Sunday, August 5, 2012

Didn't I Have This Memory Already? -- Reflections on "Total Recall" (2012)

Can Rekall erase this movie from my IMDb page?

Recently, I was discussing movies with a friend of mine, and he said one of biggest gripes about most Sci-Fi films is the lack of originality when it comes to weaponry. “You notice they’re in the future, right? And all they have are the same ol’ automatic weapons and handguns we have today.” It was an interesting comment to me, and one that I’ve never really considered before. In a sense, I guess he’s right. You’d think that in the future there would be more interesting weapons technology, especially since our governments are trying so hard to constantly get an upper hand on each other in the battlefield.

With that thought I turn my attention to Total Recall, a needless remake of the 1989 Paul Verhoeven film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. This time around, we have a less cartoonish, but also far less iconic, hero in Colin Farrell as the lead. What we also have, though, is a film that looks wildly inventive in its trailers, but plays as an uninspired mash-up of all the great Sci-Fi films preceding it.

One the marked differences between this Recall and the original is the decision to set it here on Earth sometime in the future, eschewing the original’s Martian setting. This time around, Earth has been ravaged by chemical warfare, leaving only two inhabitable areas on different sides of the world connected by a great tube which has what can only be described as history’s fastest, most efficient public transportation system ever. Douglas Quaid (Farrell) lives in a place called the Colony, which is located in Australia, and populated by the lowest socio-economic people on Earth. He is plagued by dreams which wreck his sleep and lead him to seek the comforts of Rekall, a memory creating company.

Only things go wrong and Quaid discovers that he is not who he thought he was, and neither are any of the people he knows and thinks he loves, including his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). Before he can even figure out what’s up or down, he discovers she’s an undercover cop posing as his wife who becomes hellbent to capture him, and then he meets the woman in his dream (Jessica Biel), who is there to protect him. Eventually, he learns that his memories have already been constructed by Rekall at the behest of the megalomaniacal Chancellor (Bryan Cranston) and that he was once a double agent. It’s all very twisty and turny, and ultimately leads down the road of the classic action movie cliché of “the one man who can save everyone.”

Total Recall’s biggest issues are narrative. Quaid discovers he at one point was working with an underground rebellion movement before his memories were changed, which means that at some point we needed to really understand and sympathize with this rebellion movement in order to give the movie a sense of stakes. Unfortunately, director Len Wiseman decided he only wanted to focus on Quaid’s character, and Quaid is given no time to become familiar with any of the rebellion’s members, or their reasons for being a part of the rebellion. We’re given no reason to buy into the cause other than the notion that the Chancellor is evil. This black-and-white thinking drives the movie down Predictability Lane and it’s a pretty boring, derivative drive.

The other issue is the way in which Rekall is handled. Part of the appeal of the story, based on Phillip K. Dick’s wonderful short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” is that reality can be questioned. If people can have their memories changed, can you trust anyone, including yourself? There’s one scene in the middle of the movie in which Quaid faces this question, but it is quickly thrown out by an inexplicable decision and replaced with more familiar action movie tropes, like chase scenes, explosions, and heroes who can’t get hit by bullets no matter how much they are fired upon by trained police and programmed androids. It’s meant to be exciting, and may well appeal to teenage boys with limited film going experience, but for anyone who has seen a more than a few Sci-Fi films, it’s a yawn.

I guess it all comes down to what my friend was saying about Sci-Fi films lacking creativity with their weapons. Total Recall is lacking creativity in pretty much all of the major areas for films in this genre. It’s a standard, by-the-numbers movie, targeting adolescents who would rather see Kate Beckinsale in a pair of panties and a wife beater than see her play a character with any depth. This makes me sad, because the Sci-Fi genre, when done right, is one of the most breathtaking genres we have in film.