With his “I’ll be back” and famously gargled speech, it’s easy to dismiss Arnold Schwarzenegger as a steroid hack who got lucky and became one of the biggest movie stars in the world. What’s harder to remember is how much presence the former Governator brought to the screen. If any film can attest to that, it’s the just-released remake of 1990’s iconic “Total Recall” (Yes, “iconic,” regardless of what Philip K. Dick’s purists might say; the famed sci-fi author’s 1966 “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” being the inspiration for both films).
Collin Farrell is no Schwarzenegger. While the Irish 36-year old is certainly better at actual “acting” than the stoic Governator, a story of Total Recall’s lavishness needs an equally lavish hero, and Farrell’s grounded take on very-probably-secret-agent Douglas Quaid feels like bland icing on the horribly generic script. It suffers by comparison, but even on its own, it falters.
Director Len Wiseman and his screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have no care for character and story depth, preferring to fill every scene with as much action as possible — and what dull familiarities they are, almost-always revolving around Farrell getting ganged up on by evil minions, pounding and/or gunning them down in seconds and running around some more. These interminable loops of pace-less choreography would only be exciting if they offered something new, computer-generated or not, but Wiseman seems to consider an ultra-accelerated car chase a fresh bit if they’re done on floating vehicles and around post-apocalyptic buildings.
Farrell’s attempts at gravitas are wasted on a character with no personality written to him. Playing Quaid, an industrial worker at a futuristic factory that produces robotic cops, the actor tries hard to infuse his character with the weight of clock-punchers’ unrealized dreams; frustrated and unfulfilled yet too insecure to try anything new. But Farrell’s attempts are wasted, with his director going through dialogues as if ticking off an explanatory checklist. The deepest we get into Quaid’s dilemmatic existence is during a short bar conversation with a buddy and an introductory dream sequence (an unsurprisingly gun-filled one).
That dream sees Quaid’s repressed desire to be a secret agent. He then visits Rekall, a cutting-edge company whose specialty is to implant fake-but-vivid memories into its clients’ heads. As in the novel and original film, things turn sour for Quaid when his chosen fantasy turns out to have been a real memory. Then the police enter the picture, forcing Quaid to begin his quest to discover his true identity, a process of finding clues that is less detective work and more shoot-and-see-what’s-behind-the-door.
One of the major angles to the novel and the original 1990 film is Quaid’s wish to be in Mars. The remake does away with that and in doing so rids the film of any sense of variegated absurdity that is key to the story’s adventure. The setup is a post-apocalyptic Earth with two separate territories: the powerful live in the former Great Britain, and the less-blessed find themselves stuck in the depressingly named The Colony, located in the former Australia (Well, I guess that’s a funny inside joke, at least).
It’s never explained why The Colony has the look of a futuristic Hong Kong gone-to-hell, decorated with rust and dusty neon signs, or why people from the Asian region seem to make up the majority of the apocalypse survivors (or for that matter, why in a universe filled with Asians, Lens is able to fit only two Asian bit-actors into the whole story. Or does pseudo-kung fu count?).
It’s a pleasant-looking, computer generated world that is as futuristically-grim as it is generic. Perhaps the film’s biggest fault is to leave out any ambiguity as to whether the whole film is part of Quaid’s Rekall experience. Wiseman lays it out on the table repeatedly, just in case the audience missed it. It kills the depth of Quaid’s character even more.
The only sense of playfulness comes from Kate Beckinsale (Wiseman’s real-life wife) and Bryan Cranston’s villainous characters. But even they are weighed down by insipid one-liners and calls to look perpetually ticked-off.
Whether it was a brainless muscle-fest, a blockbuster action spectacle or a dimwitted foray into comedy-drama, the Ah-Nold’s lowbrow charisma was for plenty of people reason enough to go see the original film. When he teamed up with director Paul Verhoeven, the pairing made for stupidly great entertainment. Farrell and Wiseman, on the other hand, are disengaged, with the actor trying to sustain meaningful grim in a universe of bang-bang and boom-boom. This is one film you won’t recall an hour after its credits roll.