Movie Review: Total Recall

I’ve never read the Phillip K Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” that inspired this movie and the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Paul Verhoven version, so I have no idea whether they’re true to the original story (having read Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” which inspired Blade Runner I’d imagine that it might differ greatly), so I don’t know which is closer, but I will say this, that aside from the central theme and characters these films are very different.

Set around 100 years into the future Earth has been ravaged by chemical war, leaving only two habitable territories left- the UFB (United British Federation- nice to see we get out OK) which includes Western Europe and the Colony (Australia, essentially). The UFB is the power base and the Colony is a dystopian nightmare where the workers live, travelling every day to the UFB on “the fall”, which is kind of like this big subway/lift thing that drops down through the Earth, skirting the core to pop up on the other side of the world. The UFB is ran by a dictatorial chancellor Cohagen (Bryan Cranston) and is plagued by terrorist attacks by the resistance, who seek a better life for those in the Colony.

Living in the Colony is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) a regular Joe working an assembly line job who’s dissatisfied with his life. He’s also plagued by a recurring nightmare which sees him and a mysterious woman engaging in a shoot out before Quaid is captured (its how the film starts so its not a spoiler). The dreams bother him and add to his frustration, although he attempts to ignore it for the sake of his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale).

Seeking an escape, Quaid visits Rekal a company that can implant false memories into your mind so convincingly that you feel you actually lived the experience. The dream reality can not have any connections to the real life of the subject because it would result in massive confusion and as the technician states “that’s how minds are blown”. Quaid decides he wants to be a secret agent and get some action in his life, but before the dream can take alarm bells sound and they stop, due to discovering he was actually a spy in reality.

Rekal is then stormed by the police, who kill everyone and attempt to bring Quaid in, but without thinking he instinctively fights and kills an entire squad before making his escape. He returns home where he tells all to Lori, who promptly tries to kill him, revealing that his identity and entire life is a fabrication and they have only been living together for 6 weeks.

Quaid evades his homicidal wife and goes looking for answers in the UFB, where his true self used to live. Pursued by the police he is aided by the woman from his dreams, Melina (Jessica Biel) a member of the resistance. Quaid discovers he is actually Hauser, a tough UFB operative sent to infiltrate the resistance, before actually defecting. He has vital information that the resistance’s leader, Mathias (Bill Nighy) can recover.

What is Cohagen’s plan? Can Quaid regain his memories? If he does will he still be Quaid or will he instantly revert to Hauser? Is all this really happening or is he actually inside the fake dream Rekal implanted?

As fans of the original will have noticed, I didn’t mention Mars once in that entire synopsis. While the Arnie version was set on the red planet the remake is entirely Earthbound. It kind of works, the whole aliens/mutants angle was a big strain on the suspension of disbelief, although here they’ve just replaced it with the Fall, the ridiculous mode of transport central to the plot.

But the general story is the same, regular Joe fed up with his life discovers that he’s actually a badass spy with falsified memories, who appears to have turned traitor on his own side and thrown in with the resistance. Its here that the film wins out over the original, as Farrell is far more convincing everyman hero than Arnie could be, as well as having a kind of toughness and displaying ruthless cunning during the action sequences.

Farrell does a good job as the man who’s able to throw down in a fight and work out how to evade capture while not fully understanding how he knows what he’s doing, and captures Quaid’s confusion and identity crisis. Quaid wants to know who he really is but at the same time, if he gets Hauser’s memories back he’ll actually stop being Quaid. His confusion and the fact he’s out of his depth makes him a highly sympathetic character and Farrell more than looks the part when called into action, handling the action sequences extremely well.

Colin Farrell as Quaid

The film on the whole is a bit of a mixed bag, some of it really works while others don’t quite come off. The whole “is it real or is it a dream?” angle is actually a bit messed up and aside from a scene halfway through and a few brief nods close to the film’s ending its never properly capitalized on.

My response after seeing the original for the first time, was that it was a really interesting flick with some great ideas which might have been better suited to having a better actor than Arnie in the lead role. But having rewatched it the other day I may have done it a big disservice, its a pretty cool film and actually, does the nature of reality angle a lot better than is done in this remake.

One of my coworkers, actually complained that he found the movie extremely confusing and wished they’d made it clearer whether he was in Rekal or not. I attempted to explain that the uncertainty was the whole theme of the movie and to overly explain it would be a mistake, but being an utter cretin he didn’t seem to grasp this.

The film also falls down in comparison to Verhoven’s movie in that its not quite as much daft fun as the original. But the plot is tighter and more focused, and also makes a lot more show. The gap between the rich UFB and the poor Colony is handled well, and by keeping things on Earth it feels more grounded in reality despite the outlandish sci-fi plot. The aliens in the original felt like a bit of a cop out and Cohagen’s motives here definitely make more sense here, as does his plan.

That’s not to say its not an extremely enjoyable flick, Farrell is on fine form and some of the visual effects are stunning. There’s a brilliant chase sequence where Farrell and Biel are pursued through a labyrinth of criss-crossing lifts that move horizontally and vertically. Its a great sequence and reminiscent of an Escher painting or something, its a high octane sequence that is one of the film’s highlights.

The supporting cast are pretty good too, Biel is a little bland but as in Blade: Trinity kind of convinces in the fight sequences and shows off some good moves, she also manages to show us that Melina was attracted to Hauser but actually begins to fall for the simpler, nicer Quaid at the same time.

Melina (Biel) and Quaid/Hauser (Farrell) in action

I know many will have seen him in Drive or Breaking Bad, but for me Bryan Cranston will always be Hal from Malcolm in the Middle so it was a little surreal seeing him playing a heartless dictator, but he manages to do it very well and even comes across as a genuine threat when Quaid and Cohagen go man0-a-mano.

But the best of the bunch is Kate Beckinsale as Quaid’s fake wife, Lori. Beckinsale does a masterful stroke in transforming from loving, concerned paramedic into a cold blooded, ruthless agent. Beckinsale plays the character with a deliciously malevolent sadistic streak and icy exterior. The scene where she flips into killer mode is handled well and she actually seems like a reasonable foe for Farrell, smacking him around something terrible.

Kate Beckinsale as Lori- Deliciously malevolent.

Beckinsale seems to relish her chance to play a villain and her experiences in the Underworld series means that she’s got the martial arts stuff and manages to make Lori an oddly likable villain despite her utter viciousness. She’s far more interesting than Biel’s good girl and she looks gorgeous throughout while still convincing as someone who could easily take you down.

All in all its a pretty good movie, the action sequences are handled brilliantly by Underworld and Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard to American readers) Len Wiseman who also manages to get a few nice nods to the original in and generally gets the tone right. Its not quite as fun as Arnie’s version and the nature of reality and identity stuff could have been handled better.

Verdict: A pretty good sci-fi adventure film with some stunning visuals and great action sequences. Farrell is a good, solid lead and Kate Beckinsale is brilliant as the villainess. Might not be as much fun as Arnie smashing around on Mars, but still a fun film experience. 7/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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