Walking into Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall”, you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to get a kickass action extravaganza or another unnecessary remake. To be honest, you get both. Best known for his “Underworld” movies, Wiseman is definitely a style-over-substance kind of director. For all their faults, however, his movies are never boring, and “Total Recall” is a slick science fiction actioner. It isn’t especially noteworthy, but neither is it terrible. This isn’t a film you need to see more than once, and even though it is ultimately forgettable, it keeps you entertained.
“Total Recall” starts with an action scene, pauses for a moment to establish—establish in the loosest possible sense—the story and characters, and then the majority of the film is a dead sprint for the finish line. During the moments when the story slows down and attempts to be about anything, is where the movie flounders. There’s nothing mind blowing here, but along with the supped-up pace, the action is solid—including a badass hover car chase—and there are some quality fight scenes. Kate Beckinsale has done action before, but who knew she could get down and dirty and whoop the holy hell out of some folks?
You’ve heard of a hard-R rating, and it helps to think of “Total Recall” as a hard-PG-13. Characters swear often, though there’s not a single F-bomb to be heard. Lots of people get shot, kicked, punched, stomped, and otherwise beaten, and while there’s not much blood, there’s more gooey red stuff than some PG-13 fare. There’s even—spoiler alert—exposed female nipples. Shocking, to be sure. Of course there could, and maybe should have been more of an edge, but overall the movie isn’t as watered down as many feared.
If you encountered any trailers or clips before hand, you likely suspected the plot for Wiseman’s “Total Recall” was going to be similar to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 version, based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale”. Those suspicions are well founded. There are minor differences between the two films, but minor is the key word. In a dystopian future Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a bored factory worker married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale), a woman light years out of his league. Frustrated, passed over for promotion, he goes to Rekall, a business that implants false memories into your brain. You can be a movie star, a sports hero, a sex god, or, in Doug’s case, a secret agent. When things go wrong at Rekall, he finds himself pursued by the authorities, which includes Lori sporting a new found British accent; involved with Melina (Jessica Biel), not a prostitute in this version; and embroiled in a sprawling underground revolution.
While the stories are the same, the tone of the films is one drastic difference. Verhoeven’s film was wall-to-wall genre cheese, with America’s most famous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, chewing on every scene. That element of schlocky fun is noticeably absent, as Wiseman’s film attempts a grittier approach.
Most of the plot is window dressing. Motivations, feelings, backgrounds, all of that only function to get “Total Recall” from action sequence to action sequence. The movie blends practical and digital effects together into a glossy exterior, but while the movie looks great, the design is familiar and derivative. Sci-fi fans will notice echoes from any number of other films. The drones of the “synthetic” police force are reminiscent of “I, Robot” and the Empire’s Storm Troopers; the hover car piece—and the cars themselves—comes straight out of “The Fifth Element”; and every scene that takes place in “The Colony” looks like it was filmed on the set of “Blade Runner”. Granted, point out a modern science fiction film not influenced by “Blade Runner”, but resemblances go beyond the point of homage or deference. Watching them side-by-side, you could make the argument that “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” take place in the same universe.
What “Total Recall 2012” is really missing is Paul Verhoeven’s wing nut sense of humor and wicked satire. There are nods to the earlier film, and vague indications of class strife, corruption, imperialism, and the usual dystopian elements—you know, all the things that make a story dystopian—but nothing is explored in any depth. Some oversimplified philosophical ramblings about the nature of the self and identity pay lip service to the source material, but all that remains is empty rhetoric.
At the end of the day “Total Recall” is exactly what you expect it to be—nothing more, nothing less. Neither great nor terrible, it is a serviceable, but forgettable foray into sci-fi action, and a vacant, though eye-catching stylistic exercise. Most of the flaws are forgivable if you allow yourself to be swept up and carried along by the pace. There is one glaring exception to this. “Total Recall” is an absolute, nearly criminal waste of Bryan Cranston. His Chancellor Cohaagen is a bland, toothless villain, so boring and disappointing because you know just how incredible Cranston can be.