Directed by Len Wiseman
In the 1990 movie Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker named Quaid who visits a memory-implantation service called Rekall. After a botched attempt to give him memories of a secret-agent adventure on Mars, Quaid learns that he may in fact be a secret agent; his wife Lori tries to kill him, claiming their marriage is a sham. Eventually, he dispatches her with a classic Schwarzeneggerism: "consider dat a divorce."
In the 2012 movie Total Recall, Colin Farrell goes through many of the same motions as the new Quaid, though his maybe-real secret-agent past has to do with an uprising here on population-choked Earth, now neatly divided into a British confederation of haves and an Australian pen of have-nots. But the class warfare business barely registers—it exists mostly to facilitate the special-effects rendering of a massive England-Australia shuttle that sends workers hurtling through the Earth's core. No, the more noticeable difference from the original is that in this version, when Lori (now Kate Beckinsale) goes after her husband, she keeps going and going, Terminatrix style.
As the violent spat gets drawn out, so must the insensitive but perfectly concise Schwarzenegger wisecrack get broken into ineffective pieces, sprinkled throughout the movie: "What can I say? I give good wife." "I think it's safe to say we're separated." And so on. Giving Lori a bigger, stronger part doesn't deepen the character or invest her relationship to Quaid with any feeling, apart from the feeling that she really, really wants to kill him. Director Len Wiseman may imagine that he's made a more grounded, more relevant Total Recall, but really, it's just more.
To be fair, Paul Verhoeven's original Total Recall isn't as mind-bending as its reputation would have you believe (or particularly faithful to the Philip K. Dick short story); it wears its ambiguity about whether Quaid is experiencing reality or a mental simulation of it as just one more perverse accessory (both movies break from Quaid's point of view at least once, undermining any real sense of personalized hallucination). But precisely because of that limitation, the Verhoeven perversity counts for a lot of the older movie's appeal. Here it's scrubbed away, leaving only clumsy tributes like a verbal references to a trip to Mars and a brief (and semi-inexplicable, given that the movie doesn't make that Mars trip) interaction with a three-breasted hooker.
When Wiseman's film tries to bend minds, the exertion is obvious, laboring to turn a series of weak McGuffins into a treatise on the nature of reality. The disoriented one should be Farrell, with his non-implanted memories of co-starring in Minority Report 10 years ago—one of many superior movies this new one knocks off all the way up to the present, with its J.J. Abrams lens flares and some ominous, Nolan/Zimmer bass-rattling on the soundtrack.
Actually, if Total Recall 2012 was just a blatant rip-off of Total Recall 1990 and not a formal remake with the same title, I have the feeling the impending geek rage would be quieter. As a dumb action movie with Patrick Tatopoulos sci-fi production design, the movie is kind of fun, at least for 70 or 80 minutes. Early on, Quaid leads Lori on a scrambling chase through a vast, built-up city, a kind of futuristic slum with plenty of breakable windows and collapsible roofs. Even after this sequence, the characters are constantly jumping and falling off the edge of things—cheap tricks, sure, but not too cartoony; the effects shots are often terrific. The humans, then, wind up judged by how well they resemble special effects themselves, an area where Mr. Schwarzenegger had a distinct advantage. Farrell and love interest Jessica Biel are in bland-hero mode and Bryan Cranston's supposed bad guy does a lot of idiotic monologuing, but Beckinsale's evil assassin fits the bill, a nothing role with the actress' pitiless, posh charisma.
In the end, this shiny, energetic Total Recall lacks even Beckinsale's killer instinct, to say nothing of Verhoeven's. Even its exploitation feels calculated; the camera won't linger on the three-breasted woman for fear of garnering the R rating the original blazed through, and the movie's tagline of choice is "shit!"—which Biel exclaims approximately 75 times in that way that perfectly expresses, “I am surprised and dismayed, but I realize that I cannot say 'fuck' more than once.” Here, then, is your real Total Recall mind-bender: Sony presumably paid millions for a movie name just to produce what amounts to an expensive PG-13 knockoff aimed primarily at people who don't remember the older movie. Like thrilling memories, brands are great even when they don't actually exist.
Opens August 3