Total Recall (2012)
I hate to call the current spate of remakes a trend. In truth, Hollywood has been remaking films since its Golden Age. I would say in most cases these days they are just unnecessary. I think a bigger problem that someone like me has is that it makes me feel a bit old when I start complaining. "Why remake Total Recall? That's a movie I saw in the theater. As an adult even! Heck, the movie is only twenty-two... um... shut up, kid!"
Yes, twenty-two years between the original and the remake is not that much. There were three versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within that same time period from, the first only 11 years after the original. Looking back at that time, it brings up more of a point about current remakes. The 1931 remake was a sound picture, while the original, as great as it is, was silent. The 1941 version may seem unnecessary, but it feels more like a modern film than the 1931 version simply because the art of making movies had changed that much within a decade. The later Hammer versions were in color, and there have been attempts to make the movie closer to the book, as a comedy and even more exploitative in the years since. The point is, while there were certainly unnecessary versions, and at the center was the urge to make money off a tried-and-true story, there was an attempt to improve on what came before.
When remaking a movie like Total Recall, the question is, "What are you improving on?" Well, story is not really an excuse. The original short story, Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale", was basically contained within the original movie, even if Paul Verhoeven significantly added to it and made it his own comic-book style adventure. Special effects? The practical effects in the original were expensive, and it was one of the most expensive movies made at that point. Because of that, they still hold up. Star power? We have Arnold Schwarzenegger, at his peak, replaced with Colin Farrell. Not to mention saddling the new movie with a PG-13 rating.
For those reasons and more the 2012 remake barely made a profit and, with all that goes into it, it was more likely a huge loss. This is too bad, since director Len Wiseman actually took the time to make this less of a money grab carbon copy and more a completely different take.
The earth at the end of the 21st century has been made largely uninhabitable by decades of chemical and biological warfare. The only two population centers, the United Federation of Britain (the British Isles and part of western coastal Europe) and the Colony (the entire continent of Australia) are overcrowded, with resources pushed to the limit. The elite classes live in the former, while the working classes mainly inhabit the latter, taking a gravity elevator called the Fall through the Earth's core to the UFB every day for work.
The UFB is on a constant state of alert for terrorists from the Colony, led by a man named Matthias (Bill Nighy). The UFB's leader, Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) continues to increase restrictions on the workers from the Colony. One of those workers is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), who has been having repetitive dreams of a mystery woman. Quaid's wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is a police officer for the Colony, while he spends his days in the UFB on a factory line building robotic police officers.
Quaid confides in his friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) that he is beginning to feel that his life is in a rut. A new worker at the factory overhears and suggests he visits Rekall, where they can implant a new memory to make life a little less boring. While you may not have really experienced the memory, your mind thinks you did. Harry is against it, but eventually Quaid decides to visit.
Quaid is informed to ask for McClane (John Cho), who hooks him up and prepares him for an adventure as a private detective. At the last moment, McClane notices something wrong and tries to pull Quaid out, but the Rekall facility is attacked by UFB special forces. Quaid escapes and returns home, only to find that his wife Lori is just a plant meant to keep an eye on him. She is actually a highly-placed agent in Cohaagen's government, and tries to capture Quaid before he can remember too much of his own past.
Following clues, he finds a safety deposit box with a recorded message and the location of an apartment in the UFB. He travels there and finds out that his name is really Hauser, and he was one of Cohaagen's best agents before he had a change of heart and decided to aid the cause of the Colony's resistance. By finding the apartment he is also brought into contact with Melina (Jessica Biel), the woman he has been dreaming about, who also is a Resistance member. With Lori in hot pursuit, and bent on killing Quaid despite Cohaagen's orders, the two manage to evade the UFB forces and find the Resistance headquarters, which lies in the uninhabitable zone.
Unfortunately, Cohaagen has been tracking Quaid the entire time, as Hauser was never a resistance fighter, but instead in deep cover as a double agent. This allows Cohaagen to destroy the Resistance and go ahead with his ultimate plan: a full invasion of the Colony, using the robotic police officers police force and the Fall, in order to wipe out the population so that the UFB has room to expand.
Len Wiseman's version of the story, rather than being closer to Philip K. Dick's, is actually even further away. There is an aside about going to Mars, but the action takes place completely on Earth. Still, in large part, is the same plot as the first movie, with a number of references. Not just Mars, but the triple-breasted hooker and a large, redheaded woman arriving for a two-week stay appear as well. I'm surprised someone didn't talk about having five mouths to feed. Since there is no Mars, there are no ancient aliens, mutants or anything beyond a corrupt dictator desperately trying to get his hands on some of the last available land on the planet.
The surprising thing is that most of it works. Colin Farrell is a bit more believable as an everyman. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be more believable as an invincible secret agent, but even if he wasn't a celebrity his build and his accent would call attention - a fact that was repeatedly used as a joke in many of his movies. It makes much more sense that Cohaagen would use a man like Farrell's Quaid for a deep cover operation.
Another thing that Wiseman does in many of his movies, including this one, is although there are many digital effects there are also actual sets and live stunts. I am sure that for all his backers cared he could have put up two green screens, had the actors communicate in grunts and just put graphics of him playing Zaxxon in the background. Instead, we get a lived-in, overcrowded society that, at least on some levels, has an organic feel. It still looks like it owes way too much to Blade Runner, but as that was also a Philip K. Dick adaptation, I am more than willing to bet it was intentional, as was the fact that the UFB design owes more than a little to Judge Dredd.
Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel are both Hollywood beautiful as can be expected. Beckinsale comes off as the most believable of the two, probably because we have seen her as the lead in Wiseman's Underworld series (the two are married, so it's no surprise she shows up here). It's significant that she ends up playing both Lori and Richter's roles from the original, and she pulls it off well here. Biel, on the other hand, is little more than a plot device. Part of Quaid's fantasy is that he gets the girl, after all.
There is still the subplot about whether or not the events are all a fantasy. The confrontation where they try to talk Quaid out of the fantasy, this time using Harry, still occurs, as well as a few hints that maybe this is just an elaborate fantasy he cooked up.
There are many problems. First, how does a society with the technology to build an elevator that runs through the center of the planet not figure out some way of cleaning up the mess on the surface? And, for that matter, I can understand how Australia might be okay, and maybe Britain itself, but what keeps the contamination from creeping into the settlements on the continent? Giant fans? Normally I could let this stuff go, but this is presented more as a hard sci-fi film, even more than the original, and not as a Star Wars flight of fantasy. Even supposing that much is Quaid's fantasy, he still lives in this society prior to visiting Rekall.
There is also the fact that this is PG-13. There are great action sequences throughout (the multi-directional elevator pursuit being a highlight), but that stupid rating has pushed us back to the point of old Westerns were someone grabs their side and falls with nary a trace of blood. The original movie had an R-rating for its over-the-top violence, and much of the remake feels like it's been neutered along the way.
When all is said and done, it is good that Len Wiseman decided to do a fresh take on the film. There are still too many references snuck in to remind us the original exists and this one, despite all the advancements of film making in two decades, is inferior. It's not a disgrace, but it still doesn't make a case for existing.
Total Recall (2012)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston
Director: Len Wiseman