In one scene in the original Total Recall, an unassuming middle-aged woman begins spewing nonsense as she passes the security check at an airport. Her face contorts and she stretches her lips as a group of guardsmen look on in horror. Then, in a moment of high drama, she reveals her face to be a mask, unzipping it to expose a very smug Arnold Schwarzenegger. He tosses the mask to a stunned security guard, where it proceeds to shout “get ready for a surprise!” and explode, allowing our hero to evade nearby enemy forces.
Balancing camp with drama, action with imagination, this scene captures everything that’s great about that Total Recall, a 1990 sci-fi flick based on a Philip K. Dick story. For all its cheesy one-liners and outdated effects, it remains engaging for its sheer originality and now-rare optimism. Total Recall spoke of a bright future, one with a thriving human race, colonies on Mars and honest people that fight for their freedom. New, refreshing and truly extraordinary, the 1990 film took massive risks and stayed firm in its convictions. It was a movie with heart.
Sadly, Len Wiseman’s remake drains the story of its soul. With unremarkable characters, lackluster acting and too-slick effects, the 2012 version is a generic action movie that fails to take a single risk. This Total Recall takes place on a planet Earth decimated by chemical warfare, where the two remaining nation states — the oppressive United Federation of Britain and the struggling Colony — battle for political power. Our hero, played by a squinty Colin Farrell, is Doug Quaid, an average citizen of the Colony who one day finds himself deep within a political plot. Doug, we learn, is a spy with a wiped memory, so deep in disguise that even he believes his cover.
I know: it’s an awesome setup. They’ve even thrown an army of robots and a love triangle in the mix for good measure. Total Recall is perfectly poised to feature tense political intrigue, badass action sequences and thrilling psychological drama. Instead, the audience is subjected to an unmemorable plot and bland protagonist whose only defining characteristic is his shiny set of abs. He entirely lacks motivations, morals and personality. It’s telling that the best scene of the movie — a tense couple of minutes during which Doug must decide whether his old friend or a strange woman claiming to be his spy persona’s love is telling the truth — is one in which Farrell is practically mute. Pathetically enough, his character is one of the most developed in the film.
As Doug’s love interest Melina, Jessica Biel is lifeless and forgettable, but co-lead Kate Beckinsale’s puts on an appalling performance. With more accents than lines, she blunders through a dull character that subsists on a combination of lusty pouts and pure spite. We get a few moments of relief in the form of Bill Nighy, who plays a small but vital role as the leader of the Colony’s rebel force.
The problem with Total Recall is not that it flounders and fails; rather, it never even tries. In a plotline with several “big twists,” each turn feels utterly predictable — and the audience leaves the theatre thoroughly bored. Maybe it’s the fact that many characters’ actions completely lack rationale. Beckinsale’s character Lori goes on a movie-long quest to kill Doug for no discernible reason, while her target chooses his allegiances based on little more than chance. These sorts of characters are unrealistic, flat and so hard to care about. And once they’re run through the good old CGI machine (that’s how that works, right?), they’re even less compelling.
That CGI, however, does make for some pretty incredible effects. “The Fall,” a supermassive gravity elevator that transports Colony workers to and from the United Federation of Britain through the center of the Earth each day, achieves a realism that would make Philip K. Dick proud. The dense streets of the Colony are additionally impressive, with cement structures rising high above the jam-packed ground. But with little substance to accompany them, these effects serve as the glistening Hollywood finish on an otherwise flavorless film. Slick it may be, but the Total Recall’s lack of imagination nudges it into insipidity. Tedious and uninspired, Total Recall is doomed to be forgotten.