What if we had the technology to remake only the worst parts of a movie? The best bits of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) could have been grafted onto the best bits of Len Wiseman’s new Total Recall remake—both based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Then we could have had one great movie instead of two okay movies.
The story this time is much the same, except that the hero, introduced as Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), never goes to Mars. He’s stuck on a ruined future Earth where blue-collar workers live in Australia and commute to England via a tunnel through the planet’s core. Meanwhile, corporate heads and politicians plot to wipe out the annoying lower class and take over the limited livable space.
As in the original, Quaid is haunted by a recurring dream and decides to go to Rekall, a company that implants memories. Just after he’s hooked up to the machine, sentries attack, sending Quaid on a dizzying adventure.
Farrell is much better at conveying the tormented emotions of his ordeal than was original star Arnold Schwarzenegger, though Schwarzenegger’s ass-whooping brawls are arguably better than the new film’s choreographed, fast-cut martial-arts bouts. Happily, though, the new film avoids those cheeky Schwarzenegger-style one-liners.
In the original, Quaid’s wife Lori (Sharon Stone) suddenly turns on him and tries to kill him, but doesn’t last long. The new Lori (played by Wiseman’s wife Kate Beckinsale) stays hot on Quaid’s trail for the entire film, though after about an hour she has nothing more to do than strut down metallic corridors and bark orders at mechanical guards. Jessica Biel plays Melina, the girl in Quaid’s dream, and Bryan Cranston takes over for Ronny Cox as bad guy Cohaagen.
Wiseman’s greatest contribution is designing the film to look like a crisp, cool collage of earlier Dick films, such as rainy, cross-cultural Blade Runner and high-tech Minority Report. Verhoeven focused on exploring actual themes of reality versus illusion, such as when Quaid makes a hologram of himself to fool the bad guys. Therein lies the major difference between then and now: The original had an idea, and the new one has a look.