“Is it real? Is it Recall?”
Directed by Len Wiseman
Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston
Douglas Quaid (Farrell), a blue collar worker in a post-apocalyptic world where the only places to escape chemical bombardment at the end of the 21st century were the vast remoteness of Australia and the political and industrial giant of Northern Europe. Troubled by dreams of a woman he has never met and dissatisfied with his life, he visits Rekall Inc, a company offering realistic false memories, but when his spy fantasy seems to come true, he finds himself on the run from police forces led by his (alleged) wife (Beckinsale), and in the company of the woman of his dreams (Biel). Pursued across the United Federation of Britain – well, London anyway – he finds himself embroiled in a plot to frame an anti-British resistance movement for terrorist acts and invade the Colony (Australia) with robot soldiers.
What’s wrong with it?
Like the 2001 Planet of the Apes, Total Recall is based on an earlier adaptation of a written original, in this case a Philip K Dick short story, and in its attempts to be both reverent and different it strays away from both coherence and the fundamental point.
The film is Earthbound, cutting out Mars altogether and replacing it with Australia, which looks like something out of Bladerunner. There is actually quite a lot of the film that is reminiscent of other movies, and adding hover car chases and police tactics rather akin to Minority Report leaves one wondering if this isn’t a remake of every Philip K Dick adaptation ever.
There is a heavy focus on the action, which unfortunately is mostly ridiculous. Most of the fights are just exchanges of fire with literally faceless robots, or vastly extended chase scenes through nonsensical futuristic landscapes.
The film frequently cuts away from Quaid/Hauser to focus on the actions of the villains, which undermines the original’s central conceit that the entire narrative could be the fiction in Quaid’s disintegrating mind in favour of a more existential question of what makes a person who they are, which would be great if it did it well. Instead, there is very little question of which is the real persona and a single line of dialogue from Matthias (a criminally underused Bill Nighy), and then at the very end of the film it suddenly tries to claw back the original idea by having Hauser question the reality of the preceding two hours.
Bizarrely, most of the cast are British actors doing American accents.
What’s right with it?
I watched the director’s cut on DVD, and damn if it doesn’t make a difference. A smattering of additional news reports bring the villainous plot into greater focus, and make it less a blatant act of fascist anschluss and more a satire of the Gulf War’s WMD justification. It also features Ethan Hawke as Hauser’s original face, and by having Melina identified as Matthias daughter explains both the importance of keeping her alive (to extract a false confession to legitimise the invasion) and Nighy’s American accent.
How bad is it really?
Total Recall‘s sin is that it doesn’t know what it is, and thus it mangles its plot and its purpose. It tries to do something different, but can’t bring itself to jettison the old, and thus ends up burdened with both unnecessary plot complications and the curse of unfulfilled nostalgia.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Cohagen engages in a knife fight with Hauser; fun simply for the conceit of the most powerful politician on the planet being a frontline badass instead of a backroom general.
What’s up with…?
- The Federal Intelligence Service’s flexible attitude to civilian casualties? While trying to frame the Resistance as murderous terrorists, their own people fire wildly into crowded elevators.
- Lori’s final attempt on Hauser’s life while disguised as Melina? Given that she is sitting there when he wakes up from unconsciousness, the fact that she hasn’t already put an air bubble in his drip or something speaks volumes of her incompetence.
- Hammond? He calls Hauser, calls him ‘Henry’ instead of Carl, suggesting he only knows his alias, and then gets killed rescuing him from Cohagen without ever offering a scrap of explanation, or indeed getting any more lines.
- Most of northern Europe having survived a global conflict intact?
Production values – Some of the CGI is a little dated, but overall the effects are pretty shiny. 5
Dialogue and performances – There are some very dubious accents going on. In Lori’s case it sort of makes sense, as her cover has an American accent while she is British, but the others are less clear. The dialogue is humdrum, but thinks it is profound, and thus wastes some solid acting talent. 11
Plot and execution – The core plot, in the director’s cut, is actually pretty sound, but in the original release made very little sense. 9
Randomness – Why Britain and Australia? Why a trans-mantle elevator? Why is everyone in Britain and Australia American? 12
Waste of potential – With a strong cast, big budget and excellent concepts to work with, this would have been vastly improved as either a more faithful remake or if it had the courage to strike out on its own path. As it is, by trying to do both it does neither very well. 15