Movie Review – Total Recall: Director’s Cut (2012)

If you can disassociate yourself from the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger original, this modern update of Total Recall isn’t actually too bad. Sure, it cribs from Anrie’s version, and steals certain elements of that sci-fi classic, but in its defense it does deviate considerably in terms of plot, characters and motivation: here, the quest is not simply for air on Mars, but peace on Earth. While it lacks real grunt in the story department, this edition of Total Recall more than makes up for it with effects, a pulsating soundtrack, and two eminently watchable female actresses tearing into each other. It’s never going to surpass the classic tone of the original (and how on Earth could it ever?) but it does offer modern audiences a slick, effective action thrill-ride that brings a new audience to Philip K Dick’s classic story.


– Summary –

Director :  Len Wiseman
Year Of Release :   2012
Principal Cast: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale,Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho.
Approx Running Time :   130 Minutes  (Director’s Extended Version)
Synopsis:   Doug Quaid finds himself the potential savior of mankind when he learns his memory has been wiped, in order to infiltrate the resistance group leading a battle against a ruthless government.
What we think :   If you can disassociate yourself from the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger original, this modern update of Total Recall isn’t actually too bad. Sure, it cribs from Arnie’s version, and steals certain elements of that sci-fi classic (as well as a bunch of others), but in its defense it does deviate considerably in terms of plot, characters and motivation: here, the quest is not simply for air on Mars, but peace on Earth. While it lacks real grunt in the story department, this edition of Total Recall more than makes up for it with effects, a pulsating soundtrack, and two eminently watchable female actresses tearing into each other. It’s never going to surpass the classic tone of the original (and how on Earth could it ever?) but it does offer modern audiences a slick, effective action thrill-ride that brings a new audience to Philip K Dick’s classic story.


Total Recall: people born after 1990 may have hazy memories of this film being an early Arnie sci-fi classic, but here, in the second decade of the new millennium, we’re given a shiny new edition to play with. While I’m not against remakes overall, I admit to a little lethargy getting excited every time a Hollywood mogul decides he’s got a better vision for a classic film than the classic film had for itself. After all, those classic films need remaking, right? That’s what the kids want, right? Okay, perhaps not, but there might be a time and a place to remake an older story, and Philip K Dick’s novella, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, seems ripe for a modern twist thanks to state-of-the-art visual effects and cinematic sensibilities. Paul Verhoeven might be somewhere dark right now, gnashing his teeth at the cheek Columbia Pictures had for green-lighting this remake, considering his film from 1990 is rightly considered a bona fide classic of the genre, but you look back on Total Recall from 1990 and think of how that story could be improved, the visuals could be updated, and the character given broader scope in which to play, and you’ll probably see the same tantalizing sense of promise I did when I first heard this film was coming down the line. But what is the end result of this effort from director Len Wiseman: is 2012’s Total Recall a trip down memory lane, a sullying of the glory of Verhoeven’s memory, or in itself a classic science fiction opus sure to remain in the mind’s eye of a new generation when they think about three-breasted women?

Just wondering how much worse this can get?

In the distant future, there are two remaining continents on which humans now live – the United Federation of Britain, and Australia (yay!) – now known simply as “the Colony”, and the two places are connected via a gigantic tunnel through the center of the Earth.  Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a worker at an enormous factory making robotic police forces for the Government, led by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), and is married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale). He suffers recurring dreams of an encounter with another woman, Melina (Jessica Biel), a member of the Resistance to the UFB forces. During a visit to memory altering center Rekall, where people have fake fantasy memories implanted within their minds, Doug is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when he is attacked by, and kills, a squad of UFB soldiers intent on taking him prisoner. His wife Lori is actually an undercover UFB agent, and in reality Doug is a spy of some description – he teams up with the real-world Melina, and together they must escape pursuit from Lori and the UFB troops in order to get some highly sensitive information to the leader of the Resistance, a man named Matthias (Bill Nighy). Only with his help will the citizens of The Colony begin to rise up against the oppressive power of Cohaagen’s government and become truly independent.

Swear to God, parking this thing is a bitch!

