Total Recall review

Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake is out this week in UK cinemas. Here’s our take on it…

Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall was a bloody, aggressive, fitfully funny sci-fi Wizard Of Oz for the 90s. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, by contrast, is more like a sci-fi Bourne Identity – its lighting is darker, its camerawork shakier, its tone gloomier.

In the distant future, a chemical war has left Earth devastated, and what’s left of humanity survives in two vastly different cities on either side of the planet. On one, there’s the United Federation of Britain, a gleaming metropolis of the wealthy and powerful governed by the despotic Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). On the other, there’s the Colony – formerly Australia – a benighted, rain-swept mass of floating favelas and neon slums.

Here lives lowly factory worker Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell). Although he’s happily married to the smart, beautiful medic Lori (Kate Beckinsale), he’s weary of his daily routine. His work entails a long commute on a gigantic elevator called The Fall, which takes hundreds of minions from the Colony to robot-building factories on the other side of the planet.

Against the advice of his best friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), Quaid pays a visit to Rekall, a company specialising in planting false memories into the heads of its customers. But just as a slick-talking Rekall rep (played by Johnny Cho) prepares to inject the fantasy of a secret agent lifestyle into Quaid’s brain, a platoon of elite forces cuts the procedure short.

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Quaid, it turns out, isn’t who he thinks he is. His life is an intricately constructed web of actors and false memories, and weeding out the real from the fake is a perilous exercise.

By removing some of the more fantastical elements of 1990’s Total Recall – the Martian colonies, dormant alien technology, and so on – Len Wiseman brings the premise and atmosphere closer to sci-fi movies such as Minority Report or I, Robot, with glossy special effects to match.

What’s interesting about Total Recall, from a story standpoint, is how it streamlines the original’s plot, conflating some characters and leaving others out altogether. Lori, for example – played by Sharon Stone in Verhoeven’s version – plays a far more pivotal role this time round. And she’s quite impressive; physically imposing, cunning, and utterly single-minded, she makes a great counterpoint to Farrell’s version of Quaid. Only the script lets her down, saddling her with a single mild expletive to utter as her mark runs away for the umpteenth time. 

No longer the hulking action star depicted by Schwarzenegger, the new incarnation of Quaid is far closer to the ordinary everyman of Philip K Dick’s stories. Quaid’s still not the meek office worker of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, but neither is he the brutally powerful man of action seen in the 1990 film. Instead, he’s a stealthy, resourceful protagonist who’s fighting for survival rather than crushing all before him in a shower of blood and broken glass.

Jessica Biel fights alongside him as Melina, the tough resistance fighter played by Rachel Ticotin in Paul Verhoeven’s film. She’s convincing enough in Total Recall’s numerous action scenes, but it has to be said that there’s a notable lack of romantic sparkle between her character and Farrell’s.

Although lacking charisma in the acting department, Total Recall‘s production design is sometimes stunning. Patrick Tatopoulos has clearly drawn on such genre touchstones as Blade Runner and the previously mentioned Minority Report (the latter, ironically, was originally optioned as a sequel to Total Recall in the early 90s), but there’s a level of detail here that’s breathtaking, even if the floating cars and drizzle-soaked cities look strangely familiar. 

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The Fall, a magic elevator that travels past the Earth’s core, is an engaging idea, and one of the few major new additions to the story. But everything, from the telephones lurking beneath the flesh of hands, to the magnetic cars, is considered and believably functional – whatever your thoughts are about the merits of yet another Hollywood remake, this aspect alone gives Total Recall 2012 something of a reason to exist.

There are a few nods to the original for those old enough to remember the first film, including a three-breasted lady and a clever recycling of the old “two weeks” line, but this is a movie, we suspect, largely aimed at those too young to have seen the original. 

Many of the twists and events are similar to the 1990 film, leaving those well versed in it waiting for the story beats to happen, and after an intriguing first half, the movie degenerates into a series of action set-pieces in the second – a problem also evident in Wiseman’s Die Hard 4.0. Bryan Cranston is handed a wig and a sorely underwritten role as the head bad guy, and Bill Nighy’s appearance is little more than a disappointing cameo.

In the final analysis, though, this total remake is far better than some had predicted. It lacks, unsurprisingly, the trashy flair and sense of mischief that made Paul Verhoeven’s movie such an absurd masterpiece, and the new version’s muted PG-13 action sequences can’t match the original’s crunchy violence. But as a diverting piece of eye candy, it’s just about worth the price of admission.

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3 out of 5