You'll Want Your Memory Erased, Too

The nicest thing I can say about “Total Recall” (2012) is that it’s a film. More precisely, it literally qualifies as a film. It has actors, it has scenes, and it’s feature-length. It has screenwriters, a director, and a relatively big budget. Lots of people spent months of their lives making it. It’s going to play in theaters and people are going to pay to see it. It’ll eventually be released on DVD and Blu-ray and will be available for purchase in stores. It’s a movie in the most basic sense of the word, and we all like movies, right?

The original “Total Recall,” released in 1990, was the death rattle of 80s action cinema and all that it signified – ridiculous special effects, extreme violence, and nonsensical plotting. Within a year, James Cameron would reinvent this particular wheel, coincidentally dragging “Recall’s” Arnold Schwarzenegger along with him into a new decade – a decade of revolutionary CGI and decidedly streamlined narratives. In that way, “Total Recall” was obsolete out of the box.

Objectively, the 1990 iteration is not a great film – in fact, it’s kind of a mess – but it has a lot of passionate fans and I can empathize with the kind of nostalgic kick that some people get out of it. The fact that Paul Verhoeven went on to direct some less than stellar films (see: “Showgirls,” or better yet, don’t) certainly hasn’t helped the reputation of “Recall,” but it’ll always be remembered as one of the pinnacles of its era. It’s strikingly gory and relentlessly weird and, at times, flippantly mean-spirited. Exactly how moviegoers loved their tentpole actioners in the last days of the drive-in theater.

Now we have a new “Total Recall,” and in at least one way, it’s historic. After a little research, I’ve concluded that it’s the first American remake of any American film released in the 1990s or 2000s. It’s never happened before. Seeing a Hollywood remake of Hollywood film that came out in the 90s begs the question, “was it necessary?”

The answer is a deafening “no.” What the original had going for it, above all else, was personality. It was genuinely irreverent and goofy. Watching the 2012 version is the cinematic equivalent of having an exceptionally bad cold or sinus infection – to the point that you can’t taste or smell anything. You can see the meal on your plate. You can even feel it slide down your throat. You know it’s a meal that you’re capable of liking, under the right circumstances. But something’s off. Texture takes the place of flavor. You only eat it because you have to.

Action films as lifeless and boring as “Total Recall” (2012) are exceedingly rare. Between Colin Farrell’s phoned-in performance and the glazed-over eyes of both Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, I had trouble staying awake. Farrell stars as Douglas Quaid, a man haunted by dreams that suggest he was meant for more. Beckinsale plays his wife, Lori, and Biel appears as Melina, the literal girl of Quaid’s dreams. You probably know how the story goes from there. If you don’t, the recycled plot twists might be the only thing to keep you from nodding off.

The entire story revolves around Quaid getting himself into dangerous situations and shooting his way out of them. No Mars. No Mutants. No Kuato. The villains are about as threatening as a litter of newborn puppies. Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy, and John Cho (three terrific actors) are completely underused in supporting roles, each getting about 5 minutes of screentime. The lack of enthusiasm from the cast is almost frightening, but with such a limp script, it’s not exactly surprising.

The set and costume design is uninspired, to say the least. You’ll notice major elements borrowed from “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” “I, Robot,” and countless other genre films. The singular new sci-fi idea in the film is a glow-stick lasso gun. It’s hard to explain, but it’s an interesting idea, at least visually (one of the few). The cinematography is frustratingly soft and muddy and there’s not a single visual cue in the movie that “pops” off the screen. At least it wasn’t converted to 3D.

Overall, the film plays more like a sci-fi tweak on the “Bourne” series than a “Total Recall” remake. The nods to the original are fine, but they don’t serve the story. The 1990 version didn’t make much narrative sense, but there was a sense of movement and frequent changes in pitch. Here? Everything is one-note and nobody seems to care. I can’t say I was expecting much from director Len Wiseman, but even in “Underworld” and “Live Free Or Die Hard” he showed some flair for action. “Total Recall” (2012) is bland all the way through, from dialogue to action and everything in between. It’s not a missed opportunity – just a total waste of time.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Len Wiseman
Screenwriter: Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language)