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Total Recall: Remember 1990, forget 2012 

Rating: *1/2 stars

TOTAL RECALL (2012)
*1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Len Wiseman
STARS Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel

TOTAL RECALL (1990)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Paul Verhoeven
STARS Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin

Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel in the new version of Total Recall (Photo: Sony)
  • Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel in the new version of Total Recall (Photo: Sony)

For those who don't keep up with the show-biz trades, there are several notable remakes in the works, all promising to offer different takes on established classics that themselves were based on popular literary works. One studio is prepping a new version of Jaws, but without a shark in its storyline. Another promises a new All Quiet on the Western Front, yet stripping it of its World War I setting. And still another is planning to rework Airport where there's nary a plane in sight.

Surely I jest, you wonder. Well, yes (and don't call me Shirley, to quote from the Airport spoof Airplane!). But if the new version of Total Recall is any example, such excessive liberties might not be out of the realm of possibility in the future. Here we have a story that pivotally centers around Mars, and the angry red planet has been completely excised from the project, popping up only in a throwaway line muttered by the film's hero ("I always wanted to go to Mars").

Author Philip K. Dick wrote "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" in 1966 — a short story, it told of a working-class man who, long wanting to travel to Mars (which in this future setting has been colonized), visits a corporation (Rekal, Inc.) that specializes in memory implants. But as the procedure gets under way, it seems as if he has been to Mars, previously working there as a secret agent with a license to kill.

In 1990, director Paul Verhoeven and various screenwriters (including Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the pair who penned the original 1979 Alien) took this premise and expanded on it, turning the short story into the feature-length Total Recall and having their protagonist actually visit Mars rather than just remembering it. This version has just been released on Blu-ray, so it's easy to revisit it and notice just how much the 2012 take manages to reduce the scope of the story, turning it from spectacle to footnote.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Total Recall (Photo: Lionsgate & TriStar)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Total Recall (Photo: Lionsgate & TriStar)

Verhoeven's version isn't in the same league as two terrific films based on Dick stories, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, but it nevertheless ranks as one of star Arnold Schwarzenegger's more enjoyable outings. The big lug plays Douglas Quaid, whose trip to the memory-implant joint unleashes disturbing memories that suggest his present life — complete with boring job and hot wife (Sharon Stone as Lori) — isn't exactly what it seems. Sure enough, Quaid finds out that he's no ordinary laborer but rather a highly skilled government operative who switched sides and joined the rebels to topple the existent, and oppressive, hierarchy. Seeking to further establish his true identity, he journeys to Mars, where he hooks up with his former squeeze, a freedom fighter named Melina (Rachel Ticotin), and her comrades in arms.

As a filmmaker, Verhoeven has always been somewhat of a sadist — witness the protracted shooting of Murphy in RoboCop, the fecal-tinged humiliation of Rachel in Black Book, the mere existence of Showgirls — and his bloodlust is on full display in this picture, where one bullet piercing a body won't do when there's a whole clip to unload into human flesh. Yet the violence is hard to take seriously since it's placed alongside the borderline-camp moments that sprinkle the piece: When the leader of the rebels turns out to be Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it's clear that the satirical bull's-eyes Verhoeven nailed in RoboCop have here been turned into a more benign state of rib-nudging.

The film's visual effects deservedly won an Oscar, and most of them still hold up today. So does the premise, which manages to keep viewers constantly whiplashed with its onion-peeling twists and turns. And while Arnie strengthened his leading-man status with this vehicle — it was only his second $100 million grosser, following Twins — it was Stone who left the most indelible impression. Verhoeven was impressed enough to next cast her in 1992's Basic Instinct, a blockbuster that turned her into an A-list star.

Colin Farrell (Photo: Sony)
  • Colin Farrell (Photo: Sony)

Nothing in the new Total Recall deserves even a C+, let alone an A. Director Len Wiseman and his scribes have completely removed the Martian element, electing to keep the action earthbound. Thus, we have a home planet that, after being decimated by war, now holds only two inhabitable locations: The Colony (Australia) and The United Federation of Britain. As before, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) inadvertently drags up old memories, seeks to help stop a tyrannical ruler (Bryan Cranston), teams up with Melina (Jessica Biel), and gets his ass kicked by Lori (Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman's real-life spouse).

Keeping Total Recall on Earth is a dubious decision, but whatever — as long as the movie delivers the goods, I guess it ultimately doesn't matter if it's set on Earth, Mars or Tatooine. But without the Mars material, Wiseman and company do nothing to fill in the blanks. The movie is just the usual CGI soullessness, with the artificiality overwhelming the actors to such a degree that their one-dimensionality makes the 1990 version's Douglas Quaid, Lori and Melina seem as complex as Stanley Kowalski, Stella and Blanche by comparison. The casting of the actresses is also problematic. One of the sly jokes in the original is that the woman chosen to be Quaid's "fake" wife Lori was a blonde WASP goddess, the direct opposite of the brunette, earthy and ethnic Melina — it seems that even in the future, rich old white guys will retain their hold on stereotypical ideals of beauty. In the new film, both Lori and Melina are played by brunettes who so resemble each other (not only in looks but in their character's athleticism and muted emoting) that Wiseman might as well have cast Beckinsale in both roles to really screw with our minds. At least that would have forced us to pay attention, since as it stands, the movie is relentless in its narrative monotony. It especially devotes an ungodly amount of screen time to a series of endless chases — so many, in fact, that I had to wonder if the performers were being paid by the mile.

The picture offers fleeting homage to Verhoeven's original — the three-breasted prostitute, the stocky woman at customs — but it displays little innovation it can call its own. There's no colony of mutants here (which actually makes the cameo by the three-breasted hooker ridiculous), no pencil-sized rod that can change fingernail-polish colors instantaneously, no exploding head, not even a Johnnycab to annoy us. Even the climatic scene featuring those bulging eyeballs (at once freaky, funny and frightful) is gone, replaced by — what else? — huge explosions full of sound and fury, signifying nothing so much as yet another tiresome endeavor with little on its mind.

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Related Films

  • Total Recall

    • Rated PG-13 - Action/Adventure, SciFi/Fantasy
Total Recall
Rated PG-13 · 121 min. · 2012
Official Site: www.welcometorecall.com
Director: Len Wiseman
Writer: Philip K. Dick
Producer: Neal H. Moritz and Len Wiseman
Cast: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy

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