Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven's 1990 sci-fi actioner based loosely on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," is a campy, clunking, chintzy delight. It's a sleazy and sinister vision of the future that's as carefully realized as it is tawdry and preposterous. The grand, epic scope of the film — we travel from Earth to Mars and are thrust into the middle of a noble, brutal rebellion — is nicely offset by a lowdown crudeness. There's a sick, Troma-lite humor running throughout that gives the movie a gnarly, jagged edge that science fiction films are often lacking. This was not all sleekness and metallic rattle, there was a lot of dust and dirt and fleshy squishing too.
Total Recall, Len Wiseman's 2012 sci-fi actioner based less loosely on Philip K. Dick's short story, is, unfortunately, pretty much all sleekness and metallic rattle. There are a few efforts to add some grit and texture to the film — such as the appearance of our old friend the three-breasted prostitute — but for the most part this is a film as flat and shiny as stainless steel. And that's a disappointment! The movie begins interestingly enough, it seems smart and dark and imaginative, but it eventually collapses under the weight of its own effort.
Wiseman is mostly known as the director of two of the Underworld films, decidedly B movies that he managed to give a borderline elegant dark polish. Though, really, when considered for longer than a moment, it becomes clear that those films were simply pastiche mashups of the Blade and Matrix trilogies. Even Underworld star Kate Beckinsale's trademark move, crashing through the floor and landing below with one hand and one knee on the ground, is a direct lift from The Matrix. Wiseman is a borrower, and once he reaches the limits of his mimicry and he's left to his own devices, his films tend to fizzle and clatter into incoherency. It happened with the Underworld films, with his Michael Bay homage Live Free or Die Hard, and, most disappointingly, with Total Recall.
The obvious inspiration here is Steven Spielberg's nervous, jittery sci-fi film Minority Report (also adapted from a Philip K. Dick story). Wiseman and his production team are going for the same washed-out starkness, the mechanical purposefulness of the city in extreme-long shot belying the scuttling, squirming citizenry that exist up close within it. There are the same modified helicopter hovercraft type things in Total Recall as there are in Minority Report (and in Spielberg's A.I., for that matter) and in both films car-like vehicles are mechanically guided onto a fast inner-city highway only to be interrupted by our fleeing hero. Total Recall is boldly, nervily modeled on a far superior film, to an almost startling degree. And, of course, it's borrowing on its predecessor too.
This version of Dick's tale is set entirely on Earth, as the original story was, but still concerns our same hero, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a bored manual laborer with a hot wife (Kate Beckinsale) who's looking for something more from life. It's 2084 and much of the world has been made uninhabitable by some kind of chemical war, with only two settlements remaining. There's the United Federation of Britain, which extends beyond the Channel into parts of the European continent, and, all the way at the other end of the globe, there's The Colony, which is what they've taken to calling Australia for some reason. The land down under has become a sprawling city with a distinctly Hong Kong flair to it, while the UFB seems mostly American except for a few Brits and, y'know, Big Ben. Instead of plane or boat, travel between the two mega-cities is done via The Fall, what amounts to a giant elevator that journeys through the center of the Earth.
That's how Quaid gets to work, and we are of course introduced to the mechanics of the super elevator — especially the way it manages the shift in polarity once you go through the Earth's core — early on, so it can be used in big fashion later in the film. Call it Chekhov's giant mass transit core-traversing elevator. These are all interesting if somewhat flimsy ideas — How the hell did they build something through the planet's magma core? Why would Western Europe, populated as it is, be one of the places that survived WWIII? Shouldn't they be in Siberia? Oh, and, right, an elevator through the core of the fucking Earth?? — and Wiseman eases us into the world that houses them nicely. The film takes its time for the first half-hour or so, until it gets running and slams into a wall.
Unable to quiet his restlessness, Quaid eventually employs the services of REKAL, a company that "Will remember it for you," meaning they'll put memories of a great experience — a trip, a tryst, a spy adventure — into your head and it will be like you actually experienced it. This has always struck me as a strange and almost melancholy concept, that all experience really is is the remembering of it later, but here, and in Verhoeven's film, it's presented as something sexy and seedy. In Wiseman's film the REKAL offices, if you can call them that, are located in the red light part of town (home of Lady Three Boobs, of course), where people pose poutily and, you'll be glad to know, dubstep is alive and well. Quaid chooses the spy narrative, he'll remember being a double agent working both for the UFB's fascistic leader Cohaagen (a scowling Bryan Cranston) and the rebellious force from The Colony, led by Matthias (Bill Nighy, clearly not sure what he's doing there). He gets ready to remember, but then, wouldn't you know it, all of a sudden the cops are trying to capture him and he finds he has all these lethal fighting abilities and he's killed the cops and when he goes home his wife says she's not his wife and tries to kill him and then a girl from his dreams, a literal dream girl (Jessica Biel), shows up and whisks him away. Phew! Is this part of REKAL's fantasy or is this actually happening? What's real?
These are the intriguing questions posed early on, and a smarter, more intellectually ambitious film could have some fun unknotting them. But Wiseman favors easy exposition and bracing action over complex mental noodling, so the lay of the land becomes pretty clear pretty quickly and we soldier on into a fairly standard action movie. That said, there are plenty of exciting sequences in the film, a hop, duck, and roll scene in a series of elevator shafts (regular elevators, sort of) in particular. Farrell is as sturdy and likable here as ever, though he's strangely not given much to do. Biel barely registers, beautiful as she is, but Beckinsale, all glower and gun, is pretty terrific. She gives the film its only real shot of life past the half-hour point, and you wish everyone else had risen up to meet her. And that includes Beckinsale's husband, who just so happens to be the director.
Wiseman was clearly aiming to rise to the next level of filmmaking here, trying to lift himself out of genre schlock and into the rarefied air of the intelligent blockbuster; the Spielberg stage, the Ridley room. For a few minutes of Total Recall he gets a pinky finger up over the edge, but he's quickly dragged back down by his baser, less sophisticated impulses. So we're left with mostly a lot of noisy action set in a ripoff of another film. Wiseman's not made his own world, like those aforementioned wizards. Instead he's taken Minority Report, and Total Recall for that matter, and, well, remembered them for us.