Review: Total Recall (2012)

“I’ll see you at the party, Richter”

God bless Schwarzenegger. To certain people of a certain age with a certain sensibility, the above is one of the great movie quotes of all time. Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, by no means a perfect film, was nonetheless a rip-roaring thrill ride of excess. Coming at the tail end of the 80s, a great decade for sci-fi films, it took Philip K Dick’s short story about false memories and bludgeoned it into a pulpy over-indulgent and schlocky actioner. There was little (i.e. no) subtlety, but it was fantastically paced and, quite simply, fun. And now… it’s back.

Kind of.

For some reason.

I could go on at length about Hollywood’s propensity for remakes at present, but the argument is altogether moot at this point. It’s here now, so we may as well just accept the fact and judge the film on its own merits. The problem with that, however, is two-fold. Firstly, Verhoeven’s film remains too familiar, and secondly… this film doesn’t really have any merits. It constantly suffers not only by association, but when taken as a science fiction thriller in its own right.

This time around the story has been mutated to work around a high-concept future Earth. Through unspecified wars virtually all of the planet has become uninhabitable – save for Britain and Australia (yet virtually everyone is American). One state is prosperous (meaning it looks like the future seen in I, Robot, complete with lame robots) whilst the other is grimy, dystopian and permanently rain-swept, ala Blade Runner. Funnily enough, Australia is the latter, a country known for its constant rainfall, as we all know.

The two are connected by a tunnel running through the hot molten core of the planet. How exactly this was built is unclear.

Colin Farrell plays Dennis Quaid, assembly line worker (on the other side of the world – worst commute ever) troubled by dreams of another life and discontent with his own in which he is married to Kate Beckinsale. Complacent much? He becomes intrigued by a company named Rekall who can write new memories, giving you the experience of a lifetime by planting it into your mind.

Quaid decides to visit Rekall and requests the experience of being a secret agent, and before you know it the procedure’s gone wrong, the staff have all been murdered, and Quaid is on the run as he is revealed to be a secret agent for real(?).

The world of Total Recall circa 2012 is at the same time overly elaborate and conspicuously rickety. A lot of information is brushed through rather than comfortably established so that the film can concentrate on its main agenda… which appears to be to imitate someone playing a complex platform game as chase after chase after chase ensues over increasingly vertiginous drops.

Indeed, Quaid seems positively lemming-like in his enthusiasm for launching himself off of perilous cliffs, ledges and balconies, safe in the knowledge that there will always be a fortuitous ladder/canopy/sheet of glass to break his fall. I can only presume that there have been significant advances to the tolerances of the human body in director Len Wiseman’s future world, as all of the film’s characters seem more than happy to be forcefully bounced off of whatever inconvenient surface comes their way.

The intended adrenaline rush of these sequences would probably be effective if we cared about any of it at all, but the set-up is so ham-fisted as to render much of the action inconsequential. This is a fault that lands squarely with the script, yet the actors are also quite liberally to blame. On a performance level this is a nil-score-draw. Farrell has never been a weighty enough leading man, and here he appears to be giving his least. He may as well have been replaced with a carriage clock, or some hens. Similarly, love interest Jessica Biel keeps things firmly in neutral, whilst the usually dependable Bryan Cranston isn’t given nearly enough set-up as villain Cohaagen, ending up providing too little too late. And then there’s Bill Nighy. Woefully miscast, he spends his limited screen time eyeing up the corners of the frame, as though he’s quickly realised that this is not the vehicle for him.

Wiseman seems uncomfortably aware of the catch-22 he is in by remaking a beloved favourite, unable to decide whether to acknowledge Verhoeven’s film or not. For the most part he at least tries to carve this Total Recall out as its own film… so then why bother with fan-service motifs like the three breasted hooker? Whilst a nod to the original’s whacky hero-in-disguise sequence couldn’t have landed with a damper squib.

Ultimately, the only areas in which this Total Recall does succeed are in its production values. Though endlessly derivative, everything looks the business. The cityscapes are immaculately detailed, as are the interiors. It’s a shame that they’re wasted on this story, which crashes through them like an ungainly psychotic racehorse. One that ought to have been put out of its misery long ago. But even still, I prefer the look and feel of Verhoeven’s film, which I had the fortune recently to have seen on the big screen. As hammy as it is, it still had the capacity to awe in places. Not so Total Recall 2012.

It seems harsh to criticise one film for not being another film, but when one film’s so good that it nullifies the other’s existence, it’s hard to justify anything at all. Morbid curiosity brought me here. Abject disappointment is what I have left with.

And Richter? There isn’t even a Richter this time around. The party is cancelled.

Score:  1.5

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