Review: "Total Recall"

Allow me a moment to break down my review writing process.

1. See a movie;
2. Discuss that movie with whoever I saw said movie with or, if I saw said movie alone, engage in a Gollum-like solo discussion;
3. Spend one to two days decompressing to allow myself to fully grasp the film and settle in on an opinion;
4. Write the review.

It is the third portion of this equation that can cause me problems. I’m an opinionated guy and sometimes breaking those opinions down into a well-reasoned statement. On the other hand, this section of the writing process proves equally challenging when a movie like Total Recall comes along and leaves me almost entirely devoid of opinion whatsoever, prompting me to give the very vague summary of, “Well, it certainly was a movie.”

In the future, the world has been ravaged by the inevitable nuclear war. As a result, only two countries remain: The United Federation of Britain which consists of a chunk of Western Europe and The Colony, formerly known as Australia. Each day, lower income workers from The Colony travel through the earth’s core in a super subway known as The Fall to work in the UFB. Like many of his contemporaries, Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is unhappy with the life he shares with his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). On a whim, Doug pays a visit to Rekall, a company that inserts memories into the brain, giving one the feeling of having done something fun, adventurous, or dangerous at a fraction of the cost. But when Doug is strapped into a chair, his real memories are accessed and a host of UFB troops besiege him, claiming that he is a spy. His reflexes take over and he quickly dispatches the troops in a manner that he would have never dreamed possible. Forced to go on the run to discover the truth about his identity, Doug comes in contact with Melina (Jessica Biel), an old friend who insists that he plays a vital role in the fight between the UFB’s Chancellor Cohaggen (Bryan Cranston) and the rebels from the colony.

“Adequate” is the word that comes to mind most often when trying to describe Total Recall. A remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger “classic” (depending on your use of that word), this version was intended to come closer to the original book written by Phillip K. Dick. Instead, it sort of bridges the gap between the two while attempting to balance the need to remain similar to the 1990 film while still finding ways to strike out on its own. I actually liked the abandonment of the Mars storyline that was central to the 1990 version and the concept of The Fall and the way in which that giant piece of machinery symbolized the struggle between the classes. Other changes, however, didn’t make as much sense and in the end, the helpless need for director Len Wiseman and his crew to pay homage to the original became distracting and at times disjointed. There are at least a handful of scenes within this Total Recall that would leave the viewer very perplexed if he/she had never seen the first one. The storyline, too, doesn’t measure up to the film’s concept and though it isn’t a bad narrative, it is certainly bland.

From an acting standpoint, Total Recall is marginally above average. Farrell throws himself into his character and does his best to flesh out his feelings and emotions even if there’s not much there to work with. You could make the case that his performance is better than Schwarzenegger’s was but the character lacks the magnetism, as it were, that Arnie’s version had. Biel and Cranston, as well as Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, and Bill Nighy are neither asked to do much nor given much to do and as such, they serve their respective mediocre, not-good-but-not-bad purposes. Without question, the star of the film is Beckinsale who has a keen knack for bringing life and glorious power to relatively meaningless characters and films. The Underworld films, for example, are all fairly awful but Beckinsale’s fierce charisma makes them worth watching. This role in the original was the jumping off point for Sharon Stone’s career but took to the screen for only a few brief moments. Here, Beckinsale chases Farrell from place to place, providing both our lead character and the audience with a tangible adversary while Quaid deals with all the unseen questions about his life. I hope that someday Beckinsale is given an opportunity to play a meaningful role in an actual good film but for the time being, she’s pretty great at what she does.

All of this makes Total Recall a decent but thoroughly underwhelming action movie that leans heavily on the action but falls short of making any sort of impact. Had Wiseman gone for a more mysterious, ambiguous conclusion, it could have reached higher but then it might have been too risky in terms of reaching the average summer blockbuster viewer. I can’t pick out a single element that is inherently wrong with Total Recall but then again, I can’t pick out something that is supremely right, either. It is, at its best, cheap, decent, borderline meaningless entertainment that should probably be reserved for a sick day on the couch rather than a trip to the theater.