As with most remakes, a certain level of comparative criticism is usually leveled at anybody brave enough to try and retool a classic film for “a new audience”. Len Wiseman, the man who gave us (for better or worse) the Underworld movies, has reached into his directorial bag of tricks to helm the modern updating of the science fiction classic, Total Recall. Fans of film – hell, fans of good storytelling – will remember the Arnie classic of 1990, complete with the three-breasted woman and Gollum attached to that other dude, as an outright landmark of the genre, directed with gore and gusto by a then-hugely successful Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s masculine prints are all over that film, and it’s a rough-n-ready experience for those of you reading this who have yet to experience its warped joy and zeal. This edition, however, lacks that same sense of humor and guile; 2012’s Total Recall is a slick, overly processed effects-driven film that lacks the original’s heart and soul, although it is really the same film in name only. There’s so many differences between the two films, a real comparison is almost utterly unfair. It’s like comparing apples with watermelons.

I’m the “other woman”…. not like I haven’t heard that before….

The differences between the two films are fairly stark: 2012’s version never goes to Mars, while the majority of Verhoeven’s original is set there. Doug’s wife, Lori, plays a vastly larger role in the remake, whereas the same role in Arnie’s version saw a similar character but inordinately less screen time (in fact, Lori, played by Sharon Stone in the original film, lasted all of about ten minutes once Doug discovered she was a secret agent), while the central plot conceit of differing continental populations and the class warfare between the two never came close to being explored in the 90’s edition. There’s such a vast gulf between the original and the remake that they really do become totally separate films in the end. What I’m trying to say is that the films don’t really deserve comparison, because other than a few elements of character and a couple of nods to Verhoevens classic (“Two weeks” and the three-breasted prostitute, for example), they’re not at all the same kind of film. With that in mind, I’m prepared to let Arnie’s Recall remain the classic that it is, and try and review this film based on its own merits.

Bang bang! Kapow! Zowee!!

Total Recall comes with a fairly high pedigree of production value: the screenplay itself was written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, based on the screenplay for the 90’s version by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Wimmer, who directed films such as Ultra Violet and Equilibrium, and Bomback, who scripted Unstoppable for Tony Scott and Live Free Or Die Hard, have experience at complex narratives, and deliver a mind-bending one here. Quaid’s paranoia and disbelief at his situation, that he could be somebody else entirely, is left enigmatic for much of Total Recall’s runtime, at least until the final act, while the scale of the film elevates the tension considerably. The pounding score, by Harry Gregson-Williams, is apropos but, like Alan Silvestri’s work on The Avengers, almost entirely vanilla in conception. It’s an unmemorable score, certainly. The visual effects are designed by the legendary Patrick Tatopolous, and generally rock, even if director Wiseman doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

This game of Twister is getting stupid….

Wiseman’s concocted a fairly bland film here; Total Recall might feature an amazing amount of eye candy in the labyrinthine sets and twisting narrative, but the characters generally fall flat on the screen. Farrell is a solid actor, but for some reason never quite manages to elevate the material when he’s a leading man, and while he’s no slouch when it comes to either action or drama, his efforts here stay resolutely mediocre. Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman’s real-life wife, is totally bitchy as Lori, the agent sent to capture or kill Quaid, and she delivers an arch, sexy and acrobatic screen villainess. Her character is completely one-dimensional, however, and by the end of the film, after trailing Quaid for the entire time and causing untold havoc, when it comes time for her to die in excruciating agony, the emotional resolution to this arc just meanders to its inevitable conclusion.  Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston (who also appeared in the Ryan Gosling starrer Drive) is great as the ruthless Cohaagen, and of the entire cast it is he who delivers the most charismatic performance. Bokeem Woodbine has a role as Quaid’s workmate at the factory, one who you just know isn’t all he seems. Woodbine’s affable performance during the films opening is good enough, but when the twists start to evolve and we discover his true nature, there’s little dramatic impetus for us as an audience to really care about it.

You know, if you shoot me now, you’ll most likely blow your arm off as well….

