I'm not generally against remakes. If you've been following the new ROBOCOP, for example, I've been pretty excited and optimistic about what Jose Padilha is doing with that remake of Paul Verhoeven's classic film. It feels like a new direction and a new take on the material, and if it fails, well, at least it will have tried to be its own thing while respecting the source. With that cast and that director, I feel confident that while it could still turn out badly, that they still have the best intentions at heart and that they are trying something genuinely different than the original. That's the risk you take.
Len Wiseman's TOTAL RECALL, however, does not feel like it comes from a place of genuine risk. It feels safe, paint-by-numbers, and ultimately it calls back too much to the original movie, both in plot and theme. It desperately wants to be its own thing, but then it gives us a line or even a setpiece that recalls (pun intended) the original, and it does so with the obvious intent of reminding the audience of it. Three-boobed hooker? Check. The hell-bitch "wife" operative? Check. The government establishment versus the resistance, with Quaid (Colin Farrell) unsure which side he's working on, due to his faulty memory? It's all there. There are even scenes that come straight out of the original movie, and while Farrell's a fine actor, he just isn't having the same amount of fun that Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger had in the original film.
That's the real problem with TOTAL RECALL - it just isn't much fun. There are scenes in the original movie that are hokey and even silly, but Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven COMMIT to them, dammit, and even Arnold's "SCREW YOU!" works in that context. The original TOTAL RECALL is not a serious movie - it's Schwarzenegger playing with his well-established tough guy image, Verhoeven doing his damnedest to top even the ultra-violence of ROBOCOP, and the screenwriters (ALIEN's Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon) having fun with science fiction tropes while still paying homage to Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." It's a mishmash of goofy scenery, crazy over-the-top acting and violence, and for some reason it works, even 22 years later. TOTAL RECALL is funny, and yeah, a little dumb, but it's very self-aware despite all that. TOTAL RECALL is fun because it looks like everyone involved is thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Len Wiseman's film, on the other hand, is too serious for its own good, and due to the changes in the story, feels much smaller than the original movie. Verhoeven's film had Quaid saving a planet - here, he's simply fighting an evil government leader, Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), in yet another movie about the Haves versus the Have Nots. In this future, due to chemical warfare, much of Earth is uninhabitable, except for much of Europe and Australia. They are separated by the Fall, a pit that traverses the center of the earth and is the primary mode for transport for the world's work force. Australia, now called the Colony, provides the world with cheap, underpaid labor, but if Cohaagen has his way, the Colony will be a further expansion of his territories, and the people there will suffer their fate. In this future, the most valuable commodity is living space. Only the Resistance, led by Matthias (Bill Nighy), stands in his way.
None of this means much to Quaid, a worker bee living on the Colony with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale). He's simply a gearhead working from paycheck to paycheck, and he yearns for something more. Quaid feels like he simply wasn't meant for this life, and his dreams, of him being chased with a woman in tow, feel more real to him than his current life. When Quaid goes to Rekall (where false memories can be implanted for recreation) to experience some new memories, suddenly he is thrust into a fight for his own mind - it turns out Quaid is really a sleeper agent named Hauser, and as Quaid tries to understand who he is, with the help of Melina (Jessica Biel), he is hunted down relentlessly by Cohaagen's robot troops and his special operative, Quaid's "wife" Lori. If Quaid fails, the Colony will fall, but Quaid can't even be sure what side he's on.
The thing is, TOTAL RECALL has the goods when it comes to set design and special effects. The world the filmmakers have created here is fantastic looking, save the very JJ Abrams inspired lens flares, and it really looks like they spared no expense. It's well-acted, with Farrell doing solid work. The real standout on the performance side is Kate Beckinsale, who seems to be having a lot of fun kicking Farrell's ass all over the planet. Bryan Cranston's character is a fairly routine villain, and I'd say Ronny Cox's work in the role is more effective - he's just more slimy and yeah, a little hammy, but again, he commits to it.
There's nothing really wrong with TOTAL RECALL on the surface; it's what's missing that becomes apparent while watching it. The humor. The admitted cheese factor of the original. Yes, even Arnold Schwarzenegger, riffing on his image. No Quato. No Richter (Beckinsale seems to be playing both the parts of Sharon Stone as well as Michael Ironside). You can say I'm being unfair in comparing the movie so much to the original, and in most cases, you'd be right. But the film constantly invites comparison to the original film all the time, from scenes that come straight from the original movie (complete with lines of dialogue), and when it's not directly recalling (there's that pun again) the original in a scene, it gives us reminders scattered throughout the movie. This is a remake that knows it's a remake, and so you can't help but compare the two.
I guess the biggest loss from the original is the humor. This TOTAL RECALL takes itself very seriously, while the original wanted the audience to be in on the fun. That's not to say there aren't funny moments in this TOTAL RECALL but more often than not those moments are just reminders of the original movie. Len Wiseman knows how to direct an action sequence, but it's hard not to compare them not only to the original, but to other action films in general. There's a futuristic car chase scene that reminded me a bit of MINORITY REPORT with a little FIFTH ELEMENT thrown in, and a few foot chase scenes that felt straight out of the Bourne movies. It feels like there isn't an action sequence that wasn't inspired from other, better movies. It's well shot, I'll give it that, but there's a BLADE RUNNER inspired look to everything that, again, reminds the audience of many other science fiction movies that simply did this sort of thing better. If TOTAL RECALL were more fun and willing to break itself loose from its predecessor, it might have been a more worthwhile film. Instead, TOTAL RECALL is muddled and bland.
A few words about the rating - the original movie, for the time, pushed the boundaries of violence onscreen. Quaid used a human corpse as a bullet shield, arms were ripped off, eyes bulging out of skulls, and Verhoeven seemed to be having a lot of fun thumbing his nose at the establishment of the time in regards to film violence. The PG-13 remake simply doesn't compare in that aspect. However, I was bothered by the way the gunfights were used in Wiseman's movie. I'm no prude when it comes to action movies. I've seen them as violent as they get and I love shoot-'em-ups as much if not more than the next guy. But we have an awful lot of gunfights in TOTAL RECALL (some of the fights are admittedly against robots but there are also people involved as well), with people getting shot in the head, and generally dying in all sorts of violent ways. And yet, it's all so sanitized and bloodless.
In a way, I find this more reprehensible than in Verhoeven's movie - at least in his movie, when someone got hit by a bullet, you saw the effect it had on the body. When Schwarzenegger used that bullet-ridden corpse as a shield, that gunfight had real visceral impact. Here it's cleaned up and stripped of all gore, and I can't help feeling that without the effects of gunplay being evident that it's a fairly irresponsible way to shoot a gunfight. Should this TOTAL RECALL have been R rated? I think so. As it is, it makes the violence seem trivial, and considering the events from a couple of weeks ago, the consequence-free gunfighting bothered me. Again, I got no problem with onscreen violence, but the violence here had no repercussions whatsoever. Of course, the filmmakers had no idea that Aurora going to happen, but still, when someone gets shot in a movie, I don't think it should simply be "guy lays down and dies" either. My two cents.