In the late 21st century, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is just a schlemiel on an assembly line that manufactures robot soldiers. He lives in a small apartment in the United Federation of Britain with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale). Then why are his nights creased with dreams of leading a revolution against the state and trying to save the rebel damsel Melina (Jessica Biel)? The viewer may also wonder why an ordinary factory worker walks around topless sporting a perfectly sculpted torso that looks like its own superhero special effect. Is Quaid really Ryan Reynolds? He seems to have gone to the same trainer.
Questions, questions nip at Len Wiseman’s Total Recall like so many rats at the feet of a sleeping hobo. The big why is, Why bother? The 1990 movie — directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid, Sharon Stone as Lori and Rachel Ticotin as Melina — was a very free elaboration of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. The new PG-13 movie is a fairly close adaptation of the Verhoeven one and lacks not just the earlier film’s newness but also its vigor, density, humor and R-rated juice. It’s like the dinner-theater revival of a classic play, whose single asset is to remind those present how good the original was.
Golden-age Hollywood, itself an assembly line in the business of manufacturing dreams, often produced remakes. Sometimes directors did new takes on their own old films: Alfred Hitchcock with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Leo McCarey with the 1939 Love Affair, remade as the 1957 An Affair to Remember. In the old days, though, movies played their initial run and, for the most part, disappeared. With no access to a video library, and few revival houses, viewers consumed movies and consigned them to faulty memory. They were like Quaid at the beginning of Total Recall: Did I once see that Hollywood story or only dream it?
In the 21st century, almost every movie is available for viewing; a remake never has the shock of the new — only a, at best, fresh take on familiar merchandise. Yet some directors do shot-by-shot remakes of their own films (Michael Haneke’s 2007 English-language duplicate of his 1997 Funny Games) or someone else’s (Gus Van Sant’s 1998 clone of the Hitchcock Psycho). Beyond the film-school exercise of a student’s sketch in the manner of an old master, there’s the matter of money. Audiences can be counted on to see a remake of a venerable hit rather than some work of startling originality, the way children demand to hear a favorite fairy tale for the hundredth time. They don’t want to be perplexed by the new; they want to relive the shock of the old.
Still, there ought to be a reason, beyond the opening-weekend gross, for a director to spend a year of his life at the cinematic drawing board, tracing the contours of a famous movie. Wiseman, who birthed the pretty-good quartet of Underworld vampire movies, also rejuvenated Bruce Willis’ Die Hard franchise with the 2007 Live Free or Die Hard. So Wiseman’s admirers might have expected his version of Total Recall to be truly his — either by returning faithfully to the Dick story, which Verhoeven and his writers had used only as a springboard to their own sturdy fantasies, or by leaping in some new, uncharted direction.
Just the second big-budget movie (after Blade Runner) to be based on a Dick fiction, the Verhoeven Total Recall was a machine of muscles and brains. Reviewing that film on its initial release, I wrote: “For its first two-thirds, Total Recall has it all: the sleek confidence of big-budget picture making at its most inventive. It zaps out beguiling images so quickly that viewers may want to see the film over again right away, just to catch what they missed. Verhoeven seems to have assumed that today’s moviegoers have a megabyte media intelligence; then he worked like crazy to overload it. When Total Recall is cooking, it induces visual vertigo.”
(MORE: The 1990 Review of Total Recall)
Both films spin off Dick’s notion that, in the near future, travel agencies will offer virtual vacations in an alternate world where customers can be whatever they want to be — business tycoon, demon lover, an action hero on Mars — and will remember the experience as if it really happened. “You can’t be this; you can’t actually do this,” the travel agent in the Dick story says. “But you can have been and have done. We see to that.” Dick’s cool wrinkle is that his protagonist actually was, is, a rebel leader named Hauser, and that the husband-drone Quaid is a false identity implanted by the state. The writers of the 1990 film (including Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who worked on the original Alien) added many other twists, which we won’t go into here, just in case your memory of that movie has been erased.
When the new Total Recall changes things, it’s usually by subtraction. Instead of Mars, the rebel outpost is now Australia; so the visual contrast in the 1990 film (Mars red, Earth silver) is replaced by an allover dull gray. And whereas Stone and Ticotin were the traditional Hollywood polarities of blonde and brunette, Beckinsale and Biel are, iconically, near twins: dark-haired and slimly gorgeous. We’re not complaining, but their similarity underlines the samey look of the whole movie.
The one innovation in the script by Kurt Wimmer (Salt) and Mark Bomback (Unstoppable) is that transport from the UFB to the Colony is not by rocket ship or teleportation but by a 10,000-mile-long underground-rail system called the Fall. Note to the writers: New York City started digging a Second Avenue subway line five years ago, and less than two miles have been completed. At that rate, the Fall would be operational by the year 1 million.
No question about Beckinsale (a.k.a. Mrs. Len Wiseman) and Biel: they’re both smart honeys. The fight scenes involving Beckinsale or her stunt double have a lithe choreography; this Lori is one kick-ass Terminatrix. In the role of the Chancellor of the UFB, Bryan Cranston displays a politician’s gift for plausible duplicity; he looks and behaves like a perfected android version of Mitt Romney. As for Farrell, he’s long past his early prime when top directors cast him in important roles: Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, Terrence Malick’s The New World, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (also based on a Dick story). At 36, he’s serious, intense, still handsome, impressively bulked up — the very image, but also the clone, of an action star, without the danger or appeal that defines star quality.
Any movie that means to be absolutely faithful to the mood if not the plots of the Philip K. Dick universe would have to climax in terror, outrage, a possible identity crisis, certainly disappointment; there are few happy endings in his fiction. Granted, movies are about wish fulfillment, not the reinforcement of their audience’s feelings of frustration. So don’t expect Hollywood to make a film about an ordinary guy who dreams he’s a stud warrior and, after many adventures, wakes up to realize he’s been watching his own movie: that he’s really just a schlemiel, a schmendrick, a schlub.
But we can hope that an adaptation of a Dick tale would possess its own vitality, soaring imagination, guts — not a retread of what has been done better elsewhere. What somebody says to Quaid in the “new” Total Recall can be applied to the whole movie: “We’re gonna have to get you some better dreams.”