If the vast majority of the new Colin Farrell science fiction/adventure film Total Recall feels recycled and familiar, you can’t blame it only on the fact that the film is a re-imagining of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger hit of the same name.
It copies from almost every science fiction film of the last thirty years.
The film looks like a genetic splicing of better films like Blade Runner, Star Trek, and Minority Report, and the action beats come directly from sillier modern-day sci-fi films like I, Robot. Like its protagonist, Total Recall has no idea what it’s supposed to be.
Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid (Quail in the original short story by Philip K. Dick), a man bored with his job making police robots for the rich and powerful who control Earth’s major superpower, the United Federation of Britain. Quaid suffers from recurring dreams about being a spy, fighting tyranny alongside a beautiful brunette named Melina (Jessica Biel). Driven by these images, Quaid goes to Rekall, a place where memories are implanted into the human mind. However, the operation goes wrong, and Quaid discovers that he really is a secret agent. From there, he is on the run from the forces of evil overlord Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) and Quaid’s wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale).
The reboot loosely follows the plot of the original film for nearly the first half before deviating significantly. Gone are some of the more interesting ideas of the Schwarzenegger film, like the Martian colonies, prophetic messiah Kuato, and the Dune-like idea of creating a new Earth on Mars. Replacing these thought-provoking concepts are gunfire, a lot of chasm-jumping, and villains that simply will not die. The most interesting idea of the reboot involves a Chunnel-like tram that runs through the Earth’s core, yet even that factors into a ludicrous finale of boring proportions.
Unlike Schwarzenegger, Farrell is a real actor who has a grounded, believable presence. It’s easy to see Farrell working against the script to project the proper amount of confusion in the character. Unfortunately, the script undermines his efforts at every turn. The central issue of the film – is Quaid experiencing reality or an implanted memory? – is casually discarded by the action-hungry desires of screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback and the panicky, hyperactive direction of Len Wiseman.
This is an important failure of the script, because that central issue is supposed to fuel Quaid’s quest to discover his destiny. Early in the film, Quaid tells his friend that he feels like he was meant to “do something important.” In the Schwarzenegger version, that destiny involved transforming Mars and saving the enslaved Martian people. Here, there seems to be no purpose to Quaid’s actions other than “stop Cohaagen.” The sense of scope and fulfilled purpose is completely smothered by unrealistic action set pieces.
And oh, the set pieces! One action sequence blurs into the next, allowing no time for the audience to digest it or add some characterization. In the Schwarzenegger version, the set pieces were memorable and unique and given time to stand apart. In this version, it’s merely one CG-assisted fight/chase after another without any depth or meaning. The most egregious example comes early, when Quaid’s wife (Beckinsale in the role made famous by Sharon Stone) fights with Quaid so relentlessly and robotically across vast expanses between buildings that it becomes comical. Everything is ramped up to ten in this film.
While the original Total Recall feels cheesy and stage-bound by today’s standards, it still works as entertainment. There is nothing entertaining about this reboot, as it seems to have been bled of any humor or humanity. It’s a glossy, lens-flared, vacuous exercise in blockbuster action filmmaking, one that the audience will undoubtedly forget five minutes after it finishes.
Total Recall acts as its own version of Rekall, subtly erasing its existence from the minds of moviegoers. It’s not a bad film, just a boring, pointless, and misguided one.
Total Recall is out now in the US and opens in the UK on August 29th.