Directed by Len Wiseman
Based on Phillip K. Dick’s classic story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Total Recall follows Douglas Quaid (Farrell), an average factory worker who struggles daily with his ordinary life and feels like he was meant to do something more than just the same tedious job day in, day out. He’s plagued nightly by the same dream: He and a mysterious woman (Biel) are on the run from a bunch of government types, which only adds to Doug’s evolving sense of déjà vu and becomes a serious point of concern for Doug’s wife, Lori (Beckinsale), who struggles to help him through what seems to be an identity crisis of sorts.
Looking for some thrills, Doug takes a trip to Rekall – a company that implants its customers with synthetic memories – which turns out to be a terrible idea. During the implant process something goes wrong, and suddenly a whole new side of our hero is triggered, a side that can take out a room full of SWAT team members that happen to show up during his Rekall visit without ever breaking a sweat. Needless to say, Doug is pretty confused and thinking his loving wife, Lori, will be there to help him through everything; little does he know she’s actually working for the nefarious Chancellor Cohaagen (Cranston), whose reign of terror hangs in the balance once Doug begins to regain his real memory.
As someone who vividly remembers seeing Paul Verhoeven’s version of Total Recall at the drive-in the summer of 1990 as part of a double feature with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (how awesome, right?), my expectations were set pretty high when word came in that Len Wiseman would be helming a remake of a film that still remains one of my favorite childhood drive-in experiences of all time.
Thankfully, Mr. Wiseman doesn’t disappoint (mostly) with his new take on the world of Total Recall; the look and feel of the flick deliver an entirely new vision of this futuristic world where only two habitable places remain on Earth – the United Federation of Britain (UFB) and The Colony – and a top-notch cast brings this new iteration to life.
Farrell (who could pretty much be dubbed “The Remake King” these days) makes for a compelling hero in Total Recall, bringing a sense of realism to Quaid’s bewildering situation that forces him to question everything he thought he knew about his “ordinary” life, and he shares great chemistry with both of his leading ladies.
And speaking of leading ladies… Beckinsale, who never disappoints in her more action-y roles, delivers yet another badass performance that allows her to have a bit more fun as one of the main villains, showing off a different side of the actress than we’ve seen in some of her other work (like the Underworld series), which typically found Beckinsale playing things a bit more coldly than she does here. It was nice to see her change things up a bit, and who can’t help but smile when she icily retorts during a fight with Farrell, “I give good wife.“?
As Doug’s other love interest, Biel’s work is strong, even if her character is a bit under-developed; she has great chemistry with Farrell and definitely gives Beckinsale a run for her money, proving once again why Biel’s always someone you can count on to give a quality performance even if the material she’s given to work with isn’t particularly remarkable.
Both Cranston and Nighy are great as usual, although they are both criminally underused throughout Total Recall; we never get more than a few moments with Nighy’s character, Mattias, an integral force behind Cohaagen’s eventual downfall, and the time we do spend with Mattias is mostly Nighy delivering a monologue that offers very little insight into the rebel movement. And with most of Cranston’s screen time occurring via video screens until late into the second act, the tension in Total Recall would have been better served has Wiseman allowed us to get a sense of just how evil and maniacal Cohaagen truly is.
But the look of Total Recall is an absolute marvel; Wiseman seamlessly blends practical sets with CGI backdrops, and Patrick Tatopoulos’ production design has hints of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element coursing through its DNA. In this Total Recall residents who need to travel between the UFB and The Colony must do so through a contraption called “The Fall”- a giant elevator that takes its passengers from one side of Earth to the other straight through the planet’s core with moments of zero gravity as you approach/leave the core, making for a killer action sequence set-up that Wiseman smartly uses during one of the many kick-ass showdowns in the film. And while it would have been cool to see his take on Mars, Wiseman does enough with Earth as a location to make up for the omission; plus we get the inclusion of the “Three-Breasted Hooker,” which was a fan favorite from Verhoeven’s film. We also get some nifty gadget updates like cell phones implanted in your hand and the ability to video touch just by putting your hand on glass, which make for some nice visual moments as well.
No stranger to the world of action after working on projects like Underworld, Underworld: Evolution and Live Free or Die Hard, Wiseman seems comfortable at the helm of Total Recall and delivers some pretty jaw-dropping moments of action spectacle, particularly the first throwdown between Beckinsale and Farrell, which feels visceral, frenzied and exhilarating all at once.
Another great moment involves the previously mentioned subterranean elevator The Fall wherein Farrell, Beckinsale, Biel and a gaggle of SWAT-like dudes square off during zero gravity, and we also get a crazy ass car chase in hover cars that will make you action fans out there giggle with delight.
And while it’s true that Wiseman’s Total Recall certainly hits all the right action and visual notes, it isn’t a flawless film by any means and almost derails completely during a rushed third act that feels a little flat and uninspired compared to the rest of the action leading up to it. The movie is also plagued by a somewhat shallow story that plays it way too safe most of the time and never fully answers any of the questions it poses to us, the viewers, thereby never giving us reason to invest any real interest in the themes being explored in Total Recall.
It all boils down to the fact that with Total Recall you get a lot of eye candy but no real meat and potatoes; depending on whether or not you’re cool with that will determine just how much fun you have with the flick. But as someone who notoriously loves mindless action flicks, Total Recall is certainly a film I’d recommend seeing on the big screen as it does deliver in the entertainment department with a bold and stylish take on the future with several mind-blowing feats of action elevating the film above its flimsy story.
Most of my disappointment mostly lies with the fact that Wiseman had such compelling and rich source material to draw from (Phillip K. Dick’s original story) and a talented and capable ensemble to boot but never takes any chances on going deeper into the ideas of identity to rise above mindless action for something slightly more thought-provoking. Total Recall had the potential to be an inventive reimagining but plays it safe, leaving it in “good but not great” territory.
But hey- we get a new (and hotter) “Three-Breasted Hooker” so there is always that.
3 out of 5