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Total Recall (2012)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy

Written By: Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback Directed By: Len Wiseman

The Short Version

A cheese-covered sci fi action classic gets a more serious makeover.

But not too serious; it’s still a fast-paced, full-on adventure ride.

Don’t expect a complete remake of 1990; this Total Recall stands well on its own.

The new story is interesting, and lies somewhere in between its two inspirations.

Keep your expectations real, and Total Recall is a fun way to spend two hours.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


A tasty riff on a cheesy classic.

Pairs Well With...


The Brits invented this style of beer because they needed something that wouldn’t go bad during the long voyage halfway around the world.  Even with the trip reduced to 17 minutes, the beer’s still not a bad idea.

“Get to my apartment!”

Doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it as “Get your ass to Mars,” does it?

News flash: it doesn’t need to.

I admit to being a bit skeptical when I first learned that Total Recall would be hitting the multiplex circuit.  After all, the Paul Verhoeven flick from 1990 is a true classic of modern sci fi action, and managed to build a metaphorical temple to Philip K. Dick’s original “what is real” concept despite going a few million miles off story.  Not exactly one of those movies that one looks at and says “this begs for a remake.” 

For many people – both critics and the movie going public at large – that’s where the ride ends.  After all, since the first one was so awesome, anything else just has to be pointless, right?  (Nevermind that hardly anyone propping up the greatness of the 1990 film has ever read “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” – that’s yet another issue.)  To those people, whatever Len Wiseman and company might have done with their new film didn’t and doesn’t matter; the denouncements (and, one suspects, more than a few of the reviews) were written even before the new Total Recall hit the screen.

As for me, I chose to reserve judgment until I’d actually, you know, gone to see the movie with an open mind.

Guess what?  I decided that I like it.

I like Total Recall because it’s got an intriguing, adventurous story, great pacing, fun action, decent leads, and solid direction.  It’s got a few flaws, sure, but how many movies don’t?  It is, in short, a really good sci fi action flick.

In this version of the tale, chemical weapons attacks made during a series of wars throughout the 21st and early 22nd Centuries have left most of the Earth as an uninhabitable wasteland.  Only two viable areas of human habitation remain: the area surrounding Great Britain, now known as the United Federation of Britain (or the UFB, or, if you prefer, the “haves”), and the area surrounding Australia, now known as The Colony (or “the have nots”).  The poisoning of the planet makes air, overland, or ocean travel between these two points inadvisable at best, but clever engineers have solved that little problem with “The Fall”: a tunnel bored straight through the interior of the Earth that houses a gigantic elevator capable of taking tens of thousands of people from the UFB to The Colony and vice versa in just seventeen minutes each way.

Living in this world is one Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell, SWAT), a citizen of The Colony who commutes every day to the UFB to work a lousy job assembling police robots called “synthetics.”  But Quaid feels as though he’s capable of something more, and after finding out that he’s been passed over for a promotion at work, he decides to drown his sorrows the high tech way.  If he can’t really have an awesome life, he’s going to go to this place called Rekall, where they can give him the false memories of having a great life.

Only problem is, the cops decide to raid the place just moments after Quaid’s been strapped into their special chair.  Why?  Apparently, Quaid really is a spy working under deep cover, and thanks to the real repressed memories that the Rekall process has suddenly reactivated, he’s starting to remember…  Unless it’s all just part of the fantasy he paid for…

Either way, Mr. Quaid gets to go for one hell of a ride, and the audience gets to watch.

And since so much of that audience will insist on comparing this film to what came before, I’ll take the relevant points from two perspectives: looking at Total Recall as a standalone film, and – surprise – comparing it to what came before.

Let’s talk story first.  To anyone who’s seen the previous film, the points of similarity and departure are obvious.  Most notably, as suggested above, no one’s ass is getting to Mars.  All of the action takes place on Earth.  Though this is a major sticking point for many people, I see this as a matter of “screenwriter’s choice,” especially since no one’s ass ever made it to Mars “on camera” in Philip K. Dick’s original short story, either. 

