Renn Brown: When faced with the challenge of simultaneously re-adapting a Phillip K. Dick story and remaking Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 singular sci-fi action film, Len Wiseman had a truly tough decision in front of him. How does one attempt to put a new spin on or even top such iconic moments as fill out Verhoeven’s singular film? What was Wiseman’s and company’s answer? Don’t even try!
While certainly borrowing some plot mechanisms along with the odd gadget idea here or production design detail there, Len Wiseman’s Total Recall redaptmake™ bears about as much similarity to Paul Verhoeven’s classic film as that film bears to the original short story that inspires both. Ultimately all three are pretty much about a man who seeks out a set of exciting memory implants, only to find that his Mars-bound secret agent fantasy is actually a manifestation of actual memories, and that the implant procedure re-awakens him to his true past. But where Verhoeven chose to morph Dick’s work into a gore-and-mutant-filled adventure with lots of latent 80s blow ’em up action and general weirdness, Wiseman has tackled the tale as a slick, post-Minority Report chase film that is equal parts Matrix and glossed-up Blade Runner. The question is if there’s any universe wherein Wiseman could transcend the hyperactive hackwork of his previous films and make something like that into a movie worth watching. From my seat, I think he actually kinda (sorta) comes close to doing just that, but for now I’ll toss it to Nick and Tim to set the tone on this one.
Nick Nunziata: From my seat the overwhelming chemical response to come from the experience was indifference. Wiseman has crafted an inert and thoroughly forgettable generic action film out of a rather surefire premise. The short story is so basic and malleable, to strip the personality and energy from the Verhoeven film is a huge mistake. The reason a remake exists has nothing to do with the short story. It has to do with the hay made in the 90’s with threadbare material. Verhoeven’s film is heavily flawed and already dampened by the lack of technology. It isn’t sacred. Len Wiseman’s version feels like the USA Network’s attempt to adapt the material, albeit with a moderate budget.
Tim Kelly: I’m going to disagree with Renn, here. I had great difficulty separating this from Verhoeven’s original film. I’ll agree with Nick that it’s by no means sacred text, but the ’90 film is damn good science fiction fun – a work that takes Dick’s 23 page short story and spins it into an R-rated Raiders Goes to Mars. And where a remake like Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead takes familiar elements and shakes them into an entirely new narrative, Wiseman (to me) is content to remove mutants and Mars and make what is essentially the same god damn film.
And it’s his choices on where and what to pay lip service to that confound me about this new Total Recall. Why are mutants and Mars disposable but re-introducing Three Boob Lady absolutely necessary? Wiseman even plays off a familiar scene in the original where Quaid smuggles himself into Mars as an elderly, obese woman (Wiseman casts a dead ringer for the original’s late Priscilla Allen). Even the name of Colin Farrell’s Quaid owes its conception to the original film. In Dick’s story his name was Quail, which was changed to avoid comparison to Dan Quayle. All of this might sound like I’m putting the original on a pedestal. I’m not, and we can get into the things that work about the film in a moment. I’m just perplexed why Wiseman saw fit to beat the audience over the head that he was remaking a superior and (surprisingly, given Schwarzenegger’s filmography) entirely more nuanced product.
Renn Brown: The film is certainly a remake built on the plot skeleton of the 1990 version, but so much of what makes Total Recall a particularly memorable action movie is all of the eccentricities and specific textures of an early 90s Vehoeven blockbuster. So while the plots run parallel and there are some occasional, shallow nods to the original film’s specifics, there is no mistaking the two films. You’re never going to find a moment like Arnold Schwarzenneger driving a piece of construction equipment though the side of a taxi and grinding up the guy inside, nor really any other hint of Verhoeven’s grotesquerie. This draws us around to Nick’s feeling that the result is forgettable and, while I think the film is anything but inert, it undoubtedly lacks the character of its predecessor as it opts for modern slickness.
