Paul Verhoeven movies don’t get remade. They get reduced. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall - a shiny, shallow take on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” – is a far cry from the nutso 1990 adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The action (read: falling and rolling) quotient is high, but the key mutants-in-stomachs and eyes-bulging-on-the-surface-of-Mars quotient has been drastically reduced. The number of women with three breasts remains steady, for anyone keeping track of that kind of thing.
Colin Farrell steps into Arnold’s impossibly big shoes as bored factory worker Doug Quaid, who dreams of an alternate existence in which he isn’t married to Kate Beckinsale. It’s a dystopian future – aren’t they all? – and the Earth’s population resides on the last two inhabitable continents: the United Federation of Britain and The Colony. Yes, The Colony is Australia. Congrats guys, we made it! Further congratulations must go to Heineken and dubstep; two cultural artifacts that apparently survive the Third World War and remain popular in a hundred years time. A dystopia indeed.
Life in The Colony is rough, and a rebellion led by Matthias (Bill Nighy) is continually quashed by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) and his army of synthetic police officers. This is good news for a company like Rekall, however; they implant memories of decadent holidays and adventurous former lives in the brains of citizens who could only ever dream of affording such luxuries for real. Quaid signs up for their ‘secret agent’ program, only to discover that he really is a secret agent whose memory had been wiped! Or is he? The police are after him! Or are they? His wife is actually British and trying to kill him! Or is she? Then Jessica Biel turns up and asks him to run away with her, and suddenly all these questions don’t seem so important.
My memory of Verhoeven’s feature is faint in the sense that I can’t entirely remember which plot elements have been recycled by screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, and which ones are new inventions. My memory is not faint in the sense that I remember being wowed by that previous flick, which had more bizarre moments per minute than this one has Colin Farrell eye-twitches. That we’re still talking about that picture’s iconic tri-boobed wonder twenty-two years after the fact is a testament to its staying power. That, or the generation of guys who grew up with it were quite significantly swayed by the minor genetic miracle of an extra bosom from whence there was only two. I’d rather give Verhoeven the credit than denigrate my people.
Wiseman’s Total Recall is unlikely to wow anyone. There are a couple of high-octane sequences – particularly one anti-gravity shoot-out – and Kate Beckinsale runs good with a gun. But for the most part, everything unique and interesting about Dick’s tale, as well as everything weird and wonderful about Verhoeven’s first go-round, has been shaved away in favour of blinding lens flare, boring robot adversaries, and implausibly engineered sets (the elevator shaft in Quaid’s apartment building seems to specifically offer the least convenient route from one destination to another). “Bryan Cranston’s hair,” is the answer to many a question, now, chief among them, “What is the only good reason to see Total Recall?”
Total Recall arrives in Australian cinemas September 23, 2012.