’s Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman’s wife, who takes over for Sharon Stone as Quaid’s spouse-turned-pursuer. Beckinsale is a good fit for the role, but Wiseman dotes on her, amping up her screen time far beyond what’s needed, with the camera taking special efforts to show the audience how beautiful she looks while shooting a gun. By comparison, Bill Nighy’s rebel leader, a key character in the original who should have been equally important here, receives barely ten lines. Other cast members such as Jessica Biel, John Cho, and Bokeem Woodbine also fail to conjure up much excitement.
The filmmakers have moved the story from Mars, vividly rendered in Verhoeven’s version as a sleazy, dangerous hotbed of rebellion, to a war-torn Earth whose surface is largely uninhabitable after chemical warfare. The $125 million budget ensures that the sets and visual effects are uniformly good, though it would be difficult to spot a single shot without substantial CGI enhancement. By contrast, the realistic, actually real Mars sets of the original look superior in an era when computer imagery is routinely substituted for elbow grease. Wiseman’s world, full of the sort of skyscrapers and flying cars that are routinely shot with more flair by directors like Ridley Scott and Luc Besson, feels less like a real place than a MacGuffin to lend Quaid’s adventures some sense of purpose. Here, Quaid’s ultimate victory represents a minor geopolitical feat, not the salvation of an entire world.
Credit where it’s due: Wiseman is at least a competent workman with his action scenes, actually constructing fights that play out with more clarity and excitement than many an otherwise superior director (Christopher Nolan, anyone?) has achieved. But he still pales in comparison to Verhoeven on this front, as his effects-laden chases lack the visceral resonance of Verhoeven’s blistering gun battles and brutal close-quarters combat sequences. To make matters worse, the PG-13 rating clips the original’s sensual overtones and provocative violence, giving Quaid’s relationships with wife and resistance leader a tameness that they don’t need (a better director could have fixed these issues while still working within the MPAA’s limitations).
Anticipation for Wiseman’s “Total Recall” was not exactly high among critics or fanboys, but both still had reason to hope that, by sheer dent of the original’s greatness, this one would end up being a thoughtful action movie. Instead, it primarily serves as a memory stimulant of its own, one that will inspire the audience to remember how much better this material can actually be done.