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Movie Review: TOTAL RECALL (2012)

August 4, 2012

I suppose I should start with this: I do not personally hold the original film sacred. Part of it comes from not vibrating on quite the same wavelength as Verhoeven in general — his brand of ultra-violent “satire” often strikes me as tonally uneven and mean — but part of it is simply the fact I saw it only within the last few years, too late to have any nostalgic affection for it. I don’t hate it by any means, but I’m not constitutionally opposed to putting another spin on the same material. Your mileage may vary depending on your own relationship with the Schwarzenegger film.

Your mileage will also vary depending on how much you enjoyed the following films:

  • BLADE RUNNER
  • MINORITY REPORT
  • THE FIFTH ELEMENT
  • THE BOURNE IDENTITY
  • and THE CORE

If those are films you enjoyed and do not especially mind watching again, you will probably enjoy the new TOTAL RECALL, which doesn’t so much mix them all together as simply line them up one after the other in a sort of action film interpretive dance.

In the new TOTAL RECALL, there is no Mars colony. Instead, Western Europe (now the “United Federation of Britain”) and Australia (now “The Colony”) have been rendered the only inhabitable places on Earth due to some kind of apocalypse of chemical warfare. The Colony is where the underclass of society, the working poor, live their lives in an urban crush whose production design so flagrantly cribs BLADE RUNNER, I actually found myself admiring director Len Wiseman’s restraint in not putting fluorescent tubes in the oil-paper umbrellas. They commute every day to the UFB for work, via a giant elevator (“The Fall”) which plunges through the center of the planet. The journey takes 17 minutes.

Okay, so this is important: if you cannot get on board with what I just said, do not go see TOTAL RECALL. If you are going to become distracted by the “smoking section” logic of the chemical blight (i.e. it just knows where it’s not welcome and keeps to itself) — or wondering how a world so apocalyptically devastated could summon up the infrastructure and political will, let alone the resources, to build an elevator shaft through the center of the planet — or aggravated by the impossibility of building said elevator shaft through a liquid mantle which spins at a different rate than the crust, before you even get to objecting about the heat or pressure (the visualized diagrams of The Fall do, at least, have it deflect around the planet’s core rather than plowing through) — if you aren’t prepared to count all of that, which is presented in prologue, as an acceptable element of the story’s magic bean*, don’t even walk in that theatre.

If you are willing to shrug and say, “fine,” then you’ll be treated to a film which does an impression of a number other films but, to its credit, does those impressions really well. Wiseman resists the urge to overstylize that made UNDERWORLD mildly obnoxious. With the exception of the digital “Colin Farrell kills everyone” one-er showcased in the trailer, it doesn’t get in your face with the style, making it easy to lose yourself in the action — which is frequently exciting, if a tad repetitive and overlong.

I would have been willing to sacrifice a minute or two from every action scene (and five from the climax) if it meant time put towards character development, particularly the relationship between Colin Farrell’s Quaid and Jessica Biel’s Whoever-She-Is. Unfortunately, like so many action-adventure films, the film treats their relationship as something we must simply accept as stated rather than experiencing it for ourselves. The actors are all solid and fun to watch. I love seeing Bryan Cranston everywhere I look right now. They’re all, aside from Farrell himself, undeniably one-dimensional — but then, if the events of the film are just a pulpy adventure fed into Quaid’s mind by the technicians at Rekall, they would be. The film plays with issues of reality vs. Rekall about as much as the original did, and even tries to go one better by giving some (not a lot, but some) resonance to Quaid’s search for identity and understanding.

I often forget to mention VFX in my reviews, because so many talented people work so incredibly hard on every single movie we’ve reached a point where top-notch VFX are really only noteworthy in their absence, but the work is so extensive and so consistently good here, I have to take a moment to say bravo. Every sci-fi movie since BLADE RUNNER has dreamed of looking like this.

The original TOTAL RECALL was a ridiculous but quirky sci-fi actioner, and the remake is equally ridiculous, replacing quirk with scope and scale. I don’t think anyone will develop any deep affections for this film the way they have for the original — lacking as it is in personality, there’s not much to have affection toward. But I don’t believe every movie has to change your life, and though TOTAL RECALL didn’t engage me intellectually, I didn’t find it insulting me either.

It’s a perfectly enjoyable few hours of spectacle, worth soaking in on the big screen in glorious 2D. Nothing more — but nothing less either. Compared to the usual “summer blockbuster,” I consider that a win.


* For those who haven’t encountered the term before, the magic bean is the element of a story which is presented without explanation or justification, requiring the audience to simply suspend disbelief in exchange for being told the story which the magic bean precipitates. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack trades a cow for a set of magic beans which, overnight, grow into a beanstalk which he climbs, finding himself in a land of giants. To question where the beans came from, how the “magic” functions, how they can grow so quickly, etc, is besides the point. The point is they’re the catalyst for a story about Jack and giants, so if you want to hear the story about Jack and the giants, just accept the magic beans.

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