Indeed, the major problem with Total Recall as a film is that it’s hard to really care much about what’s going on. Wiseman has tried to ground Farrell’s Quaid as a real-life, bloody-knuckled low-class dreamer, and to a certain degree succeeds in doing so, but the character never quite gels and Farrell appears unable to really tap into the soul of who he’s supposed to be. The narrative twists and turns, the “is he dreaming or not” mystery surrounding the bulk of the middle third of the film, are well executed, even if they amount to naught. There’s a grandiosity to the film, a scale and size that really does lend itself to great sci-fi, but the effort feels….wasted, as if Wiseman’s just going through the motions to deliver a soulless, lens-flare riddled event film that disappears as quickly as it arrived. Admittedly the central concepts are kinda cool, and I really enjoyed the fact that we get to see the robots from I Robot again (ha!), but Total Recall merely trundles when it should sprint, it floats when it should fly, and it gleams when it should be gritty and grimy.The visual effects are superb, and the action sequences feel exciting, but crucial lapses in character development and a generic sense of direction from Wiseman leaves this Recall falling flat on the screen.

No, I left the keys UP THERE!!!

I guess I should also give props to JJ Abrams for this as well – even if he had nothing to do with it. Abrams, whose reboot of Star Trek came complete with a miasma of lens flares designed to add style to the film’s cinematography, has had his work stolen outright by Wiseman, who does exactly the same thing here. Total Recall is nigh unwatchable in parts thanks to the strobing, streaming flares of lights hitting the camera lens at the wrong angle; as a visual style, it works on occasion, but in this film, it’s vastly overused. Go watch Star Trek again, then watch this, and you’ll not believe how similarly the two films look. DP Paul Dameron, who also lensed 2012’s Man On A Ledge (which was shot really well) seems to have thought that science fiction films needed that kind of lens-flare-at-any-cost look to be somehow legitimate, instead of just showing us what the hell was going on…. Officially, I’m over the overuse of lens flare. It’s been done, and now it’s just annoying.

A fine example of how NOT to hitchhike.

While the film does contain a number of flaws, most of which are primarily directorial and scripted, the film is still entertaining if only for the stunning sound design, the gorgeous visuals (when they’re not hidden by flares) and the inordinate overuse of guns. Sure, this film is never going to be a classic of the genre, and feels way too generic to be entirely original (the production design seems to have cribbed from films like Minority Report, The Fifth Element and even Blade Runner, while I mentioned I Robot before for the army of mechanoids designed as an invasion army) but I still had a reasonable time watching it. Truth be told, I often felt like I should have been watching some of those other films I mentioned, because this bastardization of them left me shaking my head at times (all this film needed was the three-breasted prostitute to be wearing a costume made of white Leeloo-bandages, and my fantasy would be complete!), but this Recall isn’t a total disaster. There’s enough to enjoy without being offended that somebody might dare to remake a classic film in such a way. Flawed or not, Total Recall is still worth a look, with the caveat being that you’ll always be comparing it to the original, which is somewhat unfair considering the differences vastly outweigh the similarities.


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6 thoughts on “Movie Review – Total Recall: Director’s Cut (2012)

  1. Nice review! I didn't like this film much, it was a bit of a mess really. I do love Colin Farrell, I wish Hollywood would stop trying to make him this action hero though, he's much better at dark comedy.
    My recent post The Great Gatsby Review

    1. I don't know what it is about Colin Farrel – he has the chops to be a major star, but has never seemed to really become one like he ought to. I don't think I've seen him in any comedy roles – dark or other – but that's an interesting proposition, mate. Thanks for popping in!!!

  2. i don't know… i think you're being a little tough on this poor movie. i expected garbage and was pleasantly surprised by a tight action movie with great visuals. So many action films nowadays spend forever setting up an all-to-brief action sequence with boring dialog and unnecessary back story and this was entertainment at its purest. i sure as hell would rather watch this one again than the original.

    Congrats on #600, brother! Thanks for showing us how it's done and giving the rest of us poor slobs a model to emulate.
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    1. Thanks Al, always good to have you here for our milestones, as always!

      I expected garbage with this one too, and to an extent I got exactly what I thought I would…. but the film still remained entertaining to a certain degree. It lacked the "fun" of many pulp action films, trying to be too serious when it shouldn't have, and the action sequences…. well, they did drag on a little….

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