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Review: Total Recall Can't Justify its Existence

Total Recall marks the second redundant remake from Columbia Pictures in as many months. But while the studio's franchise re-start The Amazing Spider-Man ultimately managed to win me over and justify its existence as a worthy take on an old story, the new Recall never quite manages to make it over that hump.

It's competently executed and diverting enough not to feel oppressive, but it so closely adheres to the dramatic through-line of the still-indelible Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer from 1990 that those of us in the audience who still have fond memories of it can be forgiven for feeling some "recall" of our own.

Like with the last one, the story follows the set-up of Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale," with blue collar worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell, in for the Austrian Oak) haunted by dreams of another life. After visiting memory implant facility Rekall to have an exotic adventure retroactively placed into his brainpan, he learns the life he knows is only six weeks old, with his loving wife (Kate Beckinsale, a combination of the Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside characters) a deep cover operative keeping tabs on him. Soon, a mad chase ensues, as the bureaucrat who erased Quaid's memory (Bryan Cranston in the Ronny Cox role) races to retrieve him even as Quaid tries to puzzle out who he is.

The biggest crime committed by Recall Redux (directed by Underworld's Len Wiseman) isn't that it's a bad movie. No, it's so slavish in its devotion to the plot and character beats from the 1990 version that it can't help but be at least somewhat engaging when taken on its own. Rather, it's the pronounced lack of scope. It doesn't do anything to justify its existence beyond being a mercenary grab at renewing some long-dormant IP. While I'm hesitant to deploy the word "classic" in the same breath as "Arnold Schwarzenegger," the 1990 Total Recall is probably as close as the former Governator got during his box office heyday without playing a cyborg assassin from the future.

Under the helm of director Paul Verhoeven, on his victory lap after robbing me of my innocence with 1987's RoboCop, the first Recall earned every bit of its "R" rating thanks to heaping helpings of bullets, blood, and profanity. More than that, it's garnered a residual place at the nostalgia table for the way it wove some decent (if not necessarily deep) meditations on the nature of identity in with all the Arnold-isms ("Get yaw ahzz to Mahzz!"). As such, any attempt to revisit the property (which was also turned into a short-lived TV series about thirteen years ago -- another memory we've all had erased) was always going to be an uphill climb punctuated by unflattering comparisons.

Unfortunately, the remake's producers don't do more to allay those comparisons than the occasional wink-nudge visual nod to the original. Everything about it has an "okay, but..." vibe. The performances, from Farrell and Cranston at the top of the bill all the way down to a brief turn by Bill Nighy as a rebel leader, are fine (though Jessica Biel doesn't really get to make much of a mark in the thankless love interest role), the production design by Patrick Tatopoulos is solid, and the direction from Wiseman is perfectly functional. It's just that there's nothing new here. Sure, they axe the Mars set-up from the first one and swap it out for an Earthbound bit about the last two habitable nations left on the planet, but that's not much more than window dressing.

In big picture terms, this is the same movie, just minus most of the stuff that made it memorable, whether Rob Bottin's gruesome creature effects or Jerry Goldsmith's percussive, propulsive music score. Oh, but they did make sure to keep the three-breasted hooker. So, y'know, that's nice. Another pet peeve, this is the latest in a recent run of action flicks that put the lead character through the kind of physical punishment that defies all laws of physiology. The amount of abuse Quaid takes as he runs and jumps from building to building, car to car, building to car, etc. is such that he should have died about eight times before we get to the end credits. Appropriately, this is a trend I first noted with Wiseman's own Die Hard With A Vengeance (which I actually liked, and still do).

A few years back, while singing the praises of the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid redo (also from Columbia...and suddenly a pattern manifests) I mentioned that the reason it worked for me was because it was like "a really good cover of a song you love." Well, if The Karate Kid was a cover song similar enough to remind you what you liked, but still unique enough to stand on its own, 2012's Total Recall is like a karaoke take on a classic. While you do have to give it up for the passion and intensity they clearly put in, every off-key inflection and missed lyric only serves to remind you why it's the original version you'll be turning your iPod to when you get back in your car. C+


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