Ultimately though, most people won’t give a shit about Verhoeven’s film, and taken on its own I think Wiseman has overseen some of the most effective and detailed world-building in some time. Though undoubtedly cribbing heavily from Blade Runner and Minority Report in the design department, the film is set in an effectively developed dystopian future with sophisticated effects cinching together the practical sets with the wider landscapes. The film dances between the two beautifully, and when you’re not holding it up to the almost cartoonishly heightened reality and effects of Verhoeven’s film, there’s some interesting things going on here. The story set-up leaves most of the planet uninhabitable, while only Britain and Australian remain. The former is the home of the elite, while the latter is the over-populated and trashy “Colony,” with the two connected by a massive elevator structure that brings workers back and forth. There’s nothing as elegant in Wiseman’s dumber film as the restriction of the air supply to represent the twisted dynamic of the haves and have nots in Verhoeven’s, but before the third act business kicks in the film is a fun one to explore.
Nick Nunziata: There is no fun in this film. It’s lifeless. Part of the problem is the casting, and though Colin Farrell is game and considerably effective with the physical work he doesn’t have a script that allows him to showcase the likability and energy present in recent efforts like In Bruges and Horrible Bosses. This is a film that relies on Bokeem Woodbine to deliver massive amounts of exposition. Not the strongest foundation. In the original film there were threats galore in personalities as diverse as Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, and a bevy of soldiers and mutants. Here there’s faceless robots, a nearly nonexistent Brian Cranston, and Kate Beckinsale. It’s as pacified as a genre film based on Dick and Verhoeven could be. There is some very nice work done in the tech department. Guns that fire cameras to create a virtual representation of a room for a strike team, internal phones, and various other little oddities. But overall it doesn’t do much to help give this film any semblance of an identity.
Tim Kelly: We touched on world-building a second ago, and I want to make note that there is some phenomenal production design employed here. Both the decrepit, overpopulated New Shanghai and the sterile Euroamerica are lush with detail and that’s where I found the film’s identity. The only problem is we’ve seen it before – in Blade Runner and Minority Report respectively. To the point where it becomes clear that the filmmakers skipped Dick’s source material altogether and just watched the movies instead.
Nick touches on the fact that Bryan Cranston’s Cohagen is virtually nonexistent, and it’s true until that terrible third act. But Kate Beckinsale is the real heavy here. And she’s awful. Her turn from doting housewife to the Human T-1000 feels so inorganic, and her mugging a serious face doesn’t do any favors. But again, it all falls back to a script that’s afraid of being anything but woefully pedestrian. She’s just doing her job, so why does she have to be such an evil asshole? Because she’s a bad guy. This really is a script that takes the path of least resistance at every turn.
Renn Brown: And this is pretty much where my advocacy for the film ends as there’s not a single criticism that’s been raised that I have any interst in countering. On a general level there’s a your-mileage-may very aspect to the spectacle and performances and, for the most part, I was engaged by the action filmmaking and the performances, but it’s all undoubtedly soulless. For example, I felt like Beckinsale handled herself well as a villain with a capital V, but Tim’s absolutely correct in that her spiteful chase is utterly without motivation. Wiseman seems completely disinterested in ideas — the script certainly provided none of value — and even when he stumbles on a decent moment of weight or iconography, he impatiently moves past it. For example, a scene in which Quaid removes a device from his body was written in such a way that it could have been a nice twist on the same scene in Verhoeven’s film, but it’s so cleansed that it has no impact. The same is true for the one touching moment of drama when Quaid rediscovers a talent he didn’t know he had, and the film can barely take a breath to appreciate it.
Nick Nunziata: The problem with Beckinsale is that her limited range is safely buried under tons of genre bells and whistles in the Underworld movies. Oftentimes the “hero’ is able to be bland provided they look good doing their thing. Here, because Farrell is tasked with waking up to this new world and moving the story along and Jessica Biel has a wisp of a character the task is Beckinsale’s to spice things up. Sharon Stone went from sexy and believable to an all-out bitch in the original and it was a blast. And then her minor character got taken out of the mix to make room for the real villains here. Whether by nepotism, unrealistic in belief in the value of the Underworld franchise, or whatever else Kate has the second most screentime in the movie. And it’s awful. Then there’s the motivation. Discerning between the two colonies is sometimes difficult, but the main thrust of the villain’s motive coupled with the faceless automaton troops its centered around really makes it hard to care. Who are the people of this future Earth? Isn’t there more interesting threats to make us care for them?
