Watching Len Wiseman’s remake/adaptation of Total Recall it is difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve seen this all before. This is not just for those of us who saw and enjoyed Paul Verhoeven’s interpretation of the Philip K. Dick story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, but for anyone with even a passing interest in films of the sci-fi or action genres this is all old hat.
The story follows Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) who feels his life is going nowhere so he decides to visit Rekall, a company that will implant exciting memories in your brain for a fee. However the procedure goes wrong when Quaid is shown to already have hidden memories of being a secret agent at which point all hell breaks loose.
It would almost be easier to list the films that Total Recall rips off elements of than to discuss it on its own. There seem to be no original aspects in this film at all. Considering Philip K. Dick wrote stories which explored ideas about identity and memory it’s really amazing how Total Recall seems to have started from a point of having ideas and diluted it down to nothing.
Of course the story is a rewrite of the 1990 film and not the short story which is merely an inspiration, but even the camp exploitation of Verhoeven’s film is bursting with philosophical ideas about personality and memory where Wiseman’s version is rewritten just enough to keep it free of anything worth thinking about.
Kate Beckinsale and Bryan Cranston’s villains are as generic as you like but they might have inspired some suspenseful scenes if there was any reason to care about Quaid or his plight. Wiseman’s understanding of how to create suspense is completely theoretical as he has the mechanics of it but nothing clicks.
All attempts at humour are as cringe-worthy as the efforts at explaining the philosophical ideas that were once a part of the story and the film languishes in a pit of seriousness that drains all elements of fun or surprise. You’d also think the go-to finale scene of the heterosexual couple reunited in harmony in the safety of the emergency services would be out-of-date 24 years after Die Hard made it the standard way to end action films but apparently Wiseman doesn’t think so.
The key scene in the film is the appearance of the three-breasted woman. It is at this point early in the film when we realise we wish we were watching the 1990 version. In Verhoeven’s picture this is a moment of characteristic absurdity that is in complete harmony with the tone of the film, her appearance in the dour atmosphere of this film only draws attention to the fact that Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is an inferior product that has no ideas other than to throw a bunch of cinematic clichés at the wall and hope people will pay to see the result.
The set-designers did an impressive job on the film, but it all becomes bland as the two countries on opposite sides of the planet look identical which adds to the inherent laziness of the film. Total Recall is ultimately a typical 21st Century blockbuster constructed on the principle that big bank will be able to compensate for a complete lack of imagination, but here it certainly doesn’t.