Total Recall (2012): Film Review

AH, IT’S THAT TIME of the year again. That time for movie critics and purist fans to lambast The Remakes Nobody Wants Or Needs.

This summer, that title falls to Len Wiseman’s re-imagining of Paul Verhoeven’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring movie, based on a Philip K. Dick short called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, entitled ‘creatively’ Total Recall.

On one hand, I can see where the derision comes from. Verhoeven’s Total Recall is a classic that many people still like to watch. Just like the problem with The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony Pictures does love to raise people’s hackles by making money out of recycling classic stuff. But on the other hand, it’s ridiculous to say that a remake wasn’t necessary. Filmmakers are rarely able to get a pitch perfect portrayal of Philip K. Dick concepts, so as long as the note is still off-key, everybody is welcome to try to polish them to flawless perfection on screen. And I’m glad Len Wiseman took the chance but, really, this so-called remake is not that bad.

There were homages all over the place to the original Total Recall. This is not surprising; Wiseman claimed that he was a fan of the original film. But he chose to set the story on Earth, instead of Mars, and made it as if the event in his film happened for real in the life of his main character, Quaid. These things make the story less fantastical but equally thrilling as the original. I like the ambiguity provided by the original, but the ‘this is real’ sensibility of the story gives the remake added depth.

Neither film came close to interpreting accurately what Dick wrote in his short story. This, too, is unsurprising but if I have to choose which one is closer to the original, I would perhaps pick this 2012 version over the 1990 version. Quaid’s adventure involving Rekall is closer to Quail’s journey with REKAL (although I thought Rekall was severely underused in Wiseman’s movie) and Dick’s concept of dystopian society was more clearly emphasized in this one, without anyone having to travel to another planet (really, nothing says ‘dystopia’ more than a post-apocalyptic Earth). And if the ‘not going to Mars’ factor is the one that worries people most about the story, I would encourage them to stop fretting. Wiseman has, against all odds, created a very cool concept to replace Mars and make the story work through his designs.

And that – the design – is the strength of this remake. Wiseman and his team created a look for their universe that doesn’t only feel plausible, but also cool. Take the hover cars for example. They are ten times more doable for manufacturers to produce in a few decades’ time than the cars seen in Minority Report. The sprawling cityscape of the Colony, with its interconnected buildings, river down the middle and multicultural elements, is also a marvel to look at that. And if that’s not enough, there’s The Fall – it’s Wiseman’s ace in substituting Mars for Earth, which definitely screams ‘science fiction’.

The biggest miss of the movie is the cast. Individually, these actors bring a lot of credibility to their character. Colin Farrell’s Quaid was good enough, Kate Beckinsale’s Lori was a proper badass and Jessica Biel’s Melina was decent. There should be no complaints, except neither of them had any chemistry with each other. I could hardly believe that Lori had a grudge against Quaid and that Melina and Quaid had something romantic going on. Either they were too focused on doing the action scenes rather than making their interactions real, or they were just really a mismatched group of people. There is no doubt that Wiseman had a very good ensemble on his hands; it just seems like he didn’t know what to do with them and would rather focus on designing cool hover cars and other high tech transport systems.

So this film – this remake – is both a hit and a miss. As an adaptation, it works. As a remake, it’s not bad. But as an individual piece of cinema, it’s an incomplete one. It’s probably not going to change the face of genre cinema, nor will it lose the derision of the purists and skeptics, but perhaps it’ll do its job in introducing the Dick/sci-fi concepts to the modern mainstream audience. It’s worth seeing in the cinema but you probably won’t be interested in collecting the DVD.

Len Wiseman’s vision of a futuristic dystopian society works in this remake that no one wants. Sadly, while the highest profile project of his career is not hateful, it certainly won’t be loved.


The Indonesian version of this review will appear in Total Film Indonesia Issue #35, out in September 2012.