Total Recall Revisited: What Colin and Arnold Can Tell Us About Pop Culture

What can we learn from comparing the new Total Recall with the original from 20 years ago? Perhaps something about America's mortality, subtle sexuality and the need for deeper meaning

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Columbia via Everett, AP

I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t expecting much from this weekend’s remake of Total Recall, the 1990s Schwarzenegger action movie that’s been turned into a dimly lit paranoiafest starring Colin Farrell. It is, after all, a movie starring Colin Farrell, and I think we all know what that means. To make matters worse, if you judged such things solely by the amount of press that they get, apparently the most important thing about the remake is whether or not it features a woman with three breasts just like the original. (Spoiler alert: It does.)

Despite both Farrell and characters with additional mammary glands, however, the new Total Recall is nonetheless a must-see film not necessarily for what it is in and of itself — a slick piece of popcorn psychological science fiction cinema — but, instead, for what it tells us about mainstream action movies in 2012 and how they compare with those of 1990. Viewed from that perspective, Total Recall becomes something accidentally great, a 118-minute lesson in everything that’s happened to pop culture in the last two decades and the small ways in which the big things have shifted without our even realizing.

Take, for example, the two movies’ leading men in the role of Douglas Quaid. Colin Farrell, I think we’d all agree, is no Arnold Schwarzenegger — and, depending on what you’re looking for from your movie heroes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For a little more than a decade, Schwarzenegger was the go-to guy when you needed someone uncomplicated who, when faced with a problem, would rather shoot it and sneer over its corpse with a wisecrack than waste time figuring it out. He was the perfect leading man for an audience caught in a zeitgeist that taught them that might makes right, greed is good and nuance is for losers. Two decades later, however, he — and his movies — seem overly cartoonish and unnecessarily glib; we as a culture have lost the sense of invulnerability and arrogance that he best personified. It’s something that happened in stages, but culminated in a post-9/11 America feeling shakier and less certain about what would come next.

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In that light, Farrell seems like a fitting replacement, especially as he tells reporters that his take on Douglas Quaid will be “a lot straighter” than Schwarzenegger’s original. “I didn’t feel the need to fill those size 16 shoes or 18 shoes or whatever size foot Arnie has,” he said at Comic-Con earlier this month. “What I’m saying is, I don’t have one-liners.” If there’s one thing Farrell can do really well, it’s panic; he’s always been surprisingly convincing as a man at the end of his tether, unsure about what to do next. Both Schwarzenegger and Farrell play a man who discovers his entire world is a lie, but only one of them does so in a way that’s even vaguely believable from the audience’s standpoint. Schwarzenegger’s Quaid decides to think about everything after he’s killed everyone responsible, while Farrell’s character reacts with fear and uncertainty (and, ultimately, resolve; this is still an action movie, after all). It’s a change that feels not only more coherent on a narrative level, it also feels more in tune with the world we live in these days. Who knows what’s out there anymore? Who knows what we’re capable of?

Replacing Sharon Stone with Kate Beckinsale feels important, as well. The character, Lori, is a femme fatale who has to start as something resembling an idealized wife hiding in an idealized — and unreal — life, and the replacement of Stone’s vampish, over-the-top sexual appeal with Beckinsale feels in many ways like a rejection of the notion of an obvious sexuality for something more… dare I say “classy”? This is, of course, the woman who dresses in skintight latex to fight monsters in the Underworld series — but restrained, perhaps, more subtle. I struggle with the idea that director Len Wiseman is using Beckinsale’s casting as some kind of commentary on the shifting ideas of a perfect spouse, however, because Beckinsale is his spouse, and for all I know, he just found some perverse humor in the possibility of shooting a new take on this scene. As for Jessica Biel, ostensibly the movie’s second female lead… Well, I hope she’ll enjoy her re-emergence as a “Don’t I know her face from somewhere?” actor in future versions of Lost and Law & Order just like Rachel Ticotin, the last actress to play love interest Melina.

