First, a confession: I have never seen the original 1990 “Total Recall” film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a big fan of sci-fi movies, it’s probably one I should have seen by now, but for whatever reason, I’ve just never got around to watching it. So when I heard Columbia Pictures was going to be releasing a remake of this sci-fi classic, I decided to put off watching the original because I thought it would be interesting to see how well the remake worked as a stand-alone film.
“Total Recall” — which was released in theaters last Friday and stars Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel — is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick called “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” The film is set at the end of the 21st century and follows a seemingly ordinary factory worker named Douglas Quaid. Quaid has become bored with his mundane job, and he’s unable to escape the haunting feeling that something is missing in his life. He decides to visit a place called “Rekall,” a sort of virtual reality lounge that allows visitors to act out their fantasies (becoming rich and famous, traveling to outer space, working as a secret agent, etc.). However, Quaid’s visit to Rekall has an unintended side effect — he learns almost all of his memories have been manufactured, and he is not really the man he thinks he is. He finds he has suddenly become a threat to the government, and while on the run, he must struggle to put the fragmented pieces of his life back together and figure out who he was, who he is and what he wants to become.
In terms of set design and special effects, “Total Recall” is great. The film makers have done a good job creating a plausible futuristic world. There’s plenty of slick new technology (cell phones embedded into the palms of people’s hands; a high-speed elevator that transports people through the Earth’s core; and streets filled with hovercars), but the world has enough grit and grime to make it feel realistic and lived-in. It’s not to hard to believe that our society really could look like this in the future. There are several nice action set pieces, including a hovercar chase; a zero-g shoot-out; and an intensely-choreographed fight between Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale’s characters (Beckinsale, who also starred as a fierce vampire warrior in the “Underworld” movies, reminds us once again why it’s never a good idea to get on her bad side).
Although I really liked the film’s rich, gritty visuals, I found myself wanting more from the script. This film could have made a great Christopher Nolan-esque, intellectual sci-fi mind-bender, but it doesn’t quite live up to that potential. I wish the script writers would have fleshed out the plot a little more and delved deeper into the inner workings of this futuristic society. We’re told resistance fighters have been working to bring down the oppressive government, but we’re not really shown in what ways the government is oppressive, other than the squads of robot police officers constantly patrolling the streets, presumably to immediately squelch any signs of an uprising. How has the government become corrupt? What sinister acts are going on behind the scenes, and what is the government’s long-term plan for guiding the society’s development? What are the goals of the resistance movement, and how do they plan to change the society?
I also thought the film makers could have done more to flesh out the film’s main philosophical theme: the importance of memory and how much our past defines who we are. If I suddenly lost all my memories or found out what I thought was my past was actually a lie, would I still be the same person at heart? Or would I have to forge a completely new identity? It’s some interesting food for thought, and dwelling on this concept a little more could have given the film more emotional weight.
I’ll leave it to other reviewers to debate the strengths and weakness of the original “Total Recall” versus this summer’s reboot. As a stand-alone film, the reboot is a two-hour CGI roller coaster ride with a thought-provoking concept. I just wish the script had taken that concept further.