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Total Recall (2012)
Director: Len Wiseman

review by J.C. Hartley

We all know what Philip K. Dick was about, but this rather pointless remake doesn't go there. Dick's work, in among the taxi drivers debating Kant, and Dowland-loving police generals, asks how do we know what we accept as real is real. I often have the same thought myself, usually while washing the dishes and looking at the trees, and the hills, and the roof of the retail death star that Asda built on the other side of the valley.

Dick's original short story featured a clerk who longed to go to Mars discovering, through a process whereby false memories may be implanted, that he was a secret agent, who had been to Mars. When the authorities fail in their bid to assassinate him, as a compromise he agrees to have a false memory of his deepest fantasy implanted to replace the memory of his missions. This fantasy, that aliens who met him when he was a sweet kid of nine are only delaying an all-out invasion until his death, out of respect for his youthful self's saintly nature, also proves to be true; and consequently he is safe from government interference.

Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film of Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, had the latter's construction worker, plagued by dreams of Mars, discovering he had been an unpalatable undercover agent tasked with infiltrating the Martian resistance on behalf of big mining. The film was given credit for being cleverer than it seemed, for the suggestion that everything which occurred may have been the un-spooling of our hero's implanted fantasy holiday rather than the actuality.

Vampire versus werewolves botherer, Len Wiseman, director of the Underworld franchise, has revisited Total Recall by dropping the Martian plot, and setting the action in two terrestrial locations on a postwar Earth. The UFB, the United Federation of Britain (yes the whole country's the bad guy) and the Colony (somewhere that looks like southeast Asia, but I've read it's supposed to be Australia?), have an uneasy relationship, with the Colony providing the UFB's workforce while the latter appears to enjoy a higher standard of living. Habitable space is at a premium. The Colony workforce travels to the UFB via 'The Fall' a gravity elevator passing through the Earth.

Douglas Quaid (Collin Farrell) is unhappy at work, making humanoid synthetics, blocked from promotion, and plagued with action-packed dreams in which he battles the imperial storm-trooper clones of the local gendarmerie in partnership with an attractive woman (Jessica Biel). Even the loving attentions of his beautiful wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) cannot ease his sense of frustration. On impulse, he checks in at implanted-fantasy-provider Rekall and, with childlike enthusiasm, opts to have a secret agent fantasy. While running some tests the Rekall operative McClane (daft Die Hard reference, possibly), played by John Cho, the rebooted Star Trek's Sulu, realises that Quaid already has secret agent memories because he was in fact a secret agent.

The session is interrupted by a SWAT team that takes everyone but Quaid out but, in attempting an arrest, are themselves terminated by Quaid. The scene where Farrell instinctively wastes the squad and then comes to himself with a look of shocked dismay is a bit embarrassing and put me off the trailer on first view. Quaid goes on the run, pursued by his wife Lori who, it appears, is his UFB undercover minder. He goes on the run and pretty much stays on it for the rest of the picture. Rescued by Biel's Melina he finds evidence of who he was at his old apartment in an engaging scene in which he realises his old self, undercover goon Hauser, could play the piano. Tasked with infiltrating the resistance by Chancellor Cohaagen (Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston) Hauser knew that the former was faking terrorist bombing atrocities to implicate the Colony in order to invade with synthetic soldiery and expand the land-strapped UFB.

Escaping once again with Melina, Quaid is waylaid by his old work-buddy Harry, who tells him that everything which is happening is a schizoid interlude at Rekall, and that the only way he can regain his grasp on reality is by rejecting the fantasy by shooting Melina. Wavering, Quaid spots an inconsistency in Harry's story and when he realises Melina is weeping he opts to shoot Harry instead. As with Verhoeven's Total Recall this is about the only concession the film makes to playing with our perception of what may be real or fantasy; then it is full-steam ahead to an all-action finale. I said the only concession; when the dust has settled after a fairly spectacular final battle Quaid comes to with McClane's words at Rekall echoing in his head, are we invited to believe Quaid has subsided into schizophrenia? In any event the moment is passed with a brisk shake of the head.

I enjoyed this film far more than its 1990 predecessor. The CGI is spectacular although there is a sense of déjà vu. We have air-cars and a Blade Runner ambience for the Colony, with its fast food stalls, bars, and brothels; my wife said why does the future always have to be sleazy? The action is effective if remorseless. Resistance leader Matthias is underused, and supplied in cameo by an underused Bill Nighy with an American accent. Curiously, Lori has an American accent until she blows her own cover, then Beckinsale relapses into what one presumes is her own British tones. Farrell is pretty good, investing the comicbook capers with a sense of belief, and he is matched in performance by his evil nemesis in Cranston's Cohaagen. Neither this, nor the original, is classic SF, cult or otherwise, but this is pretty good viewing.

Total Recall remake poster



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