I could turn this review of Total Recall into a debate over which version of the film is better, but unless there are obvious gaps in idea, execution, and quality, I refrain from approaching remakes on that level. Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film of the same name had particular traits that made it entertaining, and the same can be said for the 2012 reboot. I’m most appreciative of the one element common to both films, namely the concept of false memories being surgically implanted in the brain; the question of whether the events in the story are actually happening or are merely a technologically-induced delusion is ultimately never answered, and we’re left to wonder the extent to which virtual reality will someday extend. Is it possible that one day we will be unable to distinguish an authentic physical object from a computer simulation? Can it be that memory files will eventually be uploaded into and deleted from the human mind?
Loosely drawn from Phillip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the film differs from its 1990 adaptation in that it doesn’t take place on Mars. Instead, it takes place on a future Earth rampant with extreme pollution and severe overpopulation. Following a societal and governmental collapse, the world is now divided into the United Federation of Britain, a domineering superpower, and The Colony, which today we refer to as Australia. In the former, the powerful and elite live in comfort. In the latter, all the workers are cramped into miniscule living quarters, which are restrictively piled into superstructures of staggered concrete and steel. The two are connected via a massive underground tunnel called The Fall, which actually bores through the Earth’s core; travelling past it, passengers experience momentary weightlessness as the gravity reverses itself.
In The Colony, we meet a lowly factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), who has been plagued with nightmares involving a woman and a failed escape attempt. By day, his job is to piece together law enforcement robots. Although he has been happily married to a woman named Lori (Kate Beskinsale) for seven years, his lot in life, coupled with his recent rash of bad dreams, has made him solemn and introspective. His dissatisfaction leads him to Rekall, an organization that specializes in implanting artificial memories of alternate lives in the minds of its clients. Quaid selects a secret agent package, believing himself in such a role. But before the procedure can begin, a Rekall tech (John Cho) analyzes his brain and discovers that he is an actual secret agent. Quaid has no idea where this accusation is coming from, but in due time, he realizes he has the quick reflexes and precise coordination necessary to take down an entire squad of policemen.
Panicked, he returns home to Lori, only to discover that she isn’t his real wife and that she now wants to have him killed. According to her, his name isn’t really Douglas Quaid, and every memory he has of being married to her and working at a factory were all implanted. He doesn’t have the chance to fully process this; he has to outrun the lethal Lori and the entire police force. He’s eventually approached by a woman named Melina (Jessica Biel), who claims his name is really Hauser and that he’s part of an underground resistance movement hell bent on bringing down the ruthless Prime Minister Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Quaid/Hauser follows a trail of clues, most provided by himself, in the hopes of finding out who he really is. He’s eventually asked to meet an elusive resistance figure known only as Matthias, thought by most to be nothing more than an urban legend.
All this is told with a great deal of style. The production designs by Patrick Tatopoulos and the cinematography by Paul Cameron convey a grittier, filthier, murkier, less streamlined vision of the future. Large sections of The Colony have a distinct urban Asian market influence, and neo-noir scenes are repeatedly set by the addition of rain and wet neon-reflected surfaces. This could, perhaps, be an homage to Blade Runner, another film adapted from a Phillip K. Dick story. The more space-age designs are reserved for The Fall, a technological monstrosity that stretches the limits of plausibility but doesn’t actually break them, and for a highway system in which cars float over and under magnetic fields. Looking at them, one is reminded of Minority Report – again adapted from a Phillip K. Dick story.
True to its cinematic origins, Total Recall is also a pulse-pounding action thriller and a dazzling special effects extravaganza. Both are utilized in ways that set the film apart from the 1990 version. The violence, for example, is toned down to a level in which escapism is at last possible; it has shootouts yet doesn’t become a shoot-‘em-up, if you get my meaning. Admittedly, one of my issues with Verhoeven’s film was the gratuitous gore, which didn’t serve a purpose any higher than that of sickening spectacle. All the actors prove themselves adept at handling the stunt work. As for the performances, all I know is that, no matter what movie he’s in, Colin Farrell is an infinitely better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. This time around, there’s more at stake than a bodybuilder landing the lead role in a sci-fi movie – we can actually invest emotionally in a man who has had his memory erased.
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