Review: TOTAL RECALL is Completely Forgettable

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, USA (@peteramartin)
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Review: TOTAL RECALL is Completely Forgettable

Two or three explanatory sentences quickly whizz by at the beginning of Len Wiseman's Total Recall, setting up a different world than the one created by Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film version of Philip K. Dick's story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," first published in 1966.

In brief, something really bad happens in the future, rendering the entire world uninhabitable, save for the United Federation of Britain (UFB) and the Colony, as future people evidently refer to the former Australia and/or New Zealand. (I was taking notes, but the graphics whizz by awfully fast.) Also in the future, a new transportation system has been built, providing a super-fast direct connection between UFB and the Colony through the center of the Earth. (Boy, those graphics are on and off screen fast, brother!)

Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), UFB's unquestioned leader, rules with an iron fist, backed by an army of humans, and also robot soldiers called Synthetics, which are made in factories like the one where our putative hero, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) toils with increasing disgruntlement. Doug is married to the amazingly beautiful and fit Lori (Kate Beckinsale), and he has a best friend named Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), but, see, he keeps having these dreams, weird dreams where he's running around with another beautiful and fit woman (Jessica Biel) while dangerous people with guns are chasing them, and it seems so real ...

If you've seen the original version multiple times, as I have, then you know where the story is going; if you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it. (The above description covers no more than the first 10 minutes or so.)

Those first 10 minutes firmly establish that Total Recall exists in the same stylistic realm as Wiseman's Underworld and Underworld: Evolution -- with a tight color palette, mostly confined to dark blues, greys, and inky blacks -- and shares the same lack of affinity for classic action traditions as Live Free or Die Hard. In other words, they are well-nigh incomprehensible, as far as being able to locate and/or recognize the characters within each scene. It's all a blur of motion and speed and bloodless PG-13 violence, which provides as much excitement as watching an electric blender in action. And as the chopped-up bits accumulate, any interest that might have been generated by the potential of the premise is steadily dissipated.

Tempting as it is to lay all the responsibility for the film's woeful quality solely on Wiseman, there's plenty of blame to go around.

The numerous extended action sequences are cut by Christian Wagner in the same manner as his editing work on films by Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Justin Lin, so if you love those films, you may be in luck. Likewise, Paul Cameron, a fellow colloborator of Tony Scott, served as director of photography, so you can rest assured that the numerous lens flares are entirely intentional.

In front of the camera, Farrell acts like a man whose memory has been wiped clean and replaced with styrofoam. (And it's not like the bar for the role was set terribly high by Arnold Schwarzennegger in the first place.) Beckinsale remains cold and calculating, as though her character from Underworld had been transplated to the future. Biel emotes admirably, but cannot generate any chemistry with Farrell, which undermines a key element of the story. Cranston is given precious little screen time and is memorable only for his silly hair style (or hair piece). Woodbine is fine in a small role, as is John Cho, but Bill Nighy can't do anything with his anemic character.

The script, for which Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback are credited, fails to establish what, exactly, is at stake for the people of Planet Earth. Without a clear understanding of the stakes, the characters lack any motivation for their actions, other than a vague sense of "kinda good" vs. "sorta bad." As far as it goes, the motivation is provided by someone saying "Catch that guy," someone questioning "Why?", and receiving the answer: "Because I say so!"

Beyond a sprinkling of homages to the 1990 version, the reboot's limited strengths are displayed in the highly-detailed special effects, the strong production design, and some of the futuristic ideas for products that are showcased. (Although even in these areas, the film's debts to Blade Runner and I, Robot are inescapable.) Again, those are things that Len Wiseman knows how to handle, and handle pretty well; but action and story and characters and acting, not so much.

Perhaps it all comes back to producer Neal Moritz, whose films have grossed more than $5 billion at the box office. Scrolling through a list of his credits is rather a dispiriting experience, much like sitting through Total Recall, whose sole ambition is to make money as efficiently as possible, like a stylish yet counterfeit product spit out by an assembly line in a factory.

In that, Moritz may succeed once again, even if no one remembers this pallid remake after the closing credits roll.

Total Recall opens in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Canada, and the U.S. on Friday, August 3.

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More about Total Recall

James DennisAugust 1, 2012 5:03 AM

I haven't seen this, but did see Die Hard 4, and as you touch on it's one of the saddest aspects of modern action cinema that so few directors have a grasp on how to stage and edit an action scene effectively. i.e. not just fast cuts and whooshy camera moves. Bigelow is one left, though no-ones giving her a budget this size anytime soon. Arguably even 'rubbish' action pics from 80s/ 90s stage the action itself with more grace and efficacy - see Cliffhanger et al.

hiroaki.jAugust 1, 2012 9:30 AM

This is probably heretical, but I think Christopher Nolan can't shoot or stage action either, and he's not even in the whip-pan-zoom school like Bay. I think some of the problem is perhaps it's a skillset that is a lot harder than people realize but gets little artistic legitimacy despite being one of the distinct attributes that film holds over say novels for example.

