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Movie Review: Total Recall (2012)

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What’s not to love about dystopias? Dark futuristic cities, skinny girl fighters in black suits, robotic assistants, high tech households, oppressive regimes, and belligerent opposition leaders forever united by the never-ending struggle against each other. Then there is the message, of course, a hint at how the most imaginative, far-fetched dystopias may reflect the state of society at a given moment in time. Paranoia, omnipresent spying, absolute fear, annihilation of enemies, brainwashing, propaganda, rewriting of history, the dystopian conflict of the lows and the highs, and the suspension of basic freedoms – the core elements of any dystopia are fictitious, but only to a degree.

Phillip K. Dick

Phillip K. Dick knows a thing or two about dystopias, having shaped the genre with such classics as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” which was adapted into Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, and  “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” which was turned into Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven in 1990 and now by Len Wiseman in 2012.


The art of adapting literature to screen has been the subject of many an academic essay, much movie-buff vitriol, and even a very good film (Adaptation). Essentially, every movie is an adaptation because every movie is bound by some sort of text (idea, pitch, script, etc). Sometimes a beautiful movie comes from a humble source, a flawed short story for example, and is then transformed into something groundbreaking (Brokeback Mountain comes to mind). Other times, when the source material is complex, dealing with big questions, abstract notions, and complex ideas, the results can be tragic.

We have two such adaptations on our hands now with Total Recall (Len Wiseman) and Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg). Why a remake of Total Recall is needed in 2012 is a bit unclear; perhaps the year 2012 calls for all things dystopian to creep out of the underground. David Cronenberg’s choice is at least understandable: he is well-known for succeeding at filming unfilmable novels. Len Wiseman’s only tangible credits are for the Underworld series, however; why he takes on a short story that deals with reality vs. memory vs. fake memory (and, yes, the PR team does insist this Total Recall is an adaptation of the story, not a remake of the 1990 film) is beyond me. I was afraid I would be disappointed with the film, but couldn’t resist the temptation to see what Wiseman has created.

The Plot

Factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in ‘the Colony’ (modern Australia), the land of the have-nots. He has to travel to ‘the United Federation of Britain’ each day to work, which is where the haves abide. These are the two places on Earth that are still habitable – everything else has been wiped out by chemical warfare. Quaid has a suspiciously hot wife (Kate Beckinsale, very hot indeed) who is suspiciously devoted to him. She works as an investigator in London bombings allegedly carried out by freedom fighter Matthias (Bill Nighy).

Quaid has weird dreams each night, which he foolishly retells to his wife. (The whole Mars connection from the story is non-existent here.) One day, he decides to follow the advice of a bored co-worker and go to Rekall, a firm specializing in creating beautiful memories of life-long fantasies for people who have nothing to look forward to in their grim daily routines. Things go very wrong at Rekall. Quaid kills a lot of people, an event that begins chase sequences in which he is joined by beautiful ally Melina (Jessica Biel), who claims to be an old friend from the times before his memory was compromised.

The plot boils down to many clichés, like the hand-to-hand fight with the bad guy at the end. There are lots of silly things going on, apparent even in the Total Recall trailer, like the police fighters dying off like flies and the useless robots that are as brittle as china cups – but who cares as long as it all looks hot, like the three-breasted prostitute, right? (Wrong.)

The Visuals

The film is a great visualization of a dystopian urban landscape, where elevators move horizontally as well as vertically, robotic helpers roam the scenery, breathtaking buildings tower over characters, and glistening vehicles swoosh through the air. There is a particularly beautiful scene of zero gravity that could almost be poetry in visuals (if it had any substance). The choreography of the fights is expertly staged, with Beckinsale’s Lori being a standout prima ballerina here. Unfortunately, the images are not symbols of anything, and what stands behind them is emptiness – just as is the case in so many beautiful movies like Resident Evil: Afterlife, where potently good ideas are compromised for an opportunity for the director’s spouse to fling a lot of slim limbs around.