As we mentioned before there’s some nice work done here by the production designer and conceptual artists but I’m not sure the stuff centered around traveling through the Earth’s core counts towards it. The big winner here is Bokeem Woodbine’s agent. Dude better had been taken out for a steak dinner after landing this.
Tim Kelly: It’s nice to see “Fathead” from Ray finally get some love. I found it funny that Quaid wasn’t all that heartbroken when his wife tries to kill him. But when his drinking buddy turns? Man, he’s just gutted by it.The issues with the two colonies really come to play in the third act. First, Bill Nighy gets completely wasted in what’s little more than a cameo. As Matthias, the leader of the rebellion, he shows up to deliver some cringe-worthy Yoda-esque dialogue to Quaid before being quickly dispatched. Which leads to Cranston / Cohagen invading “The Colony.” And this is where I had to give up on this whole Total Recall experiment.Why does Cohagen need to be at the frontline of an invasion carried out by robots? Why is it essential that the one human at the forefront of your cause lead an army that’s been designed to reduce human casualty? Cohagen doesn’t have advisors to say “Do you realize what a shitty idea that is, boss?”Even worse, is the concept of “The Fall,” the core-traversing mode of transportation between the two colonies. If you were New Shanghai, and you knew that Bryan Cranston and his robot army were coming to kill you, wouldn’t you maybe organize and just blow that entryway sky high? The answer is no, because Quaid would be useless in his own movie. Almost as useless as Jessica Biel is here.
Renn Brown: What’s hilarious –and this is a spoiler, if you give a shit for some reason — is that the film thoughtlessly tosses around the idea that all of the revolutionaries major attacks on the upper crust have been staged to sway public opinion, and that the major goal of the revolutionaries is to acquire a tool/weapon that doesn’t exist! All that paired with the our only view of the revolutionaries being a small group in the wastelands (with, admittedly, some splinter cells in the cities), it’s not at all believable that they were a threat even worth acknowledging.
And I would’t even call Nighy’s role a cameo. Cameos are usually fun. What a profound waste it is to take a spectacular villain actor and hand him the worst role in your movie.
The movie is truly, spectacularly dumb without an interesting idea to be found. Again, your enjoyment of this Total Recall remake is going to be based entirely on how much you take from exploring a cool sci-fi world, following along with energetic directing, and appreciating anamorphic lens flares. I wish I could upgrade Wiseman from “hack” to maybe, I dunno, “one to watch” or something, but like a magnet polarized to reject good scripts and thought-out ideas, it still seems that, at best, he’s going to develop into another director that shoots the shit out of garbage scripts without adding a drop of sense to them. This is laser show filmmaking, and the disparity between the sophistication of the camerawork and the dimwittedness of the script only serves to illustrate how dumb of an idea this whole thing was.
Tim Kelly: As far as entertainment value is concerned, the biggest sin a film can commit is being mediocre. Len Wiseman, with opportunities most directors only dream about, once again reveals himself as one of the most criminally middle-of-the-road directors working in genre fare today. His mediocrity extends itself to this latest effort, a film neither bad nor good – the action never pulses, the story never challenges its audience to think too much. Total Recall is a limp dick of an action film, one that I’ll have gladly forgotten by the time I’ve finished this sentence.
Nick Nunziata: I’ll say it. He’s a hack. The amount of lens flares in this movie is awe inspiring. I imagine JJ Abrams watching this and giggling at the sheer amount of them. Every scene’s lackluster staging and execution is loaded with the distraction of a nice horizontal lens flare to keep the viewer diverted. Aside from the trailer moment where Quaid takes out a room of soldiers, most everything here is treated like a video game cinematic. With lens flares.
I understand why Len Wiseman exists. He is as safe as safe gets.
And safe is exactly what this film doesn’t need.