First, a confession: I am not a big fan of the original 1990 Paul Verhoeven directed/Arnold Schwarzenegger starring Total Recall. While I was a HUGE fan of Mr. Verhoeven’s first American sci-fi film, Robocop, Total Recall, in the end, felt to me like a missed opportunity. The film, which involved a worker drone named Quaid (Schwarzenegger) who longs to live a fantasy adventure and finds this possibility via Rekall Inc., an early version of a “virtual reality” vacation, perhaps is one of the first films to deal with the technology that confuses reality and fantasy, not unlike the more successful (in my opinion) The Matrix. The more astute views of the original Total Recall were left wondering at the end of the film whether we witnessed something that was “real” or whether Quaid was permanently locked in a fantasy world, never to emerge again.
The 2012 remake of Total Recall lifts the story with only some minor cosmetic differences. The primary change regards the movie’s setting as there is no trip to Mars. One can’t help but be impressed with the future world as presented. The movie’s dual settings (Great Britain and Australia) are a visual feast. I would even go so far as to say this may be the best full scale futuristic setting I’ve ever seen committed to film. If there is a critique to be made here, it is that this futuristic world looks heavily inspired by Blade Runner, another movie based on a story created by the late Phillip K. Dick.
The second big change is that the new version of the film has Kate Beckinsale’s villainous Lori Quiad pursue her “husband” throughout the film. In the original, Sharon Stone’s character was disposed of early on. This particular change turns out to be a positive for the remake as Kate Beckinsale is certainly the showiest of the characters.
Where the remake most diverges from the original is in tone. While Mr. Verhoeven’s original featured plenty of over the top action material and in your face humor, the remake is far more somber and “serious”. Alas, this ultimately hurts rather than helps the remake.
Now, I already confessed to not being a big fan of the original Total Recall. Yet I have to give Mr. Verhoeven credit for delivering something that moves. Yes, the original film is at times goofy and silly and cheesy and doesn’t give you anything approaching a resolution as to whether we witnessed imagination or reality…but audiences can forgive quite a bit when you have Verhoeven’s “in your face” direction and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the lead.
In the remake, apart from Kate Beckinsale, we have far too subdued work from Colin Farrell (as Quaid), Jessica Biel (as Melina), and Bryan Cranston (as the ultimate villain of the piece, Cohaagan). All the actors mentioned above have done good work, in my opinion, but in this film they are all so very, very…flat. There were no sparks (romantic or otherwise) between Quaid and Melina. Bryan Cranston’s Cohaagan, similarly, never reached the sneering, way-over-the-top villainy of Ronny Cox’s Cohaagan. The action scenes, while at the start quite good (the first big action sequence at Rekall, in particular, is a highlight), eventually became repetitious. When we finally reached the movie’s climax, I was more than ready for things to wind down and end, never a good feeling.
There is a “surprise” ending after this ending, a final confrontation between Quaid and his villainous “wife”, but even that felt obvious. I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s writers had surprised us with a different conclusion, perhaps one where our villainess does something truly surprising…like have Quaid completely at her mercy…yet she chooses to let him live. The circumstances being what they are, it was pointless for her to still try to kill him. Perhaps at that point, as she’s walking away, she makes Quaid truly wonder whether he is experiencing reality or illusion.
Having said all that, Total Recall 2012 is not a “terrible” film by any means. If you haven’t seen the original, it might even prove a pleasant diversion. At its worst, it is a distressingly mediocre film dressed in a great film’s clothing. Given all the money, truly amazing effects, and big name cast, one wishes it could have been a little more than it ultimately was.