Movie Review: Deja Vu All Over Again

Colin Farrell does his best to prop up an unnecessary but entertaining remake of Total Recall.


In the future, the world has been devastated by widespread chemical warfare. Only two inhabitable regions still exist: The British Federation (what is now Western Europe) and the Colony (Australia). The two are connected by a transit called the Fall, which goes from one location to the other in 17 minutes by traveling straight through the Earth’s core. The Colony supplies most of the labor for the Federation, while the Federation reaps the profits. Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a lowly factory worker who seeks escape from his life through Rekall, a company that provides artificial memories of customers’ fantasies. 

However, it’s soon discovered that Quaid has already had his memory tampered with, and he finds himself surrounded by enemies that include his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is really a government agent assigned to monitor Quaid. Quaid ends up joining forces with Melina (Jessica Biel), a member of the rebellion working against the oppressive have-and-have-not regime of Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). As Quaid tries to make sense of his situation and discover who he really is, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that spans the entire free world.

But not Buddha, who doesn’t believe in global conspiracies.

The 1990 original film Total Recall is generally considered a high point in the careers of both director Paul Verhoven and star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It won an Academy Award for its special effects, being one of the last big-budget films to almost entirely eschew CGI in favor of practical effects. It was also praised for its fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score and the smart, self-aware approach taken by Verhoven in adapting Philip K. Dick‘s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Aside from Arnold’s typically one-note Arnold-esque performance, there was really no need to remake the film, but that doesn’t stop capitalism. While the new version is sleeker and presents a relatively more grounded experience, it still struggles mightily to justify its existence for its entire two-hour runtime. 

The first place to start in examining the film is the director, Len Wiseman, known primarily for the first two films in the Underworld franchise, and writers Mark Bomback (Live Free Die Hard) and Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet). It’s a meeting of the action-eye-candy minds. The film is never short on visual spectacle or surprisingly well-executed (although often over-edited) fight sequences. The second act is almost entirely a chase sequence, while the third is centered around one complicated, explosive endgame. There are short pauses for breath, but they never last very long before the adrenaline kicks in again. It’s the equivalent of holding down the turbo button, which is admittedly fun, but leads to a quick burn out.

Big bada boom.

Wimmer’s script and Wiseman’s direction all seem borrowed from a dozen other places, all mashed together like a mix tape. The biggest influence is obviously Blade Runner, with the film’s grimy, bifurcated dystopia and overabundance of Chinese street signs. In a previous draft of the script, the Colony was “New Shanghai,” and it appears that aesthetic stuck to the rebranded Colony. Wimmer borrows liberally from his own films, while casting Wiseman’s wife Beckinsale in an action-heavy role constantly reminds the viewer of the Underworld films (not that this is entirely a bad thing). 

However, all of it is rendered in a mostly-bloodless PG-13 environment, which along with a few action sequences that feel like they were lifted whole cloth from a seventh-generation platformer, make the film seem like a living video game, albeit one with a ridiculously high budget. Part of implementing this involves using a trick from He-Man and She-Ra, making a large portion of Quaid’s pursuers robots, most of which are about as competent as that comparison implies. Despite the constant threats against his life, it never truly feels like Quaid’s life is in danger, so it’s hard to care about the outcome of the set pieces. The relentless score by Harry Gregson-Williams and electronica outfit Hybrid doesn’t help much. Plus, it’s disconcerting to find out that over 100 years in the future, dubstep is still alive and well. Truly, this is a bleak and terrible future.

Walking through

New Shanghai’s…er…the Colony’s red light district.

Despite this, Farrell is a very effective action hero, and leagues more believable as an everyman than Schwarzenegger could possibly hope to be. Muscular but not massive, cut but not ripped, Farrell looks the part of a factory worker who could be something else entirely, while Arnold really wasn’t fooling anyone. The script doesn’t call on Farrell to do much in the way of emoting, however, and he spends the first two-thirds of the film in a wide-eyed state of (choose one) shock, disbelief or panic. His switch to cool action stud isn’t entirely organic, but Farrell does his best to make it work. Jessica Biel doesn’t help matters much. Like Farrell, she actually acquits herself well as an action hero, but if there’s any depth to be had to Melina’s character, it’s not in the script, and Biel isn’t able to find it otherwise. It’s not entirely her fault, but she doesn’t do anything to help, either.

“What’s my motivation?” “Uhhh…bang, bang?”

The villains are so effective that you end up rooting for them subconsciously. Bryan Cranston doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, but he effortlessly exudes the arrogance, smugness and bravado you’d expect from Cohaagen. The real scene-stealer, though, is Kate Beckinsale, which perhaps goes without saying. In the original film, Lori was played by Sharon Stone in a role that arguably helped to launch her career. Beckinsale’s Lori is far more terrifying, a near-unstoppable, impossibly-sleek avatar of ultraviolence. She’s a human Selene with salon-quality hair-care products and a more sensible wardrobe. In fact, she’s so strong a presence that she often overwhelms Farrell and completely overshadows Biel. Even though she’s married to the director, it’s clear that she more than deserves the role on her own merits, and Beckinsale tears into the role with full force.

Big f-ing guns. Part of a nutritious breakfast.

There are few things tying this film directly to the original, and almost nothing connecting it to the Philip K. Dick story. The credits even say that it’s “adapted” from the original film and “inspired” by the original story. Aside from the names of the characters and their respective roles, this a new story with a new scope. The film never goes to Mars, which is actually to its credit, since it’s already stretching plausibility just with the Fall transit system. Instead, it anchors the action firmly on Earth in a story that draws from modern-day problems with terrorism and social stratification, taking them to their logical, extreme ends. However, the concepts aren’t fully explored, and it’s possible that a large portion of that was dropped in the final cut; Ethan Hawke apparently had a cameo that included a speech that spanned five script pages that was removed entirely. The film also does a disservice to itself by engaging in egregious fan service callbacks to the original, including a pointless cameo by the infamous three-breasted hooker (but no Thumbelina). 

Wiseman and company appear to have intended to make a genuinely new version of Total Recall that was beholden to the original but was its own creature. Sadly, they didn’t quite make it, and this film won’t displace the original in the action/sci-fi canon anytime soon. However, it’s still an entertaining, if almost completely empty-calorie film with a Kate Beckinsale performance that should not be missed. But sometimes, that’s all the brain needs for a good time.

Rating: 6 out of 10 / B-

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and misses seeing the midget hooker. <a href="; title="imageimage

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