It isn’t necessarily justified to compare two different movies under the same critical microscope just because they’re based on the same source material. Different writers and directors can come up with unique interpretations of the same work — in this case the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by the late great science fiction author Philip K. Dick — and should be entitled to have their different films judged on their own merits.
But director Len Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback chose to name their 2012 adaptation “Total Recall,” which is also the title of the 1990 screen version imagined by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill and Gary Goldman and directed by Paul Verhoeven.
So why couldn’t they have come up with a new title?
Well, because Wiseman and company are obviously more interested in repeating and capitalizing on the success and lasting impression of the previous film than offering their own honest retelling of Dick’s tale.
And the only things new about the 2012 model are that the special effects show 20 years of technical advancements, the pacing is relentlessly high-velocity and, yes, Colin Farrell can act warp-speed rings around Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Those are all pluses to be sure, but not quite enough to top Verhoeven’s vision.
Essentially the same group of scribes (Shusett, O’Bannon, Povill) are credited for the initial screen stories for both films, which center around a factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Farrell in the role this time) who’s married to a beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale instead of Sharon Stone this time), and has terrifying nightmares involving a mysterious, totally unfamiliar woman (Jessica Biel in place of Rachel Ticotin).
It’s difficult to offer much of a synopsis of “Total Recall” without spoiling its many heart-quickening surprises. Suffice it to say that the story is set at the end of the 21st century when all regions of the Earth have been rendered uninhabitable except for two nation-states — the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, located on opposite sides of the planet and connected by The Fall, a giant elevator that speeds through the core of the Earth.
The UFB is ruled by the ruthless Chancellor Cohaagen (an imposing Brian Cranston in “Breaking Bad” mode), who’s at war with the underground resistance headed by the elusive and shadowy Matthias (Bill Nighy).
But Quaid is preoccupied with his own dead-end situation, with a low-paying job that offers little chance of advancement, and working-class living conditions that fall far short of what he thinks his loving wife deserves.
Rekall, a company that can turn dreams into realistic memories, seems to offer at least a temporary escape from his frustrating existence. There are many options to choose from, but for some strange reason Quaid chooses the memories of a super-spy, and when the mind-bending procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid finds himself on the run from the Chancellor’s massive police force of humans and robots. There’s no one he can trust, with the possible exception of a female freedom fighter who’s working for Matthias, and may hold secrets to Quaid’s true identity.
The future envisioned by Wiseman is grayer and grittier than Verhoeven’s, and like Dick’s original story it’s confined to Earth, while most of the earlier film was played out in a garishly colorful outpost on Mars, where “normal” earthlings existed alongside a fascinatingly sleazy gallery of mutants, created through the inventive makeup and creature effects of the day.
The mutants are absent from Wiseman’s world, with the baffling exception of the prostitute who’s there to expose her three breasts to Quaid while he’s slumming in The Colony, just as it occurred in the earlier film.
To its credit, the latest reimagining of “Total Recall” tones its language and violence down to PG-13 levels so more of the family can enjoy this runaway ride, which moves like a bullet train from start to finish. The air-suspended car chases are a hair-raising CG blast, and the firefights and fisticuffs are cunningly choreographed.
But the story — with its issues of dreams, reality, identity and past-versus-present — takes a backseat to the action in the hands of Wiseman, whose resume includes the first two “Underworld” movies and art department work on special effects blockbusters such as “Men in Black” and “Independence Day.”
The over-the-top comic book excesses and winking humor of Verhoeven’s film were a lot more fun, and his storytelling skills were far more effective.
Besides, didn’t anyone recall that previous remakes of Arnold movies — 2010′s “Predators,” 2011′s “Conan” — totally tanked at the box office?
— Gene Triplett
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy. (Intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language)