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Total Recall

Reviewed by Dario Llinares.

Director Len Wiseman
Length 118 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating *****-----
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 3

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The Hollywood recycling machine has hoved into action once again with the release of Total Recall. Such films affect an ambivalent response in viewers who were around to see the original version. On the one hand, there is the potential for vitriol at Hollywood’s lack of creativity, the feeling that audience engagement is taken for granted, and even, in extreme cases, cries of “you’re ruining memories of my childhood”. However, nostalgia is a powerful force of attraction for many filmgoers. Remakes of well-loved films have often proved popular by playing on the desire for secure familiarity while offering fresh takes on well-trodden themes and well-loved characters.

The legacy of the 80s action film, featuring muscle-bound, over-the-top heroes is not one that, for me, incites irreducible longing, yet it endures in various forms. Current films The Expendables 2, Dredd 3D and Total Recall all reference this testosterone-fuelled era of cinematic excess. When Paul Verhoeven directed the original in 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger was (give or take a Cruise or a Gibson) the biggest star on the planet. Along with the Terminator films and True Lies (1994), Total Recall is the best example of the Austrian oak’s attraction as a cinematic presence. This film more than most therefore provides a difficult challenge to both director and star in living up to the old while offering something new.

The casting of Colin Farrell in the role of Douglas Quaid is obviously key in distinguishing this latest version. However, narrative and visual differences suggest that director Len Wiseman has also attempted to realise his own vision. Quaid is still a dissatisfied manual labourer who visits mind-altering corporation Rekall looking to escape from his mundance existence. Just as he is about to be implanted with a ‘super-spy’ memory, real government agents appear trying to kill him. Fortuitously, he rediscovers a range of latent skills enabling him to dispatch them using various armed and unarmed methods. Quaid also still has a gorgeous but nefarious wife, Lori, a role played by Sharon Stone in the original, and taken on here by Kate Beckinsale (I know - how hard can Quaid’s life be?). However, the Mars setting, which was such an integral part of the original, has gone. Instead, the film is set in a post-chemical warfare dystopia with two opposing regions - the United Federation of Britain (UFB) and the Colony (formally Australia) - which are connected by what is, in essence, a giant subway train (“the Fall”) running through the centre of the Earth. Inhabitants of the colony are ostensibly enslaved by the UFB, creating the government-versus-resistance dichotomy, which structures the film.

Quaid is fundamentally a two-note character and Farrell is perfectly fine oscillating between confused and tough. In many ways, though, Beckinsale steals the film. She throws herself into what is an expanded role compared to the original, both convincing in the fight sequences and exuding an entertaining sense of menace. Dropping her voice an octave and effecting a different set of gestures helps create a believable transition from docile wife to government super-agent. Jessica Biel, as Melina, Quaid’s contact from the resistance, is bland by comparison. Interestingly, neither female character is overly sexualized, which makes a change from the leering objectification that characterises many Hollywood Blockbusters. Bill Nighy pops up as the leader of the resistance, and Brian Cranston, of Breaking Bad fame, is woefully underused as the arch villain Cohaagen.

The production design and special effects are actually rather impressive and, refreshingly for a CGI-laden film, the cinematic world carries some weight and texture. Having said that, Total Recall is extraordinarily derivative; Minority Report (2002), The Matrix (1999), The Fifth Element (1997), and especially Blade Runner (1982), are writ large throughout its aesthetic DNA. The narrative necessarily touches upon some interesting issues about the nature of reality, and there are allusions to how technologically advanced societies are split into the haves and have-nots. These strands, however, are simply structuring points upon which action set-pieces are framed.

There are knowing nods to the original, but this film lacks the distinctive joie de vivre of Verhoeven’s version, playing the story much straighter. This is problematic mainly because one is never really convinced by the class struggle plot, and the film ends up feeling overly safe and anchored firmly within a 12A/PG-13 demographic. Nice to look at, quite diverting, but absolutely nothing new here at all.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on September 01, 2012.