Total Recall (2012 Version)

(Reviewed August 2, 2012, by James Dawson)

Compared to director Paul Verhoeven's colorfully tongue-in-cheek 1990 "Total Recall," this version is more "Blade Runner" bleak and "Minority Report" joyless (to name two other movies based on the works of science-fiction author Philip K. Dick). Its special effects are more elaborate, its action more non-stop frantic and its drama more depressingly grim.

The revamp turns out to be regrettable, making the remake far less entertaining than the guilty-pleasure version that starred a cartoonish Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a preposterously over-the-top thrill ride about an action-hero amnesiac, the filmmakers forgot to include any fun.

Colin Farrell plays near-future blue-collar drone Doug Quaid, whose vivid dreams of secret-agent adventure inspire him to purchase a mental vacation in that role. He visits a shady operation named Rekall that uses drugs and technology to convince clients they have lived whatever imaginary experience they select. As Quaid is undergoing the procedure, a brain-scanning technician discovers Quaid already has similar hidden memories that are real.

Both versions of "Total Recall" use variations of that set-up from Dick's 1966 short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." While the movies try to make the question of what's real and what's Rekall at least partially ambiguous, Dick's story was definitive about the matter. It also was mind-bendingly stranger, including trippy elements such as eavesdropping telepathic spies and earth-invading aliens that look like mice.

The Schwarzenegger "Total Recall" sent the identity-uncertain Quaid to Mars, where he saves a mutant colony and drastically transforms the planet itself. Farrell's Quaid never leaves a war-ravaged Earth that has only two remaining population centers. The upper-crust United Federation of Britain and the underclass Australian purgatory known as The Colony are connected by a visually dazzling if scientifically dubious commuter elevator running through the center of the world. (One-way in only 17 minutes!) Also, the remake adds a lot of robots known as synthetics to the ranks of Quaid's pursuers, and some very "Minority Report"-reminiscent flying cars.

Otherwise, the major plot points of both screenplays are nearly identical. Quaid's wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) either is or isn't trying to kill him. His real-or-imaginary girlfriend Melina (Jessica Biel) needs Quaid's help to overthrow the murderous Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). And a mysterious rebel leader (Bill Nighy) has reason to regret trusting Our Hero.

Schwarzenegger's most famous of many deliciously corny one-liners was "consider that a divorce," after his Quaid put a bullet through his duplicitous wife's forehead. Farrell gets to deliver a variation in tamer circumstances, but that's it for anything resembling a zinger from him. Likewise, Beckinsale is provided with a single utterance that could pass for witty, when she claims that she "gives good wife."

Director Len Wiseman, who directed the first two Beckinsale-starring installments of the "Underworld" film franchise, is good at coordinating an extended "Bourne"-style foot chase and a complex pursuit through high-speed elevator shafts. A weightless segment at the planet's core, in which Quaid uses his weapon's recoil to propel himself through the air, also is well done.

On the downside, it's unlikely that any movie this year will include more aggravatingly ostentatious lens-flare effects. Nearly every scene in the film is marred by those distracting horizontal glares. At one point, there are so many bright blue lines obscuring the image they resemble neon venetian blinds.

Unlike Schwarzenegger's Quaid, Farrell's version never fully commits to his secret agent persona, seeming nearly as disoriented at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. Beckinsale vamps viciously as the lovely-locks Lori, who is as tirelessly tenacious as a Terminator.

Cranston gives Cohaagen a wonderfully dismissive nastiness that's more physically intimidating than Ronny Cox's 1990 portrayal. The insulting way he chucks Lori's chin in improvised disappointment, and her startled reaction, may be the movie's truest moment.

The filmmakers deserve credit for attempting to provide a different take on the source material, but the remake's version of Rekall itself is the best example of how they went wrong. The 1990 movie's Rekall offices were clinically sterile and high-tech. The remake puts Rekall in what looks like a garish Chinese restaurant, and turns what resembled an intimidating light-show MRI machine into the equivalent of an antique electric chair.

This "Total Recall" may be different, but it's not very memorable.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

To see my articles about "Total Recall" stars Colin Farrell and Bryan Cranston, who appeared at a July 28, 2012, press junket promoting the movie, use the links below:

Colin Farrell "Total Recall" Feature
Bryan Cranston "Total Recall" Feature