For all the bad things I've said about them, there's nothing wrong, in principal, with remakes. It can be argued - and frequently is - that all storytelling is a variation on one of a tiny handful of basic stories, and that it is no more than how you marshal the elements of your particular variation that determines the precise story you tell. After a two decade stint in development hell, Philip K Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale made it to cinema screens as Total Recall in 1990, with Paul Verhoeven, hot off his second American film; Robocop at the helm. Verhoeven is one of my favourite filmmakers, and while Total Recall is, for me, far from his best work, it's still an entertainingly extreme and bonkers ride from a truly individual director. What it's not, however, is impossible to improve upon.
The skeleton of the story remains the same: Doug Quaid's (Colin Farrell) life seems to be that of a relatively normal working class guy (in a futuristic dystopia). He's happily married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and works a monotonous job building robot policemen, for which he has to travel through the planet each day (that whole 'layer of impossibly hot magma that would make this impossible' thing is never even addressed) on a gigantic subway known as 'The Fall' which connects the only two habitable places left on Earth 'The Colony' (which used to be Australia, and is where the lower classes live) and 'The United Federation of Britain' (which appears to be a dictatorship ruled over by Chancelor Cohaagen (Brian Cranston). Doug is dissatisfied with his life, and so he decides to visit Rekall, who promise implant the memory of anything he desires into his brain, and from there everything goes wrong. Is Doug a secret agent with a mission he can't remember, or is he suffering the effects of a memory implant gone horribly wrong?
Where this film differs from the 1990 version is in the specifics; the entire Mars plot is gone, replaced with a fumbled stab at contemporary relevance by using biological war as the background to the setting of the film on Earth and the - barely explored - political structure the rebellion (personified largely by Jessica Biel as the dream woman who triggers Quaid's identity crisis) is supposed to be fighting against. This change leads to perhaps the film's most apparent problem; its look. Verhoeven's Total Recall is a strange and exciting looking film, with the Mars scenes of the second half populated by a large cast of freaks and mutants, many of whom become important characters in the film. Only one of these mutants is ever glimpsed in the film; the famous three breasted hooker, and her scene is maybe the most indicative of the problem with the ways this film pays tribute to Verhoeven's. The three breasted hooker is here, true, but she's clearly here solely for fan service purposes. In the original she's one of many mutants, so there's a context for her existence, but what is she here? We never see any other mutants, we never see any other women with three breasts. Did she evolve? Mutate? Have surgery? There's no sense of her - or anyone else's - place in the larger context. Verhoeven established a full world - two, actually - for his film, Len Wiseman just grabs bits and pieces of other sci-fi worlds for his.
The blandness of the look of the film is hardly the only visual problem here. First off, a message to filmmakers: LAY OFF THE FUCKING LENS FLARE, it looks like you don't know how to light or shoot at the most basic level. With that said, watching this film it's hard to get any sense of Len Wiseman's directorial identity, because everything is cribbed from somewhere else. 'The Colony' is, from top to bottom, Blade Runner, there's not even a grain of subtlety about it, it's almost as if someone went to the art department with the Art of Blade Runner book and requested "This, but shitty". Other influences are slightly less blatant (bar the fact that mainstream Hollywood action remains hopelessly in thrall to the Bourne movies), but no sci-fi fan will see a single thing here that they've not seen done much better before. The action scenes are plentiful (more so, in fact, than in the original), but they're all over cut, under exciting, CGI fests, and all have been stripped of visceral impact by the decision to replace the human or humanoid enemies of the original almost completely with a robotic army. There's no weight to any 'deaths' and no impact to the violence, but hey, gotta have that PG13, right Len?
Another thing that has, sadly, gone missing from the original film is Verhoeven's mischievous humour (which original star Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to share). A few quotes from the original are wheeled out here, but the film never has the sense of fun that would justify the classic "Consider that a divorce" line. This is a terrible shame, and the po-faced nature of the movie only serves to highlight its ridiculousness and the impossibility of taking it seriously.However, the biggest problem, the one that really holes the film below the water line and makes it pale totally in comparison to the 1990 version is simply that the ambiguity about whether or not Quaid is really a secret agent (something that could still be called into question as the credits roll on the original), is totally absent. The changes to the Rekall scene are minimal, but they are catastrophic in terms of preserving what should be the film's central point of intrigue, and this undermines many following scenes, especially the one in which a familiar face tells Quaid that he has entered his delusion in order to bring him back, all the ambiguity is sucked out of that moment, and so rather than being a point at which the film can turn on its head it simply feels like a plot cul de sac.
In the 'proud' recent tradition of the Hollywood blockbuster, Total Recall is a sterile looking film, and this is also reflected in the rest of what Len Wiseman puts on the screen here. There are clear allusions to the present, especially in the depiction of the rebellion, but the film shows no interest into digging into them, or into the complex morals around having terrorists as heroes (the first film didn't do this either, but the difference in tone means that this one should). The same lack of interest pervades the film at performance level too. Beckinsale - Mrs Len Wiseman - has a much expanded role as Lori, but she's hopelessly unconvincing, despite her grounding in action from the Underworld series, as a crack secret agent, and frankly she does nothing here to change my opinion that she is simply one of the most lifeless actresses working. You could cast a shop window dummy as Lori, for all the life Beckinsale gives the role. It's barely worth mentioning Jessica Biel (who could compete against her co-star in that most lifeless actress working championship), so perfunctory is her role as Melina. I'm hardly even sure why she's in the film, the connection between her and Farrell, remarkably, seems even more forced than the original's between Schwarzenegger and Rachel Ticotin, and it's not as if she does anything of particular import, other than miraculously drive by at a plot convenient moment to pick up Farrell.
Colin Farrell is a solid actor, and I can see how casting him as Quaid is a good idea; he's certainly much more of the everyman than Arnie (in the two decade development names bandied around for the role included Jeff Bridges and William Hurt), but he's completely hamstrung by the script, which never really digs into the psychology of Quaid, or even how he reacts to this new uncertainty about who he is. Farrell could pull this off, I'm sure, but he never gets the chance and consequently his performance is rather bland, if not terrible. The odd supporting cast features the likes of Jon Cho (awful), Bokeem Woodbine (imposing, but not very interesting), Bill Nighy (Bill Nighy performance B) and Bryan Cranston. Cranston's role is the real pity. Cohaagen lacks any real menace - Ronny Cox was no physical threat, but cut him and you'd expect him to bleed concentrated evil - and after a long build up the moment we finally meet him is a real anti-climax. Cranston seems embarrassed, whether it's by how bad his wig is or at how thin his role is, I suspect we'll never know, but he just can't make Cohaagen either interesting or threatening.
Ultimately, Total Recall is a bad idea poorly executed. At its very best all it does is make you wish you were watching Paul Verhoeven's film (or one of the innumerable others it steals from), but for the most part it's just a tedious enterprise which most often feels like another 119 minutes spent watching someone else play a computer game with some badly acted cut scenes.