There’s an oft-heard phrase (one that I hate, incidentally, for how oft-heard it is): if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” remake inspires a new one: if it’s a classic, don’t touch it, under any circumstance, ever. Wiseman manages to take his original source material, the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle among the best science-fiction films ever made, and strip it of its zest, its humor, its originality, and unpredictability. What it does keep? The lead character’s name, and a cameo from a three-breasted woman. If there’s a poster-boy for the sort of sterile yet coolly efficient fare Hollywood has gravitated towards, it’s this.
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of “Total Recall” is that it operates as tightly as clockwork. This thing has been thought through deeply on every level, but not from a creative standpoint, rather, a financial one: from the two female action heroines thrown in to court teenage-male favor, to the frustratingly anti-climatic ending put in place to establish franchise potential. Even the vanilla musical score from Harry Gregson-Williams seems to deliberately evoke the films it’s plagiarizing: “The Bourne Identity”, “Attack of the Clones”, et cetera.
This brings me to the story. In a post-“Inception” world, where more demanding concepts have proven to reap more dollars from time to time, studios seem to mistake high concepts for high satisfaction. Indeed, “Total Recall” is a densely layered soufflé of questions one doesn’t care to answer. Is the lead character, Quaid, a spy? Is he an ordinary guy? Which faction, good or bad, is he leading? Was he spying on them for the other one? Are the events dream, or reality?
The answer to all above questions, of course, is that I don’t care. Because director Len Wiseman fails to develop Colin Farrell’s protagonist, Quaid, none of the narrative convolution carries weight. It’s like an overexcited five-year old thinking you can’t see him as he hides behind a folding chair.
It’s a shame too, because who’s cooler than Colin Farrell?! Few have rooted for his comeback more fervently than I, and now that it’s in his lap, he gets decked with this script. “Total Recall”, set about a century in the future, has Farrell/Quaid on an adventure as he is accused by government officials of being a top-secret spy. Problem is, Quaid only remembers a life as an unassuming factory worker, although these memories are, as the film goes on, called increasingly into doubt. Quaid is soon pursued by government assassins, as well as leaders of a rebel movement who ALSO claim Quaid is among their ranks. This is all occurring JUST as the government rolls out a plan to…well…invade an entire opposing colony, by, ehm, transporting a secret robot army via ship through the center of the earth. I wish I was making this up. Truly. Did I mention all of this might be occurring inside a machine that implants artificial memories into Quaid’s mind?
“Total Recall”s story fails to satisfy on the most perfunctory level. Perhaps this is because of the glut of contributors: Wikipedia credits six distinct writers, to say nothing of Phillip K. Dick’s 1966 original short story, which in turn, inspired the 1990 film. All of these visions “Total Recall” seems to want to satisfy, fulfilling, in the end, none of them.
Len Wiseman’s eye for action never fails to disappoint, either. Judging from past work on the first two “Underworld” films and the recent “Die Hard”, he seems to have a habit of making his action crisp to the point of removing the impact. Seeing as “Total Recall”, in between bouts of endless, ineffective exposition, is solely concerned with action, this is a big problem. The whole damn movie is a big, long chase. But what happens when the chase just isn’t very interesting, and the filmmakers creating the chase just don’t really engage you? “Total Recall” is a film about a man without a clear identity that, in turn, has no clear identity. It’s not fun to watch, although it is very fun to write about. D-