Reflecting the tonal shifts in the recastings, the tone of the new movie is a drastic shift from the original, too. Where the original Total Recall was glib to the point of distraction — no surprise, perhaps, coming from Paul Verhoeven, a man not so well known for subtlety — the new version seems to go almost too far in its desire to suggest some deeper meaning and emotional resonance to the idea of fictionalized memories and nature versus nurture versus implanted personalities. “The concept is such a great struggle for this character,” Wiseman has said to describe his interest in the project. “If you inherently feel like a good guy but everybody around you is telling you you’re bad and they have proof of it, they say, ‘You’re actually a bad person,’ but you inherently in your heart you feel like a good person, what does that ultimately do to you? Do you accept the proof or go with your own feeling? There’s a lot there, a deeper character that I was fascinated by.” Because, of course, just saying “Isn’t it a great, crazy idea for a man to discover that, not only are all of his memories fake, but that he’s also this unstoppable killing machine?” isn’t enough anymore; now you need to have something to say about the human condition, as well.

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I’m not entirely joking when I say that, either. These days, science fiction cinema has essentially separated into two camps: The brain and the brawn, and outside of Christopher Nolan movies, never the twain shall meet. Lacking the “simpler times” of the gloriously dumb original movie — which didn’t ask “Who is this man now that everything he knows is a lie?” as much as yell “That man is Arnold Schwarzenegger and watch him kick some ass and get some answers… in space!” — Total Recall‘s high concept is just too… well, too smart to fit into the brawn camp these days. It can’t really be reduced into a simple “Here are three set pieces and in between we’ll have some comedy and the character arc goes our-hero-is-bored-now-he-is-scared-now-he-is-a-winner” formula, because you have to explain things like “Who stole his real memories and gave him fake ones?” and “Why would they do that?” and suddenly you have too much plot to deal with. And so, accidentally almost, we have a movie that has to compete with things like Prometheus, Inception and the upcoming Cloud Atlas, and that means having to have more reason to exist than just entertainment. To play with those particular big boys, it’s pretty much compulsory to make some kind of important statement. Somewhere, Arnold is laughing heartily at the very idea.

One of the more seemingly random changes in the new movie is that Quaid isn’t trying to save Mars this time around; he’s trying to save Earth. Wiseman has explained the change in interviews by saying that it “plays a little bit into the threat of what the Philip K. Dick story had [and bringing] much more of bringing the threat back, really Doug’s mission to save Earth, not Mars.” Invoking “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the Philip K. Dick short story that (loosely) inspired the original Total Recall, highlights something else about the way that modern genre movies work: The lip service of fidelity to source material that seems to be a prerequisite for filmmakers these days. Total Recall — either version — eschews the sly humor of Dick’s original, in which the world is saved long before the story opens, but nobody realizes it, in favor of something more (melo)dramatic and cinematic; moving the grand finale from Mars to Earth may bring the new movie closer to the Dick story in some small way, but to all intents and purposes, it’s still very much a remake of the earlier movie. That’s another distinction between the original and the new movie: while 1990′s Recall was an adaptation in name, it was essentially an all-new story; the modern one, meanwhile, is a reboot of an already proven property that has a certain level of nostalgic value for the all-important 18-34 crowd.

So, what does a comparison of the two movies tell us, really? The modern Total Recall is more subtle and more willing to embrace ambiguity than the original, and for that alone, I feel we should be grateful. That said, it’s also more convinced of its own importance and self-satisfied as a result — if the original movie really had much ambition beyond Hey, it’s just entertainment, I’d be very surprised, to be honest — neither of which are particularly winning qualities. Maybe it comes down to a draw, then, which feels strangely fitting considering the subject matter; instead of having a “definitive” version of Total Recall — one that’s better as if to prove that we’ve been getting better at this movie thing all along (or, alternatively, that it’s been downhill from 1990, with Colin Farrell as unlikely proof) — we’re left with two competing versions of the same story, with movies standing in for memories to create realities that overlap but contradict. As the tagline for the new movie asks, What is Real and What is Recall?. Perhaps, for us as viewers, it’s simply a matter of choosing which one we prefer. Or, of course, which three-breasted woman we find more attractive.

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