August 3, 2012



TOTAL RECALL:  Watch It At Home – Unmemorable

TOTAL RECALL isn’t the worst picture of the summer, and probably won’t be the biggest flop, but it may be the most unnecessary waste of everyone’s time.  Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, while no masterpiece, had lots of Verhoeven’s oddball streak of pulp surrealism and some genuinely fun moments.  The new version, directed by Len Wiseman (of umpteen Underworld movies and the last Die Hard) throws money at the concept and wraps it up in fatally self-serious scifi cliche.

The script this time is credited to Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, with the “screen story” attributed to Wimmer and 3 of the writers of the 1990 film, all of it inspired, of course,  by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”.  The basic premise of both movies is basically the same:  Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell in the Schwarznegger role) is a seemingly ordinary factory worker in the future, with a loving wife (Kate Beckinsale in for Sharon Stone) and well-established life.  But when he visits a “Recall” center that implants people’s memories with imaginary vacations and fantasies, his real memories return and he’s suddenly transformed into a super-spy and assassin.  His “wife,” really a government agent, is out to kill him, and it’s his job to save the world.  (Verhoeven’s movie played around a bit with the idea that all of this might just be Quaid’s Recall fantasy, but a dream/memory sequence at the very start of the new picture makes it clear that he really is a secret agent.)  Along the way, Quaid finds his way to Melina (Jessica Biel as Rachel Ticotin), a freedom-fighter who was his love interest back when he was himself.

While the 1990 film took place largely on a fantabulous Mars, populated by many mutants, Wiseman’s movie is set entirely on Earth.  It’s a dystopian version of the planet we’ve seen many times before, with one city run by the very rich, headed by evil Cohaagan (Bryan Cranston), and the other, known as the Colony, by the proletariat, with a revolutionary force led by Matthias (Bill Nighy).  Cohaagan’s dastardly plan never makes much sense, but he apparently wants to destroy the entire Colony in order to replace the world’s workforce with killer robots–seemingly because he’s a big Star Wars fan, since the robots so resemble Imperial Stormtroopers that George Lucas could ask for a royalty.

Since there’s little ambiguity about Quaid’s real identity in this version, the story plays out as a dumber, larger-scale retread of The Borne Identity, with Quaid blankly absorbing each piece he learns about his past and periodically erupting into expert violence in one chase scene after another.    (The difference, of course, is that the Bourne movies, at least so far, have been superb–Universal was wise to postpone its newest edition untll next week, so the two films aren’t in direct competition.)  Apart from some blathering about a double reversal late in the proceedings, there isn’t much plot, just Farrell and Biel on the run while Beckinsale and the Stormtroopers chase them.

An action movie can get pretty far with chase scenes and a couple of plot twists if it’s all well executed, but the new Total Recall is so impersonal and second-hand that it becomes dully predictable before long.  Even though Wiseman is considered an “action director,” he does a terrible job with the geography and editing of the fights and chases, which are busy without ever being exciting.  (When Farrell kills 10 or so bad guys in an early scene, it’s so phony-looking that it almost plays as a parody of Kill Bill.)  There’s the usual Blade Runner-influenced production design in the Colony, and lots of big white sets among the 1%, with the familiar panoply of CG–we can tell that the movie was expensive to put together, but everything looks like it comes from other movies.  A chase on elevators that move up, down and sideways seems there to prove that Wiseman watched the Ministry of Magic scenes in the late Harry Potters carefully, while a weightless battle sequence on the intra-planetary version of Amtrak is a lesser version of the hotel scenes in Inception.   The evil characters always behave like idiots when the plot needs them to, and the heroes never do or say anything particularly smart.

The actors can’t save it.  Colin Farrell has been doing some excellent work in indies like In Bruges, Crazy Heart and Ondine over the past few years, so no one should begrudge him a payday, but his performance here is unfortunately a reminder of the odd fact that while he looks and sounds like he should be a natural action movie star, for some reason (SWAT, Miami Vice) he’s very uninteresting when he takes one on.  As the villainess, Beckinsale acts like she’s auditioning for a future career playing roles like Madeleine Stowe’s in Revenge.  Bryan Cranston, in a bad wig, is about one-tenth as menacing as he is in any given scene of Breaking Bad, and Nighy is practically invisible.  Jessica Biel is the best thing in the picture, with the right attitude and hints of a real performance (especially in one scene midway through that also gives Bokeem Woodbine a brief chance to shine)–in a better movie world, Biel would have been the star here.

If The Dark Knight Rises is proof that visionary filmmaking can transform even the most hackneyed genre, this Total Recall is a sad reminder that there are a lot more Len Wisemans in Hollywood than there are Christopher Nolans.  It’s the movie to see if you’ve lost your memory of what hackwork looks like.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."