Total Recall

Total Recall


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The manifold works of Philip K Dick, from Minority Report to A Scanner Darkly, have, in their varied film incarnations, retained one unifying quality: they are multi-layered, forcing the viewer to continually second guess what is real. In light of that, few films seem better suited to a remake than Total Recall, the story of one man's struggle with the unreliability of memory. Watching this new version, you'll feel as if you're remembering a familiar story slightly differently; or as if you've fallen asleep after watching the original and are dreaming about it, perhaps imagining yourself as a secret agent. Still, this recalls the words of Nicol Williamson's unforgettable Merlin: "A dream to some. A nightmare to others."

Like a dream, this film takes familiar things and reinvents them. It does so with skill, making astute and playful references to the likes of Blade Runner as well as to Douglas Quaid's original outing (was he Tyrell's niece all along?), without them ever becoming overbearing or making the story less accessible to newcomers. Quaid himself is reinvented by Colin Farrell, who has the sense not to try and play Arnie (even if he does wear the same shirt) but makes the part his own. Snatches of dialogue from the original are patched in, delivered in a wholly different way. This provides welcome relief from the differently (and less honestly) terrible dialogue of the new version.

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Updating the story necessitates more than just building in a few new gadgets and changing the way people dress. We now live in a world where Rekall Inc - the company that can remember it for you wholesale, providing fake memories as escapist fantasy - is not far outside the bounds of existing technology. Our relationship with Mars has also changed. In 2012, when game shows are now offering the chance to start a new life in the offworld colonies, science fiction has to keep up, and this film does it by ditching the alien angle altogether (along with the politically sensitive business with mutants), instead giving us a 'present' in which much of the world has been destroyed by war. The heart of the story is in a security-paranoid Britain (though you wouldn't know it from all the US trappings and the Americanised accents adopted by even the British stars). Its colony is in the antipodes, still suitably remote, but most of the action is played out closer to home.

Action there is - in spades. A great deal of effort has been put into this, with elaborate chase scenes in which detailed sets are ripped to bits. The gunfights are as silly as you'd expect from a script Kurt Wimmer had a hand in. The unarmed fights are genuinely exciting. There are also several sections that make no sense at all, including a scene with lots of lifts (where do they all go?) which is the functional equivalent of the bit in Galaxy Quest where our heroes have to run through 'choppers' for no reason. The human body count is padded out with Phantom Menace/I, Robot style androids, as dull as they always are, and we come back to the familiar problem of heavy CGI making the film look like a cartoon. Whereas the original was a bright, primary coloured comic book (with occasional gritty scene thrown in to disconcert the viewer), this looks more like a mobile phone advert. It's slick, soft focus, lanced with ludicrous lens flare, and quite difficult to feel anything for. When we ought to be questioning Quaid's reality, it's impossible to suspend disbelief about the action the film presents us with.

One thing that this gets right - and an important part of the updating - is beefing up the female characters. Kate Beckinsale really gets her teeth into the role of Quaid's wife (or minder), delivering a memorable action villain who is quite believable as his equal in a fight. It's refreshing to see her live up to the fantasy she's repeatedly been cast in by directors who couldn't make it happen. Here she also faces off against Melina (Jessica Biel), another properly physical character who makes a much more believable resistance fighter than Rachel Ticotin did. There's a nice moment when one of the women draws out the wrath of the other by calling Quaid a slut. Not only does this deliver a well deserved kick to genre clich├ęs, it helps to reinforce the idea that Quaid, though ostensibly at the centre of events, is in many ways just a commodity whose fate is in the hands of other people.

The problems with action and dialogue are a heavy weight for Total Recall to bear. It also contains some far sillier 'science', with a take on geology that rivals The Core. But all in all, it's a much better remake than many fans had feared, and it adds another interesting layer of complexity to a story that deserves ongoing consideration. There are bits you may be tempted to sleep through but, overall, it's worth remembering.

Reviewed on: 31 Aug 2012
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Total Recall packshot
Uncertain memories lead a man to question his identity in this remake of the 1990 science fiction thriller.
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Director: Len Wiseman

Writer: Mark Bomback, Philip K. Dick, James Vanderbilt, Kurt Wimmer

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy, Ethan Hawke, John Cho, Bokeem Woodbine, Will Yun Lee, Currie Graham, Steve Byers, Warren Belle, Brooks Darnell, Denise Vasquez, Jesse Bond

Year: 2012

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, Canada


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