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Stephanie Ogrodnik [Celluloid 08.03.12] scifi action thriller adventure

We don't do # ratings anymore.

During the Total Recall panel at Comic Con, Len Wiseman stated that what attracted him the most to Total Recall was that in its core it was a mystery. Beneath the gunfire, special effects and Arnold's rippling biceps was a man's battle to learn the truth about his past, while learning that no one is really what they seem. I was inspired by how passionately Wiseman spoke about his project and went from being entirely uninterested in the Hollywood remake to anticipating a film that promised to revisit the foundations of an intricate story and dig a little deeper. How naive I was. For a man who claimed to be drawn to the mystery in Paul Verhoeven's 1990 sci-fi, thriller, Wiseman did little to augment the story in his 2012 film. In fact, it more closely reflected a Jason Bourne installment, with a dystopian future backdrop. In remaking Total Recall, Wiseman has successfully taken a film about a man who is stripped of his entire existence, and strips it of any profundity, suspense and anything remotely unique.

Total Recall was, of course, originally inspired by Phillip Kindred Dick's short story "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale." One of seven of his shorts adapted into film, "We Can Remember..." is about Dennis Quail, a simple clerk who dreams of going to Mars. Rekal manager Mr. McClane convinces Quail that his only way of achieving his life goal of being a spy on Mars is by having artificial memories injected into the mind. However, as the Rekal workers prepare Quail's treatment, they discover that he has memories of being an Interplan special agent and was already sent on a mission to Mars. Wiseman's version of Total Recall does not involve a journey to Mars, though there is a line that pays homage to Quail's interplanetary dreams. Instead, Dennis Quaid is a factory worker living in The Colony. In the beginning of the film, flickering onscreen text informs us that after the twenty first century, chemical warfare rendered most of the Earth's surface uninhabitable. The only places to live are in the United Federation of Britain or the lower class sect called The Colony, formerly known as Australia. Plagued by dreams of being a spy, and the desire to serve a greater purpose, Dennis Quaid succumbs to the enticing, flashy billboards of Rekall to have new memories injected. The Rekall workers do a background scan to make sure he doesn't already have memories of being a spy. Like in Dick's short, they discover Quaid isn't who he believes himself to be. Except, as we've seen from the trailer, this encounter doesn't result in simple debate and speculation, followed by a deadly visit from Interplan officers--the scene erupts into gunfire.

The statement, "the scene erupts into gunfire," would be the most accurate description of the film in its entirety. From the moment Dennis Quaid snaps on the officers in Rekall, the film plunges forward at break neck speed, filled with heavily choreographed hand-to-hand combat, futuristic weaponry, and at least eight slow motion scenes in which our heroes' only option is to jump-will they make it? The film is 118 minutes long...yes, yes they will. Kate Beckinsale plays a ferociously bitter and relentless Lori Quaid. While Sharon Stone was equal parts sexy, powerful and manipulative, Beckinsale plays a woman that would make T-1000 proud. Nevertheless, one of the many challenges in any remake is the ability to take a widely familiarized plot and make it feel new, even if we know many of the twists and turns. As Wiseman's Total Recall barrels ahead, meeting its high speed action quota of time bombs and hover car crashes, it sacrifices almost all elements of suspense. While Dennis Quaid constantly finds himself "trapped" or "caught," it's difficult for the audience to build any real tension when he's apparently equipped enough to escape any scenario, recycling Quaid's surprise in his own capabilities over and over from the first action sequence.

Like in the short story, McClane must first sell the concept of Rekall to Dennis Quaid before he takes the plunge. However, Phillip K. Dick's McClane appeals to the more practical issues of credibility, cost and customer satisfaction, while Wiseman's McClane jumps straight to the matter that reality is only what the brain perceives. The issue in this is not the difference in the approaches themselves. It's the fact that in keeping up with the darker, slightly melodramatic tone of the film, as well as the pacing, these brief philosophical interludes come across as forced dialogue, planted in between chase scenes, so Wiseman could remind us that he, too, respects the depth of Total Recall's plot.

