I’d like to believe that Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake is some sort of meta-commentary on the source material. After all, he is essentially attempting to replace the pleasant memory many sci-fi fans have of the original Total Recall with his more modern and polished take on the film. Toying with the original material and presenting a heavily altered take on the events is very much in line with the Philip K. Dick-inspired 1990 film, so it would be brilliant if that’s what Wiseman was attempting to do here.
But let’s face it – in reality, this is probably nothing more than a money grab by a studio looking to cash in on nostalgia without having to come up with an original concept. Still, as far as soulless money grabs go, this one is better than most. Though we can debate whether or not the world needs an updated version of Total Recall, to his credit Wiseman has found a way to give a fresh take on the film, modernizing and reimagining it in a way that makes it stand alone from the Arnold Schwarzenegger version.
The film centers around Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered factory worker who is married to a gorgeous EMT named Lori (Kate Beckinsale). In a fit of ennui, Quaid decides to visit a company called Rekall that can implant memories into a patron’s brain, making them “remember” a vacation or a fantasy of theirs that never actually happened. Despite a warning from his friend/co-worker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) that people have been lobotomized by Rekall implants gone wrong, Quaid chooses the spy fantasy package, creating a false memory of being a secret agent involved in the escalating conflict between The United Federation of Britain and The Colony, the only two remaining inhabitable territories on Earth. (This version completely does away with the 1990s Mars setting in favor of the Britain-Colony dynamic.)
As soon as Quaid is strapped into the chair at Rekall, he has a Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime” moment where he suddenly realizes that he actually is a spy and his beautiful house and beautiful wife are nothing more than false memories implanted in his brain by the leader of the Federation, Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Or are they? Perhaps Harry’s warning to Quaid was right and the company botched his implant, fooling his brain into thinking that he actually was a secret agent, leading him down a paranoid delusion where he spends the present believing he is still fighting the good fight against Cohaagen and helping to lead the rebellion against the Federation.
As mind bending a concept as that is, at its heart this is an action film and most of it is spent in gun fights and explosion-laden car chases. Wiseman is a solid action director who gets good use out of tracking shots and selective slow motion. His action sequences are all well-conceived and presented on a grand scale. Though Wiseman isn’t particularly concerned with realism or the laws of physics, so many of his scenes (particularly toward the end of the film) are ridiculously unbelievable even by action movie standards. (Though perhaps one could argue that this only furthers the debate on whether or not what’s happening on screen is real or only in Quaid’s mind.)
The director has many nods to the original movie, including the completely gratuitous inclusion of a three-breasted woman and a fun play on the disguise the original Quaid used to attempt to slip through security at the Mars gate. He also makes some significant changes to the source material, the most noticeable being the decision to do away with the Mars setting in favor of the Colony. I’m sure it will anger some fans, but I think it worked just as well and perhaps helped to keep the otherwise outlandish film a bit more grounded.
The two best changes the film makes are expanding Lori and Harry’s roles. Lori, who it turns out was only Quaid’s wife as a cover so she could keep an eye on him, sees her role expanded into the chief agent pursuing Quaid (instead of simply being the girl who dated the chief pursuer in the original). Beckinsale really dives into the role and her performance is by far the most enjoyable in the film. Woodbine is also really great as Harry, who gets a lot more screen time and a more significant part in this version.
Bryan Cranston is great as Cohaagen and Bill Nighy makes the most of his limited screen time as Matthias, the leader of the resistance. Colin Farrel is fine, though unremarkable as Quaid. Jessica Biel, who plays his love interest/sidekick Melina, is easily the most forgettable character in the film, which is likely a combination of Biel’s performance and the writing, which manages to not give her a single memorable trait or bit of dialogue.
The film tries a bit to hard to come up with witty one-liners and occasionally seems too polished for its own good. (Some of the charm of the original was that unpolished, bizarre feel of the Martian world.) But it’s a perfectly serviceable action film and it certainly is a fresh, beautifully shot and modern-feeling take on the material. It is unlikely to replace your memory of the original as the definitive take on the story, but if you’ve never seen Total Recall or if you love it enough to want to see a new version of it, it’s worth your time.