Total Recall: when is a remake not a remake?

With a teaser trailer and banner poster arriving for Total Recall over the last couple of days, we wonder just how different Len Wiseman’s film is from the 1990 version...

Over the past couple of days, the marketing campaign for Len Wiseman’s Total Recall movie has clicked into life, with the arrival of a teaser trailer for the full trailer (a new publicity tactic we could happily do without, if we’re being totally honest), and a banner poster. We’ve thoughtfully included both of these in this post.

As we’ve said in earlier bits and pieces about Total Recall, we’re willing to keep an open mind about it, even though it does appear to be flying in the slipstream of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. But although Wiseman’s movie shares the same title as Verhoeven’s, the producer of the new movie have been keen to point out the differences between it and the 1990 one.

Producer Neal Moritz has insisted that Total Recall 2012 will stick “closer” to the Philip K Dick story which provided the inspiration for the earlier film – though that may be difficult, since We Can Remember It For You Wholesale was so brief. Surely, there’s only much that can be gleaned from such a short (though undoubtedly engaging) tale of unreality and false memories?

The little we’ve now seen of the new Total Recall has us a little perplexed. As Moritz has previously said, this movie does look quite different from Verhoeven’s – for one thing, there’s been no attempt to find an actor as beefy as Arnie to play the protagonist, Douglas Quaid. Its cityscapes, all mile-high buildings, flying cars and cops in shiny plastic suits, look more like the stuff of Minority Report than the Martian slums of the earlier Total Recall.

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Then again, just look at the chair in which Quaid sits; isn’t it almost identical to the one which may or may not have planted false memories in Schwarzenegger’s mind a little over 20 years ago. A quick perusal of the banner ad reveals another link to Total Recall 1990 – Arnie’s face and the Martian pyramid are gone, but the typography’s identical.

A read of the Wiseman Total Recall’s character list and synopsis reveals more similarities between the two films, too. Colin Farrell will play both Quaid and his alter-ego Hauser, just as Arnie did. There are characters called Melina, Lori (Quaid’s wife), Vilos Cohaagen, Harry (Quaid’s workmate), and a rebel leader called Kuato.

What it sounds like, in fact, is that the story is essentially a reworking of Total Recall 1990‘s story, albeit without Mars (just as well, since movies set on the planet appear to have a patchy time at the box office) and presumably with fewer mutant special effects (though curiously, it’s been said that a tri-breasted woman will indeed make a brief reappearance). The only truly big difference, it would seem, is that Quaid gets his ass to New Shanghai instead of Mars.

This seems to fly in the face, somewhat, of Wiseman and Moritz’ early interviews, in which they insisted that it would be a quite different film from Verhoeven’s. In an interview with Collider last August, Wiseman said of his film,“When it came about, like everybody else, I thought ‘Should this be remade?’ And then when I read the script and [saw] how different of a take the other writers took with it, I was completely gripped by it. It’s a very different take.”

Only three days ago, Kate Beckinsale insisted in an interview with Fox All Access that Total Recall “Is not a remake” – and she should know, you might think, because she’s Wiseman’s wife.

So what Wiseman’s Total Recall appears to be, then, is a new phenomenon: the ‘sort of’ remake. Last year’s The Thing was billed as a prequel to (rather than a remake of) the 1982 Carpenter movie, it went under the same title – rather than, say, going under a name like Before The Thing – and freely borrowed imagery, locations and snippets of music from Carpenter’s classic.

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This summer’s Prometheus, which everyone involved insists is categorically not a prequel to Alien, nevertheless contains dozens of visual references to that film, and its first trailer was even cut and designed specifically to hark back to Alien’s typography, camera work and editing.

The makers of Total Recall, it seems, are nervous about calling their film a remake, but want parts of its story and advertising to remind movie-goers of the 1990 version. After all, it would have been so easy to market Total Recall under an entirely different name, and not have the Rekall memory chair look exactly like the one Arnold sat in, and come up with an entirely new story with completely different character names – but they chose not to.

What we appear to be witnessing, of late, is an attempt to introduce brand recognition into Hollywood movies outside the usual arena of comic-book adaptations and toy franchises. Perhaps afraid that movie goers won’t head to their multiplex to watch a sci-fi film they’ve never heard of, they’re keen to use familiar names and images to attract attention (and whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of making another Total Recall, it’s gained plenty of interest on the web).

Movies like Total Recall, The Thing and Prometheus don’t necessarily have huge merchandising lines, comic books or other lines of revenue open to them, but the studios making them do have one valuable tool: their respective properties, and all the familiar imagery, characters and settings which make them unique.

If Total Recall and Prometheus are successes, it’s perhaps inevitable that we’ll see film studios delving into their archives to see what other avenues are open to them. Filmmakers like Ridley Scott and Len Wiseman may appear to be wary of using words such as ‘prequel’ or ‘remake’ – perhaps because of the variable quality of the films you might associate them with – but then again, they’re not afraid of setting their movies in the same world as an earlier hit.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, though. Prometheus is one of our most anticipated movies of the year (though you may have already guessed that), and it look as though Ridley Scott has made something far more interesting than retread of the haunted-house-in-space sub-genre he made his own with Alien.

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As for Total Recall, we’re intrigued to see more. Beyond its attractive visuals, we hope its story isn’t as close to the Verhoeven’s movie as its character list and synopsis imply. Being a remake doesn’t automatically make a film bad, of course, but we’re hoping that Total Recall has enough ideas of its own to truly set it apart from the truly great 1990s version.

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