It seems that the bulk of the filmmaker's attention was directed on the world, itself. That said, Wiseman's portrayal of the post-twentieth century society was visually stimulating. Each time there's a wide shot of both UFB and The Colony, the viewer is given a wealth of intricate detail, of Earth's thriving (remaining) cities. Many sci-fi fans will have fun dissecting this world and the gadgets that come with it. As space on Earth grows scarce, the two main cities are stacked upon themselves. While twenty-first century vehicles continue to drive on streets on the planet's surface, floating islands are linked by double-sided streets, on which magnetized hover cars detect surfaces from the top and bottom of the vehicle. While both CG cities are bright and stunning, the overlapping structures help to make the wealthier parts of UFB look congested, driving the point home that living space high is valued in this world.

Still, while they may not be flaws, there were a few technical and visual oddities. One thing that remained unclear to me was the overall design of The Colony. With the cultural reflection of Hong Kong and a red light district reminiscent of Bangkok, Thailand, I was curious as to why Wiseman chose Australia for the establishment of The Colony. It seems that the only reason for choosing Australia as one of the last surviving continents is for the purpose of creating The Fall. Factory workers from The Colony are able to travel to UFB in The Fall, which is essentially an elevator with rollercoaster-like restraints that is able to travel through the Earth, past the equator, within the average travel time of a subway ride. As with many blockbuster action, sci-fi films, science is sacrificed for the sake of a visceral impact. While I did not have an issue with The Fall passing through the equator, the speed of travel, or the automatic gravity adjustments-those were actually pretty cool-there are plot points involving travel both within and without The Fall. I can't say too much for the sake of spoilers, but I will say that if one can freely move about a craft that travels through the planet in a matter of minutes, I can tap dance on the wing of a 747.

The most notable visual blunder (or genius, depending on opinion) was the use of lens flare. Now in competition with J.J. Abrams, Wiseman's lens flare was practically a supporting character, with just under the face time of Jessica Biel, and unfortunately more so than Bryan Cranston. Wiseman also teaches us that in the future, even when most of our poor planet is reduced to barren wastelands and our greatest landmarks crumble with neglect, there will still be dubstep to inform us where the hottest party spots are in the city.

Regardless of all I have said, the film was enjoyable from the standpoint of an action film fan. I could watch Kate Beckinsale terrorize Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel all day and the fight scenes were actually well constructed. If you're looking to enjoy your summer weekend with a fun blockbuster, I'll recommend Total Recall twice. What is overall disappointing about this film in particular was the fact that it comes across as any other action film, with little more than scenery to make it stand out, even despite a story that could be both eerie and thought provoking. When Quaid is finally put up against Cohaagen, who effectively reduces thought and memory to simple data entry, there is a chilling sense that the people we connect with in the film are barely more complex than the robots they construct. Unfortunately, as with every other interaction, Cohaagen's discussions are brief punctuations of character development between bouts of violence. His craving for world domination also nearly turns him into a caricature. I can't fault this film for being exactly as it advertises itself-a summer blockbuster action release-but if that's all Wiseman intended to be, why pick this story to remake?

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Marina (9 years ago) Reply

Completely agree on all points. Love the action and like the fact that the small changes in story brought up some different ideas but you're right, Wiseman throws things just as a way of saying "yeah, there's more going on here than just action" but doens't elaborate on any of it. I thoroughly enjoyed it but it doesn't feel much like a remake which is fine by me.

I did have some trouble with the world setup and the fact that the only two inhabitable places left are the UK and Australia. Definitely feels like it's simply servicing the use of The Fall. Would have liked a little more on that.


marco (9 years ago) Reply

"Dennis Quaid" ?????

It's Douglas Quaid!

Dennis Quaid is the actor in "The day after tomorrow lb


loco73 (8 years ago) Reply

Utterly useless piece of recycled cinmatic trash! Another putrid cinematic corpse in the increasingly mindless and meaningless era of re-makes, reboots, sequels and pre-quels...

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