Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2012

Total Recall

Let's put a smile on that face

Slickly crafted and altogether adequate, 'Total Recall' remake collapses under the weight of its own seriousness

Total Recall
Columbia Pictures
Director: Len Wiseman
Screenplay: Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, based on the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, by Philip K. Dick
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho and Bill Nighy
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes
Opened August 3, 2012
(out of four)

Total Recall is a stone-cold killer of a movie, coldly and ruthlessly efficient. It gets in, it gets out, it does its job, it doesn't ask any questions, it never cracks a smile, and when the job is done you won't even know it was there. The result is machine-like skill and reliability, but at the expense of personality. Sorry, but I like my assassins unstable and neurotic over stiff and mechanical.

It's easy to recognize the level of skill and craftsmanship on display here, but not so easy to find any enjoyment out of it. This is a competently made film that commits the cardinal sin of being utterly humorless. For me, this is unforgivable. Impressed as I was with the opening half-hour or so - the production design in particular is a spectacular compendium of dystopian archetypes (the cramped noir-ish streets and alleys of Blade Runner, the glossy visual technologies of Minority Report, the Asian-centric design details of Firefly) - my early interest began to wane once it became clear that any sense of lasting fun was absolutely out of the question.

Total Recall belongs in a class of thrillers so single-minded in their pursuit of action-drama objectives that they abandon any other means of expression. The characters can never show any demeanor but that of fierce determination. The musical cues must be pulse-pounding and dramatic. Every technical element is optimized specifically to show us just how serious we're meant to be taking all of this.

A sense of levity - not to mention any underpinnings of humor whatsoever - is the first casualty of this approach. And the overall effect is a numbing monotony. This was one of my main objections to Zack Snyder's popular 300, as well as this year's much-celebrated The Raid: Redemption. At a certain point, the relentless self-seriousness crosses over into the (unintentional) absurd.

Total Recall isn't quite as lacking in fun as those two, perhaps only because (to its credit) it recognizes its elements as cogs in a sci-fi thrill ride, and attempts no other grand emotional, moral or thematic gestures. It knows what it is; the problem is that it never finds the right tonal balance. Instead, director Len Wiseman keeps things in the same gear practically from the get-go.

This is the second adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, following 1990's Paul Verhoeven-helmed Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Aside from lacking the same macabre imagination and sense of humor of the original Recall, this version also removes Mars from the equation. All the action remains on Earth, which has been essentially split into two pockets of civilization - the United Federation of Britain (UFB) (that's an acronym) and The Colony. The powerful UFB and its Chancellor, Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), are facing an ongoing struggle against resistance fighters rebelling against the government's increasingly totalitarian ways.

Our man Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is just a poor old anonymous factory worker with chiseled good looks, a super-hot wife, a dead-end job and a rundown apartment, whose life hasn't turned out quite how he imagined it. (What with the planet being torn apart by warfare and all.) He's so down in the dumps, not even the legendary three-breasted hooker can cheer him up. Instead, he's titillated (pun intended) by the promises of the Rekall Corporation, which specializes in manufacturing and implanting memories - indistinguishable from real ones - to essentially make its customers' dreams come true. Or at least as close to true as possible.

Quaid chooses the "secret agent" package, only to find himself unwittingly the object of suspicion by the Rekall technician (John Cho), who accuses him of being a spy. Operating from seemingly newfound instinct and muscle memory, Quaid takes out not only the technician, but a team of storm troopers as well, before making a quick escape. Things don't go much better at home. His super-hot wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) turns out to be not his super-hot wife at all, but a super-hot undercover assassin.

At that point, the lines for the rest of the film are drawn pretty crisply - Quaid and his rescuer/dream lover Melina (Jessica Biel) on one side, Cohaagen and his super-hot field agent Lori on the other. And from there, Total Recall programmatically follows the requisite chase/shootout/chase formula, with increasingly diminishing returns as we realize the whole exercise is a slick-looking one-trick (and one-note) pony.

That it remains kind of entertaining - in that the story and action are handled competently, with moments of genuine flair sprinkled here and there - is perhaps surprising for a film so terrified of having its own personality. My fondest recollections of the film are still from that first half-hour, when Wiseman was still allowing the story to breathe a little, giving us time really inhabit The Colony itself, taking in all the impressive details and small touches in the art direction. But once the plot itself is set in motion, all the rest gets tossed to the sidelines.

I feel bad for Colin Farrell, a fantastic actor who's proven his leading-man chops in smaller fare like In Bruges, The New World and Ondine, but on the bigger stage has been saddled with a string of bad luck. It's either been promising but ultimately bad films (Alexander, Miami Vice, and now this) or unreceptive audiences for good ones (Fright Night). Here's hoping for some better luck in the near future.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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