I like sci-fi films that deal with the fundamental questions of our existence: Who are we? How do we know who we are? What is real? How do we know? Philip K. Dick was a master at writing the kinds of stories that, when interpreted by visionary directors, such as Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, resulted in exceptional cinema, specifically Blade Runner (1982), which is based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Minority Report (2002). He also wrote a short story called We Can Remember It for you Wholesale, which, under the direction of Paul Verhoeven, became the box office smash Total Recall. Despite my absolute devotion to Philip K. Dick and my admiration for Verhoeven, I really didn’t like the 1990 film. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that the lead actor is Arnold Schwarzenegger, someone I’ve never appreciated or liked.
Unlike many of the fanboys, I was delighted when I heard that it was being remade. Even more delighted when Colin Farrell was cast in the leading role. The film begins by telling us that in this futuristic existence, biological warfare has devastated the planet, rendering most of it uninhabitable. That is, save two places: The United Federation of Great Britain, or something like that, and “The Colony” (Australia.) The former is sort of where the posh people live; the latter is where workers, such as Douglas Quaid (Farrell), descend through the Earth’s core to construct a fleet of robot police officers; beings needed to keep the increasingly violent resistance movement under control. Because survivors have such limited living space, class warfare has erupted. Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) is the official face of government and order in the U.K.; and the elusive Matthias (Bill Nighy) is the face of the resistance in the Colony. To keep this spoiler free, let me just say that for certain reasons, Quaid finds himself caught in the middle of these two forces.
Quaid is a very relatable Everyman. He’s a guy who, from the beginning of the film, is restless. His routine rarely changes. He always sits in the same seat next to the same person on his way to work. He does the same, repetitive job, day after day. His wife (Kate Beckinsale), although very beautiful, seems to work a different shift, so it appears that they have little time to do anything together. His environment, too, is depressing. It is always raining and overcast, and when he surveys the scene beyond his balcony, it’s nothing but high-rises, cars, and lots of people. It’s no wonder that he is tantalized by what Rekall has to offer. In fact, he’s willing to take the risk of becoming a vegetable should the procedure go horribly wrong.
So what is Rekall? With the assistance of some drugs and electrodes, they make your dreams come true. Want to be a police officer? Criminal? President? They can do that and more. By the time that Quaid wanders in, he has been having disturbing dreams about “another life” in which he and a woman (Jessica Biel) are being pursued by agents. A fan of Ian Fleming novels, he decides to indulge his fantasy of becoming a spy. But something goes wrong during the procedure, and, for the rest of the film, he tries to solve those aforementioned questions: What is real? Who is he?
Even though I saw the “original” Total Recall ages ago, I don’t remember it at all. (Yes, it made that much of an impression on me.) So it was lucky that I watched the “remake” with someone who has a better memory than I and who was able to inform me that “this isn’t anything like the original.” And from my perspective, that’s a good thing. Even better, Total Recall has a lot in common with Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Minority Report. Elements from I, Robot and Star Wars can also be found. Does that mean that the film is derivative? Well, sort of, but I didn’t really mind. And here’s why: The film is action packed. When Farrell isn’t running away from robot police officers, he’s dodging bullets, leaping off of buildings, crashing flying cars, and having his ass kicked while he’s kicking ass. Beckinsale, who acts as if she’s a Terminator, is the one delivering most of the blows.
Len Wiseman directed Total Recall. So, if you are familiar with his Underworld films and his action-adventure Live Free or Die Hard, you should have a good idea of what to expect. The screenplay comes courtesy of Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback. Again, if you are familiar with Wimmer’s screenplays – Equilibrium, The Recruit, Ultraviolet, Law Abiding Citizen, and Salt – you should have an even better idea of what to expect. Wiseman is one of the better action directors out there, and in Total Recall, he’s crafted a single take sequence that blew my mind. (Reminded me of Equilibrium.) Wimmer is one of my favorites; it’s rare that I dislike anything that he has to offer.
In short, Total Recall satisfied me on a number of levels. It kept me guessing – Was the film taking place in reality or in the character’s mind? – and it kept me entertained. I appreciated the fact that it also gave some visual nods to Blade Runner, including the ever-present rain and the multi-cultural vibe to the city. Farrell, thankfully, didn’t repeat Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, and he didn’t have to utter any ridiculous one-liners. He’s a fine action actor. Whenever I see Biel’s name, I roll my eyes, wondering how in the world she keeps finding work. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have a lot to say, but she’s unusually tolerable in Total Recall. Beckinsale also isn’t someone I go out of my way to see in a film, but she’s a proven action star, and her husband is directing, so … She delivers the goods as far as the fight sequences go, but her performance is odd. I kept wondering if she wasn’t a robot herself. Cranston … what can I say about this marvelous actor? He used to be so sweet, but since he stepped into the sinister shoes of Walter White, he has since become the go-to guy for villains. And here, his character is a total scum. A wonderfully delicious scum. Nighy doesn’t last very long, and he’s probably only in the film, because of his connection to Wiseman’s Underworld franchise; doing some kind of favor, perhaps? And look for a blonde-haired John Cho.
When Total Recall finished, I turned to my husband and asked him what he thought. Since he disliked The Dark Knight Rises, I braced myself for lots of ranting. But it never came. He enjoyed himself, he said. And I concurred. You could do a whole lot worse than see Total Recall. After all, it is a fast-paced, action-packed, does one better on the original kind of flick that also manages to be thought-provoking. For me, that’s cinema worth watching.
Oh, and for all of those guys out there – and I know you are all worried sick about this – the three-breasted woman (Kaitlyn Leeb) DOES make an appearance. And, she flashes her bare chest at the camera. You are welcome.
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