Total Recall: Review

September 7, 2012 6:15 pm

Many of those who go to see Total Recall, a late contender in the annual summer blockbuster battle, will no doubt sympathise with the plight of Colin Farrell’s disaffected labourer Douglas Quaid. As they process the opening scenes of Len Wiseman’s latest offering, they may, too, be struck by the unsettling feeling that they have lived this before, in another life perhaps, or a half-remembered dream. As the film progresses this feeling only becomes more intense; the sense of déjà vu more heightened as names, places, even strings of dialogue all come flooding back. And towering over everything else, the most vivid recollection of all… a bodybuilding Austrian?

I was not one of these people. Having not seen Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the leading role, and so I came to this film with a fresh view and not really knowing what to expect. From its promotional materials, I could see Total Recall going one of two ways: either it would prove something akin to the next Matrix or Inception, a perfect union of style and substance with ideas that hook in the mind and a plot designed to confound with its intricacies, or it would opt for the more well-travelled road of action films in general, ideal perhaps as a short-term adrenaline fix but offering little to come back to.

I had my suspicions as to which of these was to prove true but, despite my initial misgivings, the film opens strongly. The year is 2084, and Earth has been devastated by war. Two disparate territories remain at opposite ends of the globe, linked only by a gargantuan service elevator of sorts, ‘The Fall’, which transports labourers from one side to the other through the Earth’s core. Farrell’s Quaid is one of these labourers; restless, dissatisfied with his workday life and plagued by recurring dreams that are a little too lucid, he approaches Rekall, a service designed to implant the user with artificial memories as an ultra-futuristic mode of entertainment. As you might expect, things do not go according to plan, and soon Quaid finds himself a wanted man, faced with elimination and questioning everything he thought he knew about his once unremarkable life.

What immediately grabs the viewer in Total Recall is the visual richness of the future world that is presented. Science-fiction films stand or fall on their ability to portray a world that is at once visually arresting and conceptually enthralling, and Wiseman’s future Earth succeeds on both counts. The action scenes are also impressive, particularly the excellently choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes, though there are times when they are muddied by an overindulgence in unnecessary special effects, as in Quaid’s first encounter with the team sent to apprehend him at Rekall.

This overt preoccupation with aesthetics speaks knowingly of flaws in other areas, and indeed beneath the polished facade, it is derivative action fare. To say that the plot moves on quickly is something of an understatement, as the blinding pace of Wiseman’s film makes it difficult to follow at times, with certain transitions from scene to scene proving jarring and confusing. Then, there is the plot itself which, despite a promising beginning, rapidly descends into bog-standard action clichés, with Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback’s script following a similar trajectory.

Farrell performs well with limited material in the role of Quaid; he proves adept at the startled, rabbit-in-headlights look which you would expect from a man who is suddenly gunning down everything in a ten-foot radius with an efficiency he wasn’t aware that he possessed. Less convincing is Kate Beckinsale’s turn as the dogged government agent Lori, who struts around with an almost psychotic death-stare permanently etched across her face and a perfectly maintained head of hair, carefully calculated to give just the right amount of bounce in slow-motion shots and on turning corners. Though verging on the ridiculous, her scenes quickly become a highlight; crazy Lori possesses an energy which is sorely lacking in Jessica Biel’s Melina, whose characterisation falls flat by comparison. The rest of the cast is barely given a chance to show what they can do before they are dropped according to the demands, or rather constraints, of the plot. When the cast boasts the likes of the criminally underused Bill Nighy, what follows is an overwhelming sense of wasted potential.

It is that word ‘potential’ that really sums up my frustration with Total Recall. The narrative devices of psychology, memory and dreams are a ripe source of dramatic material, and have been used to great effect in recent years by Christopher Nolan in both Memento and Inception, and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, to give a few examples. I was constantly waiting to be blown away by whatever mind-bending twist was surely awaiting me toward the film’s end, but that moment never came, with the few hints that something might be amiss, disappointingly coming to nothing. There is a dangerous catch-22 situation when it comes to film remakes: sticking to the original formula too strictly results in the newer version being decried as a mere rehash, whilst fans of the original might respond negatively if too many of its core elements are tampered with. Total Recall and Wiseman himself are caught in this very trap, attempting liberal revisions, yet being afraid to change anything of any real significance, even if the result would yield a better film.

What we get instead. is a film that, like its central protagonist, struggles with its own identity. In trying and failing to be more than it is, Total Recall ultimately becomes just another footnote in the long history of sci-fi action films, easily processed and just as easily forgotten.

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