By David Tao, Senior Arts Editor
Published August 6, 2012
The old riff on Hollywood remakes is that they’re unoriginal, soulless and formulaic. Take an old classic, throw in the new generation’s biggest stars and hottest storytelling tropes, update the visual effects and voila, you’re sitting on a bucket of money. Nine times out of 10, the process yields a visually appealing, yet utterly predictable movie, and “Total Recall” is no exception. A mildly entertaining but otherwise mediocre sci-fi thriller, the film is a disservice to its cult-classic predecessor.
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From a broader perspective, the remake and its source material seem almost identical. Both are set in futuristic dystopias and feature a protagonist named Quaid (Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”), a regular working stiff, and a less-than-reputable business known as Rekall, a memory implant service that lets you live out your fantasies. Quaid visits Rekall, hoping for a quick sojourn as a secret agent, but the procedure fails, and he suddenly finds himself plunged into a war between the dystopia’s dictator, Cohaagen, and an underground resistance movement.
But as per formula, the update swaps out a few of the original’s cogs for newer doohickeys, tailored for our generation. Writers Kurt Wimmer (“Salt”) and Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) eliminate the original Martian setting, bowing instead to Hollywood’s recent fascination with post-apocalyptic Earth. Gone too are the original’s references to aliens, mutants and psychic mysticism, in favor of the “gritty realism” so in vogue with today’s crowd.
These little script tweaks won’t necessarily doom a remake, particularly if the changes are well-executed, but director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) never moves the film beyond mediocre. Wiseman is known for his films’ ridiculous action set pieces, but maintains a surprisingly subdued tone throughout “Recall.” Farrell races away from a new age robot police force in his magnetic hovercar, dodging bullets and crashing into things, and for some reason, all of it seems static. Nothing makes you catch your breath or keeps you on the edge of your seat; it’s adequate, but unspectacular.
Visually too, the film disappoints. The original, directed by Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) had an incredibly distinctive, if polarizing, visual style, blending boxy, oversized early-90s production design and Verhoeven’s quirky, polarizing penchant for the blood-soaked and physically demented. Those campy, colorful sets have been replaced with flavorless, recycled-looking stock designs, painted with a palette of gunmetal grays and sterile whites devoid of personality.
In short, Wiseman fails to bring anything new to the table, while simultaneously failing to understand what made the original film so legendary. Hint: It wasn’t elaborate special effects, or extended chase sequences rife with gunfire, or even the infamous triple-breasted hooker Quaid meets midway through the original film, which Wiseman took extra special care to include in his update. What gave the original its staying power was its ambition; it’s willingness to tackle questions of reality.
Throughout the original, Quaid duels with his own perception; did the Rekall procedure really go wrong? Is what’s happening to him actually happening to him? Or should he listen to the people saying he’s suffered a psychotic break? The script is carefully written so that some scenes seem a little too perfect, a bit too similar to the vacation package Quaid ordered. At the same time, we want Quaid’s new reality to be real, upping the stakes considerably; we’re tied to our unremarkable lives, but maybe our buddy Quaid can get out and become something more. Wiseman’s retelling ignores all of these questions in favor of a straightforward, unexceptional effects-driven chase, leading to an utterly forgettable final product.