The Acting

Beckinsale’s Lori talks too much (she spits out wife jokes of fake affection and sham jealousy like a poisonous reptile) for a villain. Farrell’s Quaid looks surprised at all times (instead of infuriated, which would have been the case if the makers of Total Recall insisted on being faithful to Phillip K. Dick), and his Irishness seems to creep up into the Kurt Wimmer- and Mark Bomback-written lines (or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part). Jessica Biel is beautiful; not much to report there.

The Missed Opportunities

The concept of lost memories/false memories/dreamt up memories is rife with opportunity. The mentally ill come to mind. And what about the victims of sexual abuse, haunted by horrible memories springing up in dreams, on the bus, at a playground, while family members tell them so convincingly it’s only the fruit of their imagination? What about the claustrophobia modern media creates? Conspiracy theories? Paranoia? I can go on and on.

“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is a terrifying dystopia. In any dystopia, regardless of the regime the protagonist finds himself in, freedom of thought remains the last respite. The protagonists can pretend to the authorities that they have succumbed to the oppressors while enjoying absolute liberty in their minds. The bodily horror Philip K. Dick creates (in the story, a tele-transmitter is implanted in Douglas’s brain) and the self-aversion the character feels are unprecedented. “Anything you think may be used against you,” Douglas’s oppressors tell him. In Total Recall he only has a cool phone implanted in his hand, and all Collin Farrell does is raise his pretty eyebrows and drop his jaw a little.

Verdict: Sure, Kate Beckinsale looks good in black. But to dilute such a classic into a few leg-throwing stunts is just a crime. Yet again, Hollywood has spoken. Hopefully no one will listen.

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About Sviatlana Piatakova

  • I think writers may have fresh ideas but the studios settle for what is ‘expected’ and guaranteed to be a box office hit.

  • Stephen Frost

    I agree with Roger as well. How else do you explain the fact that they have remade Judge Dredd!?

  • I don’t mind remakes per se, once they are re-thinking, re-working and re-imagining the material (I think of Glee instantly and how it rethinks pop music). But I agree with Roger: most of the time, it’s just GRAB THEIR TICKET MONEY AND RUN!

  • Roger White

    Peter, I think the short answer is that movie people are starting of run out of original ideas, so they have begun going back to old success and ‘re-jigging them’…Christopher Nolan is an obvious exception!

  • I don’t know why they left Mars out, Peter. and then why they call this adaptation ‘faithful’ to Phillip K Dick is even stranger. Remakes for the sake of remakes should stop, seriously; it’s like all these talent show contestants trying to sing like Whitney – sad!

  • Peter Rimmer

    Why have they left Mars out? I hope this current spate of remakes comes to an end soon!

  • it had a lot of potential and a lot of money poured into it, I agree. I loved your (original) Total Recall review, thanks for sharing.

  • This was a great review, thanks. I’m sad that the film didn’t cut it! It had so much potential but sometimes Hollywood can’t help shooting itself in the foot. They had all the right ingredients. Perhaps they spent their budget on the stars again as they did with the original film. I wrote about that here & would love to know your thoughts.

  • Thanks for the comment, Sherry. If I remember correctly, it is Kate Bekingsale herself that stated repeatedly Total Recall 2012 is the adaptation of the short story. i guess she thinks we are sheep, baa baa. I mean to say it’s faithful is laughable. how can a phone in your hand be compared to a thought-reading device? And I agree that Mars was too important to leave out. Such a shame.

  • I guess the PR team must have thought no one has ever read We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, for them to claim this movie was more based on that than the 1990 movie. Everything about this was a remake of the first movie – the main character’s name change, the basic events. His wife’s name, Melina, basically everything that happens is not in the book. And the book deals with Mars, in a different way than the 1990 film, but still an important factor. I think it was a huge mistake to leave Mars out of this movie.