7 September 2012

Review: Total Recall

(Dir: Len Wiseman, 2012)

Remakes. Is there anything else that can inspire such passionate ire and annoyance in film fans? They represent the potential dismay of a classic being butchered, when all the while there is a yearning for something original that could’ve benefitted from this money and distribution. But why does this attitude only seem accentuated in relation to film? Theatre has a long history of staging various versions of classics. Music has always embraced cover versions, and don't forget the importance of "standards" in jazz or how many versions of some classical pieces have been recorded. Why is art in these mediums not perceived as having a “definitive version” in the same way film does? Yes theatrical productions are usually temporal but music is recorded and thus permanent. Which leads to another debate… adaptations of books.

Some adaptations of books are seen as sacred, but surely there should be no issue with attempting another reinterpretation. Why is it ok to constantly recreate and reimagine Shakespeare and his ilk, but multiple attempts at something more modern get frowned upon? After all no-one sets out to make a worse film than what has come before. However the biggest question amidst all this must surely be, why remake something that’s already considered great, when the time, effort and money could go into making something fantastic out of something that previously didn’t work? From a business perspective the answer is of course money associated with something already perceived positively, but I struggle to imagine there’s much creative satisfaction from doing this.

All of this is entirely relevant to the new Total Recall, which when announced was seen as a remake no-one wanted. The original 1990 Paul Verhoeven film is perceived as something of classic of that era - it’s not a perfect film by any means, but is both of sufficient quality and in possession of that something special that makes any effort to try and improve on it somewhat futile. But lest we forget this was based on a Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, so the argument of trying to make a better adaptation of the source should still stand. Except here it doesn’t really – the original Total Recall was a loose adaptation of this story, taking the original concept and spinning it into a different direction. Whilst this new version is actually a reinterpretation of the original film, with further deviations from the path.

Entirely set on Earth at the end of the twenty-first century, it takes the familiar story of bored nightmare-suffering labourer Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), who visits a company called Rekall in order to implant fantastical new memories in his head about being a spy. Except things take a turn for the confusing as he struggles with his identity, and his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) turns out not to be who he thought she was. The core of the story is the same but the biggest difference is no-one goes to Mars here, or even has visions or thoughts of going there. There is the intriguing conceit of a gravity elevator linking the Colony in Australia to the United Federation of Britain which travels through the core of the Earth – at least in lieu of Mars we get something a little different and very sci-fi-ish in concept. 

Being Earth bound the story ends up seeming a little less exciting because it’s presenting a new dystopian vision of the future without the exotic curiosity that comes from alien landscapes. The story is essentially one long bog-standard chase sequence, punctuated by big overblown CGI set pieces. At times this gets a little tiresome but it moves along at a fast enough pace to keep attention from wandering too far. The shady political plans of Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) try to add a bit more depth but they are skated over a bit too quickly. Cranston is reliable as ever and since he started earning serious credibility from Breaking Bad, it’s always satisfying to see him pop up in films. 

Farrell is sufficient in the role of Quaid; or rather this version of Quaid. He’s played similar roles before and he always kind of fits them in a somewhat non-descript but semi-watchable way. That is to say he never wows and he never really offends. When making the inevitable comparison it’s clear he lacks the big personality that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the original, which was a key aspect that made that film work so well. Beckinsale is enjoyable to watch and actually plays a bigger role than expected. Jessica Biel also plays a key character but she doesn’t really stand out here.

Total Recall 2012 is competently made but it seems intent on just being a chase movie about a man running to/from his past, ending up feeling like a lighter version of the original. This also applies to this version of Quaid who is written in a pretty stock way, but this suits Farrell’s brand of “average action hero”. I liked the aesthetics of the Colony with its similarities to Blade Runner, but here is a film overwhelmed with the burden of CGI which reduces the enjoyment of a number of action scenes. Does it compare to the original Total Recall? No. The two feel like very different films that happen to have similar stories. The lack of Mars isn’t really a weakness as it’s positively replaced by something hitherto unseen on screen, but this was an element that didn’t need replacing. Total Recall proved an entertaining watch and I did enjoy it, but it’s difficult to enthuse about something when it feels like a weaker imitation of what’s come before without adding anything new. As remakes go this one was unnecessary.

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