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Non-Review Review: Total Recall (2012)

Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is a total mess. While the film features some superb production design and some passable action sequences, with an obvious affection for the design of contemporary science-fiction classics, the direction is muddled,the pacing is awkward and the script is constantly tripping over itself. At one point it’s suggested that the lead might have had has memory scrambled during a muddled recall session, the result of procedure started and yet not quite finished. In many ways, that feels a lot like what happens here – a choppy, uneven and unsatisfying movie that is a result of a muddled production and post-production process. “We can remember it for you,” an advertisement for the Rekall service boasts, homaging the classic short story that inspired the film. Unfortunately, they omitted “wholesale”, which is about the only price I could recommend this at.

Where’s your head at?

To be fair, it’s easy to wonder if this was a misguided effort from the get-go. Despite what some pundits might suggest, the flaw in the premise isn’t the fact that Wiseman was remaking a relatively recent film. After all, Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs as The Departed only a few years after the original appeared. There was a similarly short timeframe between David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the Scandanavian original. Both remakes worked (in my opinion) relatively well.

The problem with Total Recall is that the fundamental premise of the remake seems a bit flawed. While it might be possible to argue that this is just another attempt to adapt We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, the evidence on display makes it quite clear that this an attempt to remake the 1990 Paul Verhoeven pulpy sci-fi mindbender. The title is evidence enough, not to mention an early joke about Mars, the biggest difference between this version and the earlier film. And a three-breasted hooker even makes an early appearance.

“Consider that a divorce!”

However, the goal seems to be to take something that has been massively successful with film geeks and sci-fi nerds, and denizens of late night television and cinephiles, only to produce a version of it more friend to a wider market. The problem should be self-evident. The reason that Total Recall has such cultural cache is precisely because it’s so dynamically opposed to the mass market. Verhoeven is loud, brass, crude, vicious and violent – and not afraid to make none-too-subtle jabs and attacks at his audience or America in general. Such properties are precisely why his fans love him, and why he isn’t a major mainstream “name.”

So attempting to produce anything like Total Recallas a potential late summer blockbuster is to miss the point on an almost colossal scale. I don’t mean to offend Wiseman or the producers, but it’s very clear that they have little appreciation of why the film worked in the first place. Don’t get me wrong. There are nods. There are painful nods. There’s the aforementioned prostitute with an additional attribute. There’s a sly reference to the disguise Arnie used to infiltrate the Martian colony. There are scenes that seem to have been lifted from the original almost directly. However, those just reflect a superficial appreciation of the film. It means the producers happened to watch Verhoeven’s film.

He’s pretty Farrell gone…

However, they don’t seem to have got it. There was something delightfully and gleefully ironic about casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as a blue-collar American worker. There wasn’t an attempt to downplay his obvious Austrian origin, or the fact he’s built like a tank. There never is, in Schwarzenegger films, but in the original it added a deliciously hyper-reality to everything. Casting Sharon Stone as his loving wife was similarly cheeky and almost subversive. Given Stone’s filmography to that point, it was another element that seemed “not quite right” – and the revelation allowing for Stone to play a sultry secret agent was perfect. Stone might not be the finest actor around, but she does sultry perfectly.

There’s no knowing irony here. Colin Farrell is more convincing as a blue-collar worker than as a master spy. Kate Beckinsale isn’t especially convincing playing anything. Wiseman plays absolutely everything perfectly straight, as if desperately longing to be taken seriously. Verhoeven never had anything approaching that insecurity, and that was the charm of his work. It seems like this new Total Recall is worried that the audience might crack a smile amid all the carnage going on.

Talk about getting into his head…

So all the fun is lost. Instead, we get a relatively mundane plot. Our hero is given a list of objectives to accomplish, to pad out the moments between the set pieces. Directed by old friends or even an earlier recording, the character is moved from one plot point to the next – without any final objective in sight. The plot just stumbles along until it seems to be time to tidy everything up. Even the uncertainty of the premise – what is real? – is only used to provide a final stinger in an already over-long film.

I’m probably being a bit harsh. I don’t mean to be, but the flaws in Total Recall are very fundamental. On the other hand, it does feature some wonderful production design. While Wiseman might have missed the point a bit, it is quite clear he harbours a genuine affection for the trappings of modern science-fiction. The sets in “the Colony” are designed to evoke Blade Runner, and do a rather wonderful job of presenting a future where space is at a premium, houses literally stacked on top of one another. There’s a car chase which evokes Minority Report. The problem is that Wiseman took these elements without any real interest in what lies beneath.

