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Film Review: Total Recall (2012)

The 1990 original film of the same name, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, has become a sci-fi cult classic, despite its blatant campiness.  The decision to remake it was met with a mixed response.  Updating the story with 21st century graphics and a gritty style seemed promising for this intriguing concept by Philip K. Dick, practically the godfather of modern sci-fi fiction.  On the other hand, why mess with a memorable movie that still entertains and make a movie many felt unnecessary?  While Underworld series director Len Wiseman brought more than enough action to the story, Total Recall (2012) fails to bring much new to the table.  It features some solid performances, interesting visuals, and virtually non-stop action, but it feels like a missed opportunity in this post-Inception movie world where this kind of story could have become quite a compelling, engrossing mind bender.  Instead, it is basically a movie of chase sequence after chase sequence, which will certainly entertain action fans but disappoint those looking for either an improvement on the original or a gripping, immersive sci-fi story.

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In this adaptation of Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the setting is on a sort of post-apocalyptic earth where two territories remain inhabitable: the opulent United Federation of Britain and the struggling Colony, the latter of which is a suppressed imperialized territory.  Douglas Quaid, a simple blue collar type worker from the Colony, has a recurring nightmare that he is some sort of spy trying to escape from a Federation facility with an attractive woman.  Despite his beautiful, loving wife, he wishes to find an escape from his monotonous routine and decides to visit Rekall, a company that implants memories into its customers.  As he is being prepped at Rekall, a squad of soldiers attacks the building and tries to take Quaid into custody, at which point his instinctual fighting abilities kick in and he kills the squad.  This sparks his suspicion that he actually a spy after all, but he must run and fight to survive as the Federation bears down on him for mysterious reasons.

Right from the get-go, audiences know this is going to be pure action film.  Most of the runtime consists of Quaid in some sort of fight or chase scene.  It is a fairly exciting experience.  However, after a while the action becomes repetitive and, to an extent, dull.  A few breather, exposition type scenes are sprinkled throughout, but only enough to catch up

the audience with the bizarre storyline.

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Instead of capitalizing on the mind-bending sci-fi aspect of the story, Wiseman and crew opted for the simple, technology update remake route.  Total Recall could have been a pseudo-sequel to Inception, as there are several parallels in plot, action and concept.  After all, the marketing for the film raised the question, “What is real [and] what is rekall?” However, only a couple moments throughout the film really raise such questions of reality.  And when it tries, it feels more cheap and convoluted than compelling or complex.  Besides, how else does a certain Federation agent continuously show up out of nowhere/around every corner to try and stop/kill Quaid, if not for plot conveniences? – After a couple times, my audience began to laugh anytime said character shows up out of nowhere shooting or punching/kicking, even if the fighting was fairly thrilling.  Indeed, This 2012 version of Total Recall is more concerned with pumping out pulse-pounding action with straightforward storytelling than creating something truly compelling, original and creatively engaging.

Visually, Total Recall is decent but derivative.  The Colony is an absorbing setting, as it heavily draws from Blade Runner (1982).  However, the reality-based filming locations and high production value sets are undermined by too many CGI-driven action sequences.  The transitions from glossy CGI to gritty sets are okay but far from smooth.  Sequences like the highway chase, elevator jumping fight scene, and ones with the “Fall” stand out as somewhat shoddy by today’s standards – sometimes sets, miniatures and practical effects work wonders over heavily rendered CGI.  Nonetheless, some of the action-filled imagery is pretty exciting, such as the low-gravity shootout (once again, audiences will recall Inception).  Unfortunately, the visual aspect of the film is basically commonplace in today’s summer blockbuster environment, if that (some parts might even seem B-movie, almost SyFy TV-movie-like).

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At least this update to the story received dependable, realistic performances from its cast, at least and especially in contrast to the original.  Colin Farrell brings the necessary angst and strength to the Quaid role.  He is definitely no Arnold, but he does not try to really replace him either; where the latter was campy fun with one-liner after one-liner, the former is more down-to-earth.  Kate Beckinsale is in full Underworld mode as Quaid’s “loving wife” Lori, who is actually a highly skilled Federation agent (she is a combination of the original character with Michael Ironside’s Richter character); she once again makes the case for being the toughest female action star in Hollywood.  Jessica Biel turns in a serviceable performance as Quaid’s friend/lover Melina, an agent of the rebels against the Federation.  Bill Nighy has a small cameo appearance as Matthias, who is basically the Kuato character from the original.  Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is a great actor, but he also gets relatively minimal screen-time as Federation leader Cohaagen.

Total Recall is a decent diversion but for a remake of a sci-fi classic, as campy as it is, the new film proved the skeptics that it would be unnecessary.  Apart from the gritty style, updated look, and action-fan service, the movie is hardly an improvement on the original.  In fact, it might even be less enjoyable even if it is more “realistic.”  Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is rather forgettable, that is if you even notice it at all even during the movie.  The non-stop action is fairly exciting but it epitomizes the big, loud, and leave-your-mind-at-the-door kind of Hollywood blockbuster.  In actuality, this is perhaps a decline in quality from the cult classic, B-movie original.  Instead of trying to improve the original, it feels like they just wanted to make a cheap sci-fi actioner without all the fun of the original or capitalizing on the intriguing concept.  Check it out as a matinee if at all in theaters, otherwise a VOD/rental or TV-viewing is suitable.

Total Recall – 6/10

total recall poster Film Review: Total Recall (2012)


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