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Total Recall

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Welcome to Rekall

I could have done a different page for each of these movies, but there are so many similarities that it makes sense to talk about them in comparison to each other. I will also talk a bit about the Philip K. Dick short story from which both are (very loosely) based. While it does contain the germ of the idea that frames both films, since it is so short it was inevitable that a feature length adaptation would have to expand on the idea quite a bit. Both films have the same basic structure, action and denouement, although there are differences in the details. I can't imagine there is an SF fan who hasn't seen the 1990 film, but if anyone is reading this that hasn't, please be warned there will be some spoilers. I'll try to limit them, but it's going to be inevitable if I'm to talk about the films' weaknesses.

"We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" first appeared in the April 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and is currently available in a book of the same title, which is the second volume of Dick's collected stories. That volume also contains "Adjustment Team," basis of last year's Adjustment Bureau, as well as "Impostor," adapted into the 2001 film with Gary Sinise (which I have not seen). In "WCRIFYW," a man is depressed over his seemingly boring, mundane life. He goes to a company that manufactures artificial memories in order to bring a little excitement into his life, only to discover that someone has erased his real memories and that his former persona had a more exciting and dangerous life than his current persona could have ever imagined. The conclusion could have made a good twist ending to a short episode in an anthology series like Twilight Zone or Night Gallery, and actually reminds me of something in another film, although I won't reveal that ending or to which movie I'm referring. Hint, it was in the second of three films (so far) in that franchise.

Mars is an element in the short story, but only in that an action that took place there is alluded to, no scenes actually set there. The original film is primarily focused on Mars, but the story element has been altered a lot. I think there was a brief mention of Mars in the new movie, but just in passing when the main character is first talking about the possibility of going to Rekall. It is set entirely on Earth, although a future Earth with major differences from present day. I liked the first film originally, and it still has some good points, although my opinion of it has changed over the years. I was still a projectionist when it was first released, and I can't count the number of times I watched all or parts of the movie then as well as in the years since. I even had it on Laser-Disc at one time, but not on DVD. I watched it through Amazon's Instant Video last week after re-reading the story (for the third time I think), then saw the new movie this past Thursday. I think my initial reaction to the film was due to the dearth of good SF at that time, but these days it seems like every other big release is a genre film of some type, so my expectations are different. The look of the 1990 film is very dated, with the cheesy studio sets and Martian landscapes done with matte paintings and models. Today nearly everything is computer generated imagery, and while the look of the new film is more impressive, and the stunts and action sequences point to a higher sophistication of that style than before, it also points to the major short-coming of all films these days, not just SF ones - action and spectacle over story and character development.

Colin Farrell is potentially a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger could ever hope to be, although right now I can't think of anything I've been particularly impressed with. Well, there is In Bruges, but I like that mainly for Brendan Gleeson. But Farrell's version of Douglas Quaid is not developed enough for me to care what happens to him. Kate Beckinsale's performance is so one-note it is laughable, and what's worse is that she is actually a combination of two different characters from the original film. Where's Michael Ironside when you need him? At least in the first film you can understand Richter's hatred of Quaid, since his girlfriend (Sharon Stone) has had to pose as Quaid's wife. Both Kate and Jessica Biel are certainly nice to look at, but who cares when nothing their characters do makes any sense? The first movie has Arnie going to Mars to get to the bottom of who hijacked his memories and why. The Martian colonies and the turbinium mining make sense, as does Cohaagen's arrogance and obsession with finding the leader of the resistance movement. The new film is just one chase scene after another, with more gunplay and explosions than almost all of Schwarzenegger's other films combined - in other words, a lot! The major negative for the original film is the ending - SPOILER! - with the ancient Martian machinery producing a breathable atmosphere in minutes, saving Arnie and co-star Rachel Ticotin when they should have been dead seconds after hitting the surface. The major fault with the remake is everything between the opening and end credits, or in other words, that it was produced at all.

It seems I will have to get into some details of the plot in order to explain what I mean by that. As mentioned before, the new film is all on Earth, in a future in which there has been a major catastrophe which depleted the population and left just two habitable regions, Great Britain and Australia (known simply as the Colony). The inhabitants of the Colony take the place of the exploited Martian colonists from the first movie, and because Australia is very close to the antipodes of England it gave rise to an idea that might have looked cool on paper but in actuality is completely stupid in the context of the rest of the story. There was some prologue text explaining how things got the way they are, and I believe it was the result of a war and some chemical agent gone horribly wrong. Great Britain is the center of finance and industry, the Colony simply a source of workers. "The Fall" is the means by which people travel from one location to the other. It's a concept that has a history in other stories, going back at least as far as Hugo Gernsback, but in the context of this society is ludicrous. If the population and the country's resources are so low, how (and why) in the world was such a technology even considered much less built? What, they're no airplanes left? They certainly have flying cars, and they're utilized in a sequence right out of another PKD adaptation, Minority Report (and/or The Fifth Element). The look of the city in which Quaid lives, and through which the first chase sequence occurs, should remind you of Blade Runner, and just so you don't forget that this story is one about memory and identity, there's even a scene where Quaid sits at a piano in his apartment and realizes he knows how to play it.

In other words, there is nary an original thought or action in the remake. Director Len Wiseman got his start as an art director, and the look of the film is okay, but the execution of story is woefully lacking. I wouldn't even trust him with another Underworld film (none of which I have seen), much less a more serious SF screenplay. In spite of its faults, the 1990 film is still a fun movie to watch even after all these years. In the midst of all the action lies a good story, and some humor to lighten the mood from time to time. The few attempts at humor in the new film, mostly related to the "marriage" between Farrell and Beckinsale, are weak and flat. The remake is a waste of time, and if I thought I could have gotten away with it I would have asked for my money back. Maybe I should email Columbia Pictures and do just that.


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1990 Original
Paul Verhoeven

Ronald Shusett
Dan O'Bannon
Gary Goldman

June 1, 1990

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Rachel Ticotin
Sharon Stone
Ronny Cox
Michael Ironside
Marshall Bell

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray


2012 Remake
Len Wiseman

Kurt Wimmer
Mark Bomback

August 3, 2012

Colin Farrell
Kate Beckinsale
Jessica Biel
Bryan Cranston
Bokeem Woodbine
Bill Nighy
John Cho
Dylan Scott Smith

Full Credits at IMDb

On DVD & Blu-Ray Now