Movie Review: Total Recall
The Charlotte Observer
I rarely pinpoint the exact moment when a promising action movie turns into a pulpy, asinine mess, but I can do that with “Total Recall.”
Factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) has realized he’s actually a spy named Hauser, who was paid by the repressive government to infiltrate a group of rebels but went over to the rebels’ side. A former associate tells him to go to a bank safety deposit box, where he’ll find a recording that explains what’s up.
The face in the recording is his own: Hauser tells Quaid he’s living a lie, made up of memories implanted by the evil government. Suddenly soldiers burst in to drag the screaming Hauser away.
Let me get this straight: The bad guys see Hauser making a tape. They interrupt him while he is looking into the camera. And then, instead of destroying evidence against them, they…carefully preserve the recording and take it to his safety deposit box?
All the events in the story spring from a carefully constructed plot by the main villain, but that plot relies entirely on an accident: If Quaid doesn’t walk into Rekall Inc., asking for a memory implant that sets off suppressed recollections of spy work, the bad guy’s plot won’t take place.
Director Len Wiseman and writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have at least tried to be original. They’ve kept only the most basic idea of the Philip K. Dick story that inspired them (“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”) and a rough outline of the 1990 film with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid. The hero no longer wants to implant “memories” of a Martian vacation he can’t afford; instead he wants to live the fantasy of being a spy.
Quaid works in The Colony (aka Australia), one of two areas on Earth inhabitable after a global chemical war. The other is the United Federation of Britain. (The war ruined the likes of Bosnia and Somalia, but nobody bombed England?) UFB leader Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) plans to expel laborers from The Colony and replace them with folks from UFB, because no one in the late 21st century has heard about population control.
Wiseman has no interest in telling this story via words or emotions. He can advance things only by propulsion, through an incessant series of fights, chases and shootouts. (Almost literally incessant: Five minutes can’t pass in the second half of the film without one of the three.) Those are exciting at first, then energy-sapping, then tedious.
The women in Quaid’s life, played by Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, hold up their ends of the action, and the expansion of the wife’s role from the 1990 film improves the story. But these two are tiresome puppets; we know nothing about either, except that one wants to help Quaid and one does not. (They’re almost physically interchangeable: tall and strong, with long brown hair and pale skin.)
Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos and cinematographer Paul Cameron borrow heavily from Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner:” The Colony is multi-layered, grungy, constantly disturbed by light and movement and noise, rainy, full of the lower-class refuse of Earth. (Dick wrote the novel that inspired that one, too: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) “Recall” cleverly explores futuristic technology, including a surveillance camera the CIA would like to have now.
Farrell moves through this world naturally, as credible when he’s a sad-sack worker as he is when he becomes an assassin. Yet the movie takes no time to explore even his character; he’s just a self-defending schlub on the run, generically worth rooting for because the people chasing him are so nasty. Wiseman has no interest in what makes Quaid tick, because he can’t wait to get to the next boom.