Len Wiseman's tedious Philip K. Dick adaptation neither lives up to its source material or Paul Verhoeven's wry cinematic antecedent.
People who came of age during the 1990s likely have fond memories of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, a colourful sci-fi romp in which brainwashed super-spy Arnold Schwarzenegger travels to Mars to uncover a dastardly plot involving alien technology, mutant rebels and three-breasted prostitutes. But Len Wiseman’s remake strips all the wit and mystery out of the original, and recasts it as a disappointingly forgettable shoot-'em-up.
The setting is a twenty-first-century Earth in which chemical warfare has left all but two areas of the planet uninhabited. One is the United Federation of Britain, where the planet’s elite live, and the other is Australia (known only as The Colony), where the planet’s working class live in dystopian squalor.
Among the huddled masses is Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a construction worker lately disillusioned with his boring, 9-to-5 existence. On a whim, Quaid decides to visit Rekall, a shady company that implants false memories to allow everyday Joes to act out their fantasies. Before he knows it, Quaid is on the run, pursued by the woman he thought was his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and in search of his true identity.
The film differs to Verhoeven’s original in a number of key ways. Rather than "get [his] ass to Mars," Quaid must instead flee to futuristic Britain to discover the truth about his real identity. And in place of the original’s surreal sci-fi mythology is a dull conspiracy plot involving a fascist takeover by the state.
Not quite the same, you’d have to say, and it makes Quaid’s quest seem colourless by comparison. At times it feels more like a futuristic Bourne rip-off than a revamped Total Recall, although its rain-soaked, Asian-influenced look is more reminiscent of that more famous and accomplished Philip K. Dick adaptation, Blade Runner.
Credit screenwriters Mark Bomback and Kurt Wimmer for giving this remake one splash of originality – a huge, spaceship-sized elevator that travels through the Earth’s core, a novel if somewhat ridiculous idea that inevitably figures in the movie’s finale.
But where other filmmakers might have embraced such ridiculousness, director Len Wiseman smothers the film with lofty dystopian gloom, even the loud, endlessly prolonged slo-mo gunfights and chase sequences that make up the bulk of the film's action. It’s glum, self-serious stuff, everything that Verhoeven’s original isn’t.
The only person who looks as if she’s enjoying herself is Beckinsale, who is given a few sub-Arnie one-liners as she unconvincingly kicks ass in a role needlessly expanded from the original. All Colin Farrell is given to do is run, jump, shoot guns and look confused — which he does capably enough — while Jessica Biel’s presence barely registers.
But by far the film’s worst crime is to botch the original’s most interesting idea, and, frankly, the best reason to remake it — the mind-bending scenario that the whole thing is the Rekall fantasy taking place within Quaid’s head. Aside from a few winks at the idea, it never teases the possibility that all this gunplay and espionage is just too exciting to be true. Good sci-fi lives and dies by the strength of its concept. This film prefers to just play with its guns.
Farrell is likeable, but he’s no Arnie. Still, can’t fault the source material.
A joyless parade of cacophonous gun battles. And they don’t even go to Mars!
Just another dumb, needless remake to add to the pile.