Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is a kind of high-impact, sci-fi themed, live action version of Q-Bert, with darkly handsome Colin Farrell taking over for that plushy, adorable little orange thing that had to leap and jump through hundreds of repetitive arcade screens to avoid baddies.
To add some spice, we get sprawling digital versions of the worlds presented in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, and a swiped story idea from the ever quirky Philip K. Dick. To account for summer movie inflation, we get two kick-ass females instead of one. Something strange happened to me while watching all of this relentless, onscreen action. I started to remember having done this all before—images perhaps from a dream, or a memory, or a dream of a memory.
Closing my eyes, I could see these same events, twisted and turned, re-enacted by a hulking, monosyllabic Austrian and a gaggle of mutant humans. Instead of a dingy future Earth, it all happened on Mars. I looked at those alternating lanes of shiny cars and wondered where the creepy metal spiders that can scan you retinas had gone, and had an uncontrollable urge to wear Converse and eat apple pie every time one of the robots walked onscreen. It was disconcerting to say the least. Most alarming was that I found myself closing my eyes often during Total Recall.
Despite the unnerving tingle at my brain that told me the whole thing was a glossy lie designed to exploit my consumer instincts, constructed from memories made to convince me I had never had this experience until now, I did get some enjoyment from Total Recall. For one thing, the movie does indeed look great. A few sparse pre-credit title cards tell us this is Earth after chemical warfare, with only two viable habitations left; the United Federation of Britain, located you know where, and The Colony, a filthy dingy pit of humanity that used to be Australia. The production design by Patrick Tatopolous is exquisite and fastidiously detailed, stretching beyond the edges of the screen and bringing both locales to stunning life. The UFB is sleeker and grander, featuring a kind of art-deco take on urban sprawl, while The Colony is a massive heap of humanity and technology, layered up like lasagna. This isn’t ‘little boxes on a hillside’ as much as it a landscape of hillsides made of little boxes, stretching on until the smog obscures your vision. Workers from the Colony commute to the UFB via the tube train from Hell, called The Fall, which passes directly through the Earth’s core and can get you there in 17 minutes. When the New York subway takes twice as long to get you five minutes up the street, you can safely chalk The Fall up to progress.
I was always pleased to look at Total Recall, and its visual opulence steered me away from those more appealing reminiscences in my mind’s eye. The story is less captivating, though. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory cog from the Colony who works in a plant that builds synthetic soldier units. Quaid is married to a foxy wife (Kate Beckinsale), has a snarky best bud (Bokeem Woodbine) and dreams of Jessica Biel when he’s asleep. Somehow, he’s still unsatisfied and goes to a place called Rekall, that will give you fabricated memories of your deepest fantasies. They mention Mars—there it is again, that pesky feeling of déjà-vu—but Quaid wants a double-agent fantasy and he’s rejected on grounds that he already has these memories, for real. Yes, a Matrix glitch cat just walked over my grave.
Cue UFB forces, led by the shady Cohaagen (Brian Cranston), who shoot-up Rekall and pursue Quaid because they believe he is a key player in the resistance and knows of their plans for a full-scale invasion of The Colony. His wife is also a sleeper agent who is now intent on killing him; although my mind pushed inexplicably for the line ‘Consider that a divorce’ it was never delivered. Quaid may have one hot mama trying to dispatch him, but luckily, there’s another waiting in the wings to save him. She is Melina (Biel), and she was apparently his lover and fellow resistance fighter before he was smuggled into his false life. From here, it’s a lot of jumping and dodging, and shooting, and running, and sneering. No one ever sneers quite as well as the hypothetical Austrian though. The day may or may not be saved, Rekall may or may not be pulling the strings, and none of it really matters much.
I had a decent time at Total Recall. It didn’t transport me or give me memories I will always cherish, but I was mildly entertained by the action onscreen. There’s just not much there on a narrative level, the characters are paper thin, and the performers are almost purposefully austere, rendering them ciphers instead of people. Beckinsale and Biel seem out to prove it was they, not Hathaway who deserved to be Catwoman in Nolan’s Bats, and Farrell does a fine but undistinguished turn as a working class hero. This guy, like Cranston and the terribly wasted Bill Nighy, is almost always better when cast in something quirky. For his part, Cranston does get to break bad on Farrell in the finale.
The action sequences often descend into a swirling miasma of edits and rotating camera work, presumably to maintain the PG-13 rating, and it is these scenes more than any others that threaten to tear you out of the movie. When this happened, I needed only close my eyes and discover a world that wasn’t as exquisitely designed, but boasted more imagination. I’m still trying to remember who that dude with the little man growing out of his stomach was.