‘Total Recall’ movie review: Colin Farrell in remake of Verhoeven’s sci-fi classic

A serviceable but utterly unmemorable sci-fi action picture, this version of Total Recall is doubly disappointing when compared to the 1990 Paul Verhoeven film and the original Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale. Directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld, Live Free or Die Hard), this is a competently-made film that suffers from a severe lack of imagination. 

The 1990 film may not have been a classic, but it was a seminal early 90s action picture peppered with Verhoeven excess, perhaps only a notch below the director’s Robocop and star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator

This version – light on the sci-fi and even lighter on the exploitation elements in order to receive a PG-13 rating (though the three-breasted chick still makes a brief appearance) – is a watered-down, by-the-numbers action movie filled with endless amounts of CGI, gunfire, and explosions; besides the premise, this could be any one of a number of mindless action pictures.

Futuristic atmosphere is borrowed from Blade Runner, 1984, Equilibrium, Minority Report, and any number of other mainstream sci-fi pictures. Unfortunately, that (and the premise, haphazardly injected) is about where the science ends here.

An opening title scrawl informs us that after a nuclear war, the only inhabitable areas on Earth are the United Kingdom and Australia (‘The Colony’). A tunnel burrowed through the center of the Earth (called ‘The Fall’) connects the two zones, and workers commute daily from the UK to build an army of robot policemen in Australia.

Colin Farrell stars as factory worker Douglas Quaid, the character played by Schwarzenegger in the earlier film. Bored with his current status in life, despite a loving, beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale), Quaid is attracted to the promises of the Rekall company, who will plant vivid memories of an exotic vacation in your mind so real that you won’t be able to tell they’re not.

And so… no, they barely hook him up to the machine when government agents burst in and shoot up the place. Quaid – his mind untouched, unlike the previous film – immediately becomes a super soldier, killing everyone in sight and making a getaway. After wifey turns on him, telling Quaid that she was an agent sent to watch over him, he has to ask the question: who am I?

If you’ve seen the earlier film, you know exactly where this one is going, beat by beat. Only, it doesn’t seem to make as much sense. One of the best aspects of the Verhoeven picture was that you never knew what the ‘real’ reality was: was Quaid at Rekall the whole time? Which side was he really on? 

Here, there’s never any doubt, even though during the film’s most memorable scene (a straight lift from the original), a co-worker (Bokeem Woodbine) attempts to convince Quaid that he’s dreaming. 

Wasted in supporting roles: Jessica Biel as love interest Melina, Bryan Cranston as ruthless overlord Cohaagen, and Bill Nighy as the leader of the resistance. 

This could have been a straight remake/update of the previous film, or a whole new take on the original story (as was promised by the promotional material). But no. I just love it when these remakes take the plot from the original film, make a bunch of minor changes so that they can claim it’s something new, and in effect turn the whole thing into nonsense. Scenes are lifted straight out of the original movie and injected into this one, and no one seemed to realize that, logically, with the other changes, they no longer fit.

Regarding the updates from the original film: no Mars, no mutants/aliens, no Michael Ironside, no excessive violence, no cheesy one-liners, no camp value. Lots of familiar-looking CGI, lens flares, shaky cam, quick-cut editing, gunfire, explosions. Earthbound and unimaginative, this Recall is little more than a disposable straight-to-DVD actioner writ large.

Total Recall failed to make much at the US box office (a $25 million opening weekend off a $125 million budget), perhaps signaling a rejection of this endless deluge of remakes (see also: The Thing, Fright Night, Conan the Barbarian, Clash of the Titans, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Fame, Arthur, and on, and on…and get ready for Red Dawn and Top Gun 2). 

More likely: the target audience wasn’t even born when the original was released, and couldn’t care less about the brand value.

Seeing this version of Total Recall inspired me to rewatch the original; that film, at the very least, was interesting. This one is so forgettable even a Rekall clinic would have trouble implanting memories of it inside your mind. 


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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