Looking at Total Recall as a standalone adventure film, the choice to keep it Earthbound works well.  The story as constructed plays just fine down here, and makes just as much sense as what came before, which is a polite way of saying that “suspension of disbelief” has to be set to “high,” but everything’s fun enough that this shouldn’t be a problem.  An elevator straight through the seismically active Earth (that goes straight past the core, no less) is absurd… but no more so than a mutant baby growing out of a guy’s gut and running a Martian revolution therefrom.  Adventure’s still adventure, and that’s why we put the “fiction” in “science fiction.”

With that said, this Total Recall plays almost exclusively on the adventure aspect and, despite the marketing taglines, doesn’t really delve too deeply into the question of “what is real?”  Any time it comes up, the production’s bias is plain, and eventually made explicit for the slower students in the class.  In a way, this feels odd, because this version is far less “comic book” in nature and takes itself more seriously on a scene to scene basis.  The wiseass one-liners of 1990 just aren’t there; on the other hand, I don’t think that they should be, either.  That’s not how this take on the story needs to roll.

This, in turn, brings up what for me was one of the most surprising things about Total Recall.  In 1990, Paul Verhoeven deliberately pushed the violence envelope as far as possible; indeed, his first cut got an “X” rating from the MPAA, and had to be toned down to make a very hard “R.”  This version, meanwhile, glides in at an easy PG-13, and that, for me, is usually a “red alert” signal, especially given previous material at a harder rating.  Given that, I was ready to be disappointed… but I wasn’t disappointed at all.  No, there’s no extreme blood splatter, and innocent bystanders aren’t being mowed down at transit stations, but because of the way that the violence is choreographed and the way that the movie’s directed, the blood and the body count aren’t necessary.  With plenty of exciting chase scenes, well presented hand fighting, and gunplay against robots, I never felt cheated by the action scenes here.  Indeed, I and most of the rest of the audience in the theatre I was in did the “ooh!” and “ahh!” thing several times.  (The first fight in the apartment; that’s all I’m sayin’.)  It’s only “watered down” if you’re holding it up to impossible standards; realistically, Total Recall is PG-13 action done properly, and you definitely won’t catch me using that phrase very often.

Of course, Len Wiseman and company are well aware that most of the people watching this movie will have seen the one before, and they’ve done a very nice job making nods to key moments without getting obnoxious about it.  There may be no Martian mutants here, but there’s still room for a three breasted hooker (Kaitlyn Leeb, Wrong Turn 4), and in the slums of The Colony as presented, it’s easy to believe she got herself some cosmetic surgery to that effect.  I won’t spoil the others, but I will say that this film has a wonderful knack for taking expectations that a fan of the previous film might bring in with them and using them as a means of misdirection.

In terms of casting, I’ve got no complaints with the leads, all of whom take their roles and make them truly their own.  They’re not out to reinvent the last movie; they just want to make this one.  Colin Farrell is utterly believable as Quaid at every stage of his personality (whether as a milquetoast factory worker or as a hot shot agent).  Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) is dynamite as Lori (whose role as written here combines the roles previously played by Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside), and brings a very special chill to the part.  (Her action scenes are also excellent, though her hair is in the way often enough to suggest that her stunt double got a bigger workout than usual this time around.  Not that I’d have noticed if I wasn’t deliberately looking for that, mind.)  Jessica Biel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) also holds her own as Melina, and actually does the part more justice than the script may have initially provided for.  The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag, but even there, no one stinks up the place.

As for the look and feel of the film, I must say that I was impressed with the overall production design.  I like the distinctions made between the clean lines of the UFB and the Hong Kong inspired slums of The Colony.  In each case, the setting becomes a supporting character, so that even the background clutter at any given moment is helping to tell the story at hand.  Nothing ever feels like deliberate set dressing, and that, to me, is very successful set dressing.

And when all was said and done, I walked out of the theatre feeling that Len Wiseman and company did a very good job indeed of retelling (and retooling) a story that most – including me – felt didn’t really need to be retold.  Taken on its own merits, as it should be, Total Recall is a fun, exciting sci fi adventure flick.  Period.  It’s a fast paced, escapist thrill ride, and isn’t that why most of us go to watch these things in the first place?

Bottom line, Total Recall is not its predecessor with a fresh coat of paint, nor should it be.  If you go in with a checklist of items based on your experience with the previous film, you’ve already deliberately set yourself up for disappointment.  Instead, go in to view the fresh experience that this Total Recall is meant to be, and you’ll come out having seen a very good action flick that was worth a couple hours of your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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