TOTAL RECALL (2012, directed by Len Wiseman, 118 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It’s August, historically the time when Hollywood sends its most underachieving blockbusters into theaters. That would make 2012’s Total Recall perfectly suited for the season, a remake of the least impressive of the three dystopic sci-fi films directed in Hollywood by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Is it a good movie? Not in any conventional sense, the film doesn’t even scale the modest heights of the original. Yet in the easy-going nature August, the film does offer a handful of well-mounted action scenes, some fun gadget-y techno fantasies and a mildly diverting reason to bask in a theater’s air conditioning for two hours.
Back when the original was released, I remember groaning about the deficiencies of superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, thinking how much better the film could have been with a “real” actor in the main role as Quaid, the construction worker turned revolutionary. Yet here is the esteemed Colin Farrell in the role, and he makes little impression amongst the spectacle, barely rivaling the charisma of Arnold’s grimacing blockhead routine. Quaid is haunted by dreams when he checks in with the Rekall company, looking to get some relief by inserting synthesized memories into his brain. He chooses to experience a secret agent scenario and just as the juice hits his veins, he’s off and running from nefarious government agents. But is this Quaid’s fantasy or is this for real?
The whole “is it real or not?” scenario was fresh when Philip K. Dick wrote the source material back in 1966, but the scenario has become a stock concept in modern CGI-driven sci-fi, playing a major part in The Matrix and Inception, for starters. If the concept isn’t fresh, little in the film is original either, its design drawing heavily on a slew of contemporary sci-fi classics, from the floating hovercrafts of The Fifth Element, the army of shiny white armored Stormtroopers from Star Wars, and the rainy, Asiatic city streets of Blade Runner. The camerawork (by Paul Cameron of Collateral) even favors flashes of glowing blues, giving the film a certain ’80s retro sheen.
So there’s not a whiff of originality to the film, but if you’re in it for the action, there are a handful of thrills. Len Wiseman previously directed the Underworld series and fourth Die Hard film, and he attempts to insert of a little honest physicality into the CGI-heavy action. One particularly well-designed piece involves Quaid and his romantic interest (the always visually-pleasing Jessica Biel) jumping from elevator to elevators in a giant underground grid. They narrowly escape surging fireballs.
I call the scene “a piece” and I realize that is what so much of modern action looks like, a piece designed by a separate department, made to be wedded to the dramatic scenes crafted by the film’s marquee director. Once that action slips into motion, you feel you’re in the hands of a team of cagey programmers rather than a work created by directors and actors collaborating. Total Recall‘s action epitomizes that sort of industrial film making, succeeding better than some, while not scaling the heights that Christopher Nolan or Michael Mann might reach.
Some good actors are lost in the shuffle here, Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston phones in a villain’s sneer, and Bokeem Woodbine soulfully emotes as Quaid’s best friend. Shining strongest is Kate Beckinsale (the director’s wife), giving a strenuous performance as Quaid’s murderously unstoppable spouse. And yes, I’ll appeal to your lower instincts and report that, just like in the 1990 original, the three-breasted woman appears to give you a peek. That’s one of the few expectations I had for Total Recall 2012, which dutifully fulfills the low expectations of August.