In 2012, Len Wiseman teamed up with his wife Kate Beckinsale and Colin Farrell and remade the 1990 science-fiction film Total Recall. The 1990 Total Recall was a good action film, but hardly a classic, and considering the progress in special effects technology, not to mention the audience’s ability to handle the film’s central premise, another version had a lot of potential. Was any of that potential realized?
In a word, no. What we got in 2012 was just a generic action thriller, with none of the original’s charm or, frankly, fun.
Yes, fun. Total Recall 1990 was a fun film. Most of the humor in it was bad (it is a Schwarzenegger movie, remember) but it made up for it with personality. Particularly Ronnie Cox’s Cheney-esque villain, Vilos Cohaagen; it’s clear that guy was having a blast being in the movie. Really — has there ever been a better dismissal than “In thirty seconds you’ll be dead, and I’ll blow this place up and be home in time for corn flakes. ”
Okay, good stuff up front. The 2012 film looks a lot better than the 1990 version. Unlike Total Recall 1990, the 2012 version goes for the lived in, gritty aesthetic that Bladerunner pioneered back in 1982. The world that Farrell lives in looks like a city where people would interact, eat, sleep, etc. With the exception of the Mexican subway system, everything else in Total Recall 1990 looked like …well…movie sets.
Second, it was a good idea to combine the Michael Ironside and Sharon Stone characters into a single one. In the original, Richter, the Michael Ironside character, was an agent for Cohaagen, the main villain. Richter wanted to kill Quaid/Hauser because Quaid/Hauser was having sex with his wife while she was assigned to watch him and act like his wife. Sure, he makes some noises about Quaid/Hauser being a traitor and all, but it’s pretty clear he’s motivated by jealousy. As a motivation for Ironside’s character, it works fairly well. In the 2012 version, Beckinsale plays the secret agent assigned to watch Farrell’s Quaid and the agent pursuing him throughout the movie. It works better that way. Unfortunately, those are the only items that the new version improves over the original.
The main issue with the 2012 Total Recall is that it just doesn’t do anything worth watching. There’s no reason — artistically — for it to exist. Total Recall 2012 is just generic action movie. Weisman directed a middle-of-the-road action film starring decent action stars. There is nothing challenging or unfamiliar with this film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of oatmeal or the band Jimmy Eat World.
Which is not to suggest Total Recall needed to be some groundbreaking, David Cronenberg-esque headtrip that only three people would appreciate out of the dozens that would go see such a film. No one needs a Naked Lunch 2.0. But still, at least do something different than just rehashing the original movie. The audience is already familiar with the central conceit, so why not try and push it farther? Or try to say something different about the world these characters are living in and make it applicable to the audience. You know, the things that good stories do. Even if filmmakers didn’t want to stray too far away from the plot of the original film, why not expand the universe a bit? What would a world look like when reality is so malleable and customizable? Nolan explored this a little with Inception, but it could be covered in greater detail. Or at least covered at all.
But that didn’t happen. What we got was a slavish rehash of Total Recall 1990 without the personality that Verhoeven brought to the original. Except where Wiseman and co. decided to make seemingly arbitrary changes, the film is follows the original.
And the changes Wiseman does make to the original aren’t particularly compelling or necessary. For instance, it does away with the Mars setting, preferring to stay on a chemical weapon devastated Earth, where the only two places capable of sustaining life are England and Australia. Australia became a source of cheap labor for English industries and both places are connected via a tube that goes through the Earth, called the Fall. Farrell lives in Australia and takes the Fall to work every day, where he’s a manual laborer, building robots on an assembly line.
Now, forget for a moment that, in a world where robot AI is advanced enough to act as policemen, assembly line labor is completely superfluous, why was this change needed? What did it add to the movie? The original worked fine with a Mars setting; why keep the remake on Earth? If there’s a compelling narrative reason, then great, make the change. But there doesn’t seem to be a reason to change settings. In this Universe, off-world colonies exist, so the change doesn’t seem to be made in the name of scientific realism, and since the movie is set in the future, sets and CGI would be used regardless, so it seems that budget issues didn’t force the change either. So why set it the movie on Earth? What’s the reason?
Other arbitrary changes include the motivation for the resistance movement that Farrell joins after he goes to Rekall. Unlike in the 1990 film, where the resistance had concrete goals and objectives, the 2012 version just has the resistance wanting “freedom” and “equality.” Nevermind that Farrell doesn’t seem particularly downtrodden — he just has a crappy job. A job that people in Detroit do everyday, and yet there’s no armed insurrection in Michigan. What’s the objective of this film’s resistance? What do they want? To be free of the British? An admirable goal in any universe, but given what would happen to the Australian colony if it’s cut off from the only other habitable place on Earth, why would the resistance want that? Particularly when there doesn’t seem to be any real oppression or tyranny happening.
Of course, this could be part of his Rekall induced hallucination. The goals of the resistance could be nonsensical because Colin Farrell’s character aint that bright. Or, the resistance movement is his subconscious desire to get out of his job and marriage. Len Wiseman is all very Freudian, you see…
That may seem like a nitpicky gripe but it changes the analysis of the film. Either the resistance movement is simplistic and short-sighted or Farrell’s mind is unable to come up with the proper rationale for his hallucination. By changing the resistance’s motivation and circumstances from the original, the audience if faced with an uncertain element that isn’t resolved. If it’s a dream, then the problems with the resistance are explainable. But the screenplay doesn’t make it any clearer that it is a dream. So we’re left with three options: 1) Farrell’s mind isn’t so great, 2) it’s real, and the resistance is just stupid, or 3) the screenwriting is bad. The original doesn’t have this issue. So why make the change and add an unstable narrative element? Of course, frankly, it really doesn’t matter since the only goal of Total Recall 2012 was to cash in on a familiar name and concept. The movie succeeds in that regard, but there’s nothing in the 2012 version that makes the 1990 version dispensable.
Reviewing Total Recall 2012 is like reviewing Downy fabric softener. They’re both products that do their job well enough, and if you like it, cool. There’s very little artistry on display in Total Recall 2012 that would elevate it above your run-of-the-mill action flick, unlike in the original, where Verhoeven’s gonzo sense of humor and love of violence created a unique film. It’s a competently made movie. It just has no artistic reason to exist.
If you liked the original movie and but didn’t like the fact they went to Mars, then you’ll probably appreciate this movie. Anyone else, stick with the original.