Review: ‘Total Recall’ Is Totally Passable With a Third Act That Should Be Wiped From Memory

By  · Published on August 2nd, 2012

Here we are, the downturn of one of the most hyped cinematic summers in recent memory. Now, we’ll be getting all the films the studios weren’t quite sure would make it during the May-July run. We’ll be seeing a lot of these titles over the next two weeks…two weeks…two weeks. To kick off the Gilligan’s-Island-worthy “and the rest” season is Len Wiseman’s remake of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Based on the book, “The Future Hates You And Will Kill Your Face” by Philip K. FunnyLastName. No, it was actually (of course) Philip K. Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

The basic premise is largely the same as it was in the before time, the Schwarzenegger longlong ago. A man trudging through a humdrum existence (Colin Farrell’s Quaid), realizes he lives in futurey times and can have memories of a more exciting existences slam-packed into his brain via a company called Rekall. Trouble is that in so slam-packing, the company accidentally pops the top on a whole pickle jar of new skill sets and suggests that the life he currently knows may be a lie.

The big difference of course between the original Total Recall movie and the remake is a profound reduction in the set pieces that take place on the planet Mars. That is to say, no part of the remake takes place on the planet Mars. This is where geeks like me would usually throw a conniption, or at the very least a strongly-worded hissy fit. However, and this is part and parcel with what was so impressive about the majority of the new Total Recall: it didn’t matter. Total Recall is not completely beholden to the original film, it establishes its own identity. The fibers, the tendons that link the major story elements together are comfortably familiar, but we are in no way watching a beat-for-beat remake. The sociopolitical bent of the original film is maintained, but instead of the exploited working class living on Mars, they live in The Colony.

Apparently the entire planet is polluted and the only inhabitable regions are the United Federation of Britain and Australia, now dubbed The Colony. Instead of oxygen being the precious resource, it’s living space. Mars is therefore not a necessary story element and doesn’t leave us feeling shortchanged by not venturing to the red planet.

The script this time around develops and explores its own distinctive sci-fi canon. It plunges headlong into its own vision of the future and makes aesthetic choices that both compliment its story and seem like conceivable extrapolations of current technology. The cellphone built inside the hand may seem a wild reach, but when speaking into it, the caller displays gestures quite recognizable from contemporary culture. The glowing tattoos were also a nice touch and seem to be the next logical stage of evolution for self-expression. The cars don’t hover as they would in most blockbuster science-fiction these days. Instead they operate via magnetic attraction/repulsion. Then there’s the design of the world itself. Sure, the obvious and heavy Asian influence on the architecture smacks of Bladerunner, but the inverted buildings are as much an extension of the commodity of living space as they are pure spectacle. Also cool? The transportation system that traveled through the center of the Earth. I have a feeling that, in terms of studio sci-fi, centrifugal gravity is the new holographic display.

True to Wiseman’s strengths, the action sequences in Total Recall are damned impressive. They are inventive, well-choreographed, and, most importantly, well-edited. We are given time to get a sense of space, which Wiseman adeptly plays with, and scale, which is often rather staggering. The integration of robots into the police force, which also still boasts human officers, allows for some stark, kinetic moments of impact that would have earned the film a hard R otherwise, but don’t at all feel cheap. The fight sequences are surprisingly brutal and Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale prove to be the toughest performers in the whole film by a martian mile.

There’s also a healthy balance struck between vital plot/character moments and attention-arresting action; the pacing is suitably brisk. If any problem with the way the action, and in fact the movie itself is shot, it’s that Wiseman allowed J.J. Abram’s Star Trek to convince him that lens flares = distant future. What he fails to understand is that Star Trek’s flares were a stylistic choice that did not enhance the film itself. We were able to abide the flares due to the compelling story and great characters beneath them. Instead, Wiseman takes it to the next level and utilizes “lens grids” that almost completely obscure certain scenes and look frighteningly similar to the tracking lines on a worn-out VHS.

Yes, there are few homages to the original in this version of Total Recall; some that work remarkably well, and others that do not. The famous large-woman-with-exploding-head disguise gag does appear, but in a way that doesn’t so much pander to fans as it does play impishly with expectations; hilarious actually. Thankfully, the remake not only refers back to the discussions in Verhoeven’s film about how some Rekall patrons have total mental collapses, but also lends an explanation to this that ties into the new universe. Unfortunately, everyone’s favorite superfluous-mammary prostitute does turn up in Wiseman’s version. Why unfortunate? Because there are no mutants in the remake. She’s the only one. So, what’s the reason for her third tit? Is that what breast implants have come to in the future?

Crafting an effective remake is like remolding a house. You can strip it down, you can repaint the walls, and you can even alter the flow from room to room, but the foundation doesn’t change. The more memories are tied in with the architecture of the house, the more uneasy the neighborhood (of fans) gets when the remodel takes place. The biggest problem with Total Recall is that Wiseman does a great job on the house, and then goes into the backyard and takes a giant dump in the pool. The third act of this thing almost completely undoes all of the goodwill and respect it earns up to that point. The plot begins to unravel in ways that will make even your worst sweater seem designer quality. The ultimate scheme of Cohaagen, played this time around by a toe-headed Bryan Cranston, is a little hard to swallow. He uses the terrorist Matthias (Bill Nighy) to incite fear in his people and justify his building of an army. He seems hellbent on quelling the rebellion, but then once that’s done he launches into full-scale absurdity that’s only matched by all the other characters’ reaction to his actions.

And then there’s the issue that arises seemingly of the relationship between Wiseman and Beckinsale; married in real life. Certain posterior-based photography choices harken back to one of the more unfortunate signatures of the Underworld films on which Wiseman served as director. Now, I share a common bond with Len Wiseman…in that I too enjoy his wife’s ass. Does that necessitate low-angles and perfect center-of-ass framing? Not necessarily, but that is by no means the most detrimentally nepotistic aspect of their coupling. The end of the film comes with an element that seems purely born of their relationship – and not any relationship to the story or logic.

On top of that, in the final act the dialogue gets worse, the science breaks down, and it becomes woefully reminiscent of all the forgettable studio science-fiction we’ve been subjected to over the last decade. I only harp on this because I was genuinely satisfied, if not overwhelmingly pleased with everything up to that point. Farrell turns in a solid performance, the seams between practical and CG are often invisible, and it was equal parts intelligent and entertaining. All in all, nowhere near a total failure, but somehow its faults are more problematic as we caught flashes of what the movie might have been.

Upside: Sensational production design, amazing action sequences, and 2/3 a fantastic retelling of a classic story.

Downside: A third act that lets all the air out of the first two, causing our faces to swell and explode.

On the Side: Colin Farrell doesn’t say words as funny as Schwarzenegger.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.