Total Recall (2012) – Directed by Len Wiseman – Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, and Bill Nighy.
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Len Wiseman’s TOTAL RECALL is one of those films that just sort of exists.
It is not a bad movie, but it is not a great movie, either, and the result is a film that’s technically proficient without ever being spectacularly memorable. Wiseman directs a decent action sequence, but RECALL is a joyless chase film that’s mildly entertaining without being the least bit engaging.
I feel a bit bad bagging on a film like TOTAL RECALL because I paid my money, ate my popcorn, and for the most part enjoyed what I was watching. There’s a few times when the film lags, but I was largely impressed with how the film looked and moved. I just wanted more. I wanted to be drawn into this world and drawn into this story and these characters and I just wasn’t. The narrative is very robotic and predictable, and not predictable because this is a remake of the original TOTAL RECALL, but predictable because I’ve seen action movies before.
I wish Wiseman would get handed a great script because I think he could deliver a really great action film, but all of his previous action films are really just okay and nothing more. Technically, they’re fine, but emotionally, they’re flat.
One big problem with this movie is that, much like the original RECALL, the narrative wants the audience to be thinking, “Is what I’m watching real, or is it all a Rekall fantasy?” and just like the original RECALL the answer is obvious moments after Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell here, Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original) sits in the chair and gets his injection. In the original, Quaid gets a scratch on his neck that disappears once the injection goes wrong, and here Quaid gets a stamp put on his arm that disappears just as fast.
How fast? We see the stamp, the injection goes wrong, a bunch of officers show up with guns, Quaid puts his arms up behind his head and … no stamp.
Making it completely obvious right up front does take a bit away from the rest of the movie. It’s not enough to ruin it – I can still watch The Wizard of Oz and The Usual Suspects after learning at the end of those films that most of what we’ve just seen is a made up story inside the story – but it does make all of the “stop the action so we can debate the authenticity of this experience” moments a bit tedious. Paul Verhoeven had the decency to make his movie fun, but Wiseman has no desire to include humor. There’s literally only one moment in the whole film where I chuckled. It’s in the middle of one of the 857 big action sequences and Quaid and Melina (Jessica Biel) have just dropped into an elevator.
“Is this going down?” Quaid asks of the stunned riders.
I’m not going to spend much time discussing the differences between the Wiseman and Verhoeven films because the amount of fun generated in both films is the biggest difference. Let’s focus on the Wiseman film:
Doug Quaid lives in Australia (The Colony) and works in a factory in England (The United Federation of Britain). The rest of the world is a poisoned wasteland. How does Quaid get to work every day? Via the Fall, a big, honking gravity elevator that cuts through the planet. Doug has dreams about running away from cops with Jessica Biel. (Fittingly, these dreams are nightmares.) Doug is married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who tries to convince him that he should be happy. Even though their life together hasn’t turned out exactly as they dreamed, she’s still the most gorgeous woman on the planet and that has to count for something, right? (Note – that may not be exactly what she said, but that’s what I heard.) I’m not sure why it makes sense for Doug to visit Rekall and have fake memories implanted in his head when he’s having nightmares, except that these dreams leave him with the feeling that he should be doing something more with his life.
His work pal Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) plays the class card and wants to know if Doug thinks being a factory worker is something to be ashamed of, and Doug says No (though he means Yes), and then goes and visits Rekall, where John Cho implants the spy program in his body. Then everything goes “wrong,” meaning that Doug gets the exact experience he’s paying for, but he doesn’t have any fun because he decided to be a double spy instead of being a guy married to Kate Beckinsale.
Once things start to go bad, TOTALL RECALL simply becomes a lesser version of The Bourne Identity. Doug is on the run, trying to figure out what’s going on and who he really is, and he teams up with one woman as the government chases him. It’s not as skillfully made as Bourne is, and there’s a real herky-jerky quality to the film: everybody hurries up to do a bunch of shooting and running, then the narrative stops so Doug can find something that advances the plot, then everyone hurries back to the running and shooting.
After things go wrong at Rekall and Doug returns home, Lori decides it’s time to attack him and bring him in. So they fight. And fight. And run. And fight. And jump. And shoot. And fight. It’s a very good action sequence, first in their apartment and then through the rooftop streets of the Colony. (The Colony and UFB are elevated regions, so there’s multiple layers to the city’s layout.) I do feel it goes on a bit too long – in an action sequence you should never be wondering, “When is this going to end?” – but it’s good stuff.
None of the actors here have an abundance of personality and that hurts the film, too. Farrell, Beckinsale, and Biel are all good, but they don’t move me. I’m never on Doug’s side here. I’m not rooting for him. And not just because I’m rooting for Beckinsale, either, but because I just don’t care about Doug’s plight. One, I know that within the confines to the story his experience is a fake, and two, he’s a nice guy but not a compelling guy. Farrell has a sense of humor and I would have liked to see more of that put into the film.
And by “more,” I mean, “any.”
The best chemistry in the film comes between Beckinsale and Biel, and I wish we would have gotten more with the two of them going at it instead of Doug serving as the meddling third wheel. Farrell is a much better actor than Schwarzenegger, but he’s not a more fun actor to watch, and the script here doesn’t take advantage of Farrell’s talents. I think RECALL perhaps reveals why it will be so hard to reboot Scwarzenneger’s films – the man might not be a good actor, but he’s a huge personality. It’s tough to find actors who can shine that brightly
RECALL isn’t a very deep film. There’s a decent backdrop of politics, with the rich UFB government manipulating a war against the poor Colony workforce, but it’s all handled with the skill of a butcher using a chainsaw. There’s a good visual look to the cities, and plenty of well-executed action sequences (especially the magnetic car chase). All the actors do what they can with the roles they’ve been given, but the roles are all rather simple.
TOTAL RECALL can never escape that sense that it’s just a poor copy of other films and stories.
And if you like good sci-fi action stories with strong female leads, please check out my 2011 novel,HARPSICHORD AND THE WORMHOLE WITCHES.
Harpsichord & the Wormhole Witches. The First Novel of the Deep. Now Available at Amazon.com in Paperback. From Atomic Anxiety Press.