Full of holes…

There are hints of competently constructed film to be found, but you have to look quite deep. Bill Nighy shows up for a scene as the mysterious resistance leader “Matthias”, and offers some pretentious pseudo-philosophical dialogue about how it isn’t the past that defines our identity, and so memory doesn’t matter. Instead, it’s the present that makes us who we are. That seems like a nice idea, and one that would provide a solid central theme for a movie about memory tampering. The problem, however, is that after Matthias convinces our lead that the past is nothing but prologue, he then decides to jump right into the character’s memories. Way to walk the walk there, Matthias.

To be fair, Total Recall is full of such contradictions, and – looking at the finished product – I suspect that post-production on the film might have been a nightmare. There’s some really weird religious imagery, for example, that never goes anywhere. The transport between “the United Federation of Britain” and “the Colony” is called “The Fall”, our lead has a wound that evokes stigmata and Matthias is holed up inside a church for sanctuary. However, nothing ultimately comes of it.

“Give these people hair, Cohaagen!”

There’s a strong feeling that there’s a lot missing. Ethan Hawke reportedly filmed a cameo as the early version of our lead character, who would have been said to have undergone plastic surgery to make him anonymous. There are still hints of this throughout the film. “They really did a number on you, huh?” one of his colleagues asks, barely recognising his former colleague. Our lead was apparently one of the most prominent figures in Cohaagen’s administration (and a legend back in “the academy”), but nobody recognises him? Including his wife, another star graduate of the institution?

And then there’s “the Colony.” It’s very clearly oriental, with most of the local jobs staffed by Asians. Apparently it was to have originally been in China, but was changed at the last minute to avoid potential political and marketing issues. It’s just very weird to see a film claiming to be set in Australia that has no distinctly Australian attributes. The scenes in “the United Federation of Britain” are all distinctly British (down to an appearance from Big Ben), so it feels strange that the movie goes out of its way to specify that “the Colony” is Australia only to give it a distinctly Oriental design. It just seems quite muddled.

Hm. Looks like Rekall is getting Totalled…

Muddled is certainly the word that comes to mind when discussing Cohaagen. Why is the leader of “the United Federation of Britain” very clearly American? Especially when Kate Beckinsale’s character seems to treat her British accent as a symbol of class? And just how poorly is his evil scheme set up that it is so conveniently easy to thwart? (Especially when he goes to great care to avoid another frequent mistake so many evil characters use when it comes to his massively evil scheme?) And what is up with his hair?

Bryan Cranston does the best he can with the material provided, but it seems like Cohaagen is actually five or six different characters, depending on which scene he happens to be appearing in. At some points he’s a petulant child, at other’s he’s a calculating sociopath. Sometimes he’s emotionally withdrawn, while at others he seems to genuinely regret that he might have to kill one of his best friends. None of these moods seems to last more than a scene, so the character never seems especially real or complex, unlike the elegant simplicity of Ronny Cox’s “evil capitalist” iteration of the character.

Cho on this!

In fact, the only actor who comes out of this looking especially good is John Cho, who actually does a wonderful job with a short scene as a sleazy Rekall salesman. He’s the only performer who seems to be enjoying himself. Farrell is trying to find a character in the collection of clichés he is playing, Beckinsale is trying too hard to appear badass, and Jessica Biel might as well be set-dressing. Bill Nighy and Bryan Cranston are trying, but failing, to elevate the material.

Still, it does look really good. The special effects are impressive, and the set design is fantastic. While the world itself seems a little ridiculous (apparently, in this future, you can commute through the planet’s core in less than fifteen minutes, but you can’t reclaim the atmosphere), Paul Cameron’s cinematography makes it all look much better than it probably should. “The Colony” and “the United Federation of Britain” both has distinctive styles and appearances, and there are lots of small smart high concepts to be found – like shining tattoos, phones in people’s hands, magnet guns and interactive fridge doors. The problem is that they appear in service of a mess of a film.

Arrested development?

Len Wiseman also can’t direct action. He seems to have fallen in love with the idea of the lens flair. At times, I worried about going blind staring at the screen. He also has the incredibly annoying knack of cutting in and out and back and forth, to the point where it seems like the movie should come with an epilepsy warning. None of the action feels especially real or visceral. There’s no sense that anything on-screen has any consequences.

Part of me wonders if a director like Neil Marshall might have been better suited to this. Marshall can be hit-and-miss, but he has a raw quality that is sadly lacking here. Part of the charm of the original was the fact that it wasn’t afraid to be a bit rough around the edges. Instead, Wiseman seems to insist on using the movie’s framework to provide perhaps the most conventional sci-fi movie possible. Sadly, this is perhaps best forgotten.

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on zuul25.

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