For a guy who spent more time thinking up offbeat, brain-teasing plots than he did describing the scenery, Philip K Dick certainly has spawned a coherent visual aesthetic.
Visually, Total Recall (2012 edition) is in very much the same world as Blade Runner and Minority Report. In fact, by taking us to both the rain-soaked, polygot ghettoes of Blade Runner and the frictionless superhighways of Minority Report, Total Recall is a cinematic lovechild of the two.
In terms of spirit and tone though, it’s Minority Report all the way. Even though Total Recall shares a title and literary source (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) with Paul Verhoeven’s loopy 1990 actioner it’s the 2002 Tom Cruise flick that springs to mind in most scenes.
Ironic, given that Minority Report’s journey to the screen began when it was considered as a possible Total Recall sequel.
Like Minority Report, Total Recall dials down Dick’s cerebral ruminations on the nature of reality and conciousness in order to concentrate on getting the audience’s collective heart rate up into the high 170s.
If you’ve seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger original, you’ll know the story. Even though Colin Farrell never quite gets his ass to Mars the overall plot runs on the same tracks, with a few scenes being reprised almost verbatim. For the purposes of this review I’m assuming you’ve seen the 1990 Total Recall. If you haven’t, a couple of things I say from here on down might be considered a low-level spoiler.
If you’ve seen the original and loved it so much that you think Len Wiseman is about to rape your childhood then you might want to tune out now too, because despite its faults I liked this movie. Even if the liberties taken with London’s geography are nothing short of criminal.
There’s a little Powerpoint presentation at the beginning of the film, explaining the world we’re in. Global chemical warfare has devastated a substantial proportion of the Earth’s surface leaving only Britain and Australia habitable. Linking the two, and acting as a general plot MacGuffin, is The Fall, a skyscraper-sized transport that shuttles back and forth in a tunnel through the centre of the Earth.
As a piece of science, it’s no sillier than (say) completely changing the atmosphere of Mars in a matter of minutes but it does require a certain suspension of one’s disbelief. It also requires a suppression of one’s natural disappointment when it emerges that Mark E Smith is not involved.
If the Unobtanium underground train doesn’t tip you to the fact that we’re in the future director Wiseman seals the deal by adding plenty of lens flare. We’re talking Star Trek levels of lens flare here.
Of course there are copious riffs on moments from the original film, and for added in-jokiness ‘ordinary factory worker’ Doug Quaid whiles away his time reading an ancient paperback of The Spy Who Loved Me.
Colin Farrell is no Schwarzenegger. He’s not even a Tom Cruise, really. He’s a likeable enough lead though and acquits himself well in the movie’s numerous action sequences. It’s a good job he is likeable, he’s in practically every shot of the film.
Jessica Biel stands in for Rachel Ticotin as the sidekick/love interest. She looks lovely, displays competent ass-kicking abilities when required, and says exactly enough to move the plot along.
Bryan Cranston is Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen, who runs the United Federation of Britain in a surprisingly hands-on manner, showing up at various key moments to dispense backstory and/or villainy as required.
Cranston’s a bit of a shock. It’s standard in action movies to have a British villain. Scriptwriters Mark Bomback, James Vanderbilt and Kurt Wimmer restore the balance of the Force by making the entire country the bad guy. Mel Gibson would love this film.
Kate Beckinsale, the thinking man’s Posh Spice, has a US accent when she’s being Quaid’s loving wife but drops that once she reveals her true identity. Everyone else’s accents are a bit variable too. Maybe that’s how they talk in the future. Bill Nighy in particular has opted for a distinctly mid-Atlantic delivery.
Overall though, Total Recall isn’t all that talky, so accents barely matter. Instead it’s a more-or less uninterrupted two hour chase. There are chases on foot, in futuristic hovercars, even a chase in a lift.
The hovercar chase is one of the best-realised examples of the futuristic car chase I’ve ever seen. I appreciate that’s a fairly small competition as yet, but it’s still very cool, and something you’re going to want to see.
Once or twice the action stops so the scriptwriters can deliver thunking great chunks of Matrix-sequel philosophy to the actors’ trailers. It’s stuff that would probably look pretty neat written down, but I’ve never met anyone who actually talks like that and those speeches are glaring low points in an otherwise pretty enjoyable film.
While I was still writing myself a reminder to quote Harrison Ford’s memorable reproof to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars – “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” – the robot police turned up. There are an awful lot of robot police in Total Recall. While they don’t exactly say “roger-roger” to each other there are a couple of moments when you fear they might.
No film can erase the memory of all the movies we’ve already seen though. In addition to Total Recall’s obvious antecedents there are momentary reminders of I Robot, The Fifth Element, The Core and Attack Of The Clones in there too. Nevertheless, if I were in the market for a ‘brain in neutral’ sci fi action movie this Summer Total Recall would be very close to the top of my list.
Total Recall is released in the UK on August 29th