Total Recall (2012)
I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven. It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes. So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes. Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie. The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that. It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.
In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world. Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony. Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories. For Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs. However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man. His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent. Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen. The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.
This film showcased some potential. I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself. As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall. The action is sensational most times. There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing. There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire. The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed. Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action. Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable. More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap. The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world. Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally. However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie. Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie. It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.
I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film. I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists. The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation. He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release. You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches. However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth. The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough. These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them. Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles. He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance. However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into. I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in. I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting. You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion. While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.
The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina. She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present. The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake. I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance. It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that. It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development. Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table. Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance. I was left with a rather blank impression of the character. Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.
I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film. His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been. Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts. There’s no natural flow to it. It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up. It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless. I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias. I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before. It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out. No such moment exists in this film. The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid. There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface. It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose. He is also greatly low key. One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities. I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.
Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable. Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie. Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine. There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love. However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain. She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation. Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey. Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding. It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role. She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process. I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end. I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.
Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma. He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen. He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with. You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy. He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup. This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors. No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances. Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version. That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively. It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie. Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.
I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going. Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity. How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity. There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity. There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene. It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.
Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations. The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it. It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette. The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness. Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence. Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes. Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it. Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well. The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards. It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future. It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses. However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore. I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.
The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design. While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB. Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB. I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film. Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct. There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment. Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today. So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there. As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.
Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film. It looks very slick and smart all the way through. His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes. It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went. I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.
Everything in these worlds is smartly designed. The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world. With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations. Everything has a practical and logic design to it. Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.
However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script. I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot. The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself. We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out. We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB. We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them. We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters. They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.” That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated. While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary. The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale. I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way. The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread. The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough. Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it. Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed. Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine. So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them. It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.
There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias. No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in. They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations. This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all. Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.
I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film. The action is marvelously well done and inventive. Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action. He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography. There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film. Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up. There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass. Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself. I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion. I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one. Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.