QinlongAugust 2, 2012 7:06 AM

Actually the action scenes in Die Hard 4 are pretty well staged and shot. You should go see them again, you'll be surprised. Wiseman uses many fluid camera moves and very precise editing that makes perfect sense and is perfectly 'readable' (bit I've only seel the director's cut that came out in France, so maybe the American theatrical cut is different).
I of course agree modern hollywood action cinema is clueless about how to shoot action well, but I don't think Die Hard 4 is a good example of that sad truth.
And I do agree with hiroaki.j that Nolan doesn't know how to shoot action. Bring back John McTiernan !

Agent OrangeAugust 2, 2012 11:34 AM

It boggles my mind why critics continually cite lens flares as a negative against films. It's a creative choice that adds dimension and texture to the images. It would be a problem if they were unintentional.

Greg ChristieAugust 2, 2012 12:08 PM

lens flares are a distracting artifice that breaks the 4th wall although filmmakers today probably don't know what the fuck a 4th wall is. They call attention to the fact that you're watching a film that was shot by a camera. It generally takes me out of the moment. When you learn photography, you learn how to avoid lens flares. They were considered completely unacceptable in early cinema, not until Sci Fic/Action films of the late 70's did they become a stylistic choice. But if you go back and watch the films that made lens flares a popular trend, stuff like Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard. They are used sparingly to accentuate important moments. The kids these days, they don't get it, it's superficial. They place C.G.I. lens flares into every other fucking shot because they're trying to replicate the look of their favorite moments from favorite films, they think it adds production value. I loved Super 8 and Star Trek, but when I rewatch them, I get annoyed/borderline angry by the lens flares.

Agent OrangeAugust 2, 2012 12:17 PM

Certainly Len Wiseman and Paul Cameron know what the 4th Wall is.

The real issue is that making jokes about lens flares became popular after Star Trek was released. For some reason people feel smart when they make a joke about it. It's just irritating.

I think you're being a little too precious about the cinematic rules of the golden age. Great filmmakers have been trying to break them down for years. Not liking lens flares is a preference. You hate them, I like them. Whatever. Good for me I guess.

James DennisAugust 2, 2012 12:41 PM

Agree on Nolan too - I can't think of one memorable set piece from the Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe the tunnel chase in Dark Knight, but even that's so, so. He has all this cool kit and does very little with it. Then again, the Dark Knight's are comic book dramas rather than action pics.

James DennisAugust 2, 2012 12:44 PM

It's the same with slo-mo. See Peckinpah/ Woo vs Snyder et al.

Peter MartinAugust 2, 2012 2:27 PM

I understand that lens flare is a creative choice, and have no problem when they are used well. IIRC, the audio commentary by Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs on THE LIMEY DVD has a very engaging digression on lens flares; Soderbergh explains why, artistically, he likes the occasional lens flare, though in the classic film era, they were considered to be a mistake.

In TOTAL RECALL, I feel that lens flare is not used well; on each occasion, it came across more like a flashlight in the face on a dark night. That's only my opinion, of course.

Agent OrangeAugust 2, 2012 4:20 PM

You can overdue a good thing. Subtlety is not a word I would associate with Wiseman or Tony Scott, so I can only imagine the film's lighting "decisions" being in your face. It's the general thought that lens flares are a bad thing that I find enormously tedious.

HKFanaticAugust 2, 2012 5:02 PM

I agree with you completely. I think Die Hard 4 could have arguably been a great action movie if it wasn't called 'Die Hard.' In other words, the least of the film's problems were the action you said, Len Wiseman employs very fluid camera work and logical editing choices. He's arguably one of the better action directors out there today, which is why I was curious to see this Total Recall.

mikhailcharonAugust 2, 2012 6:04 PM

I saw this movie last night (apparently it opened early in select countries) and I totally disagree with this review. Maybe the reviewer is just slow but I found that the opening text was on-screen with ample time to read and understand what the opening premise was. Additionally, the action sequences were very lucid and easy to follow. Maybe the reviewer can't tell the difference between Colin Farrel and Kate Beckinsale in a fist fight, but that hardly seems the fault of the movie (was this reviewer one of those people who thought the camera work of the first Highlander movie was terrible and the movie was terribly directed?). And frankly, in any dystopian future movie, the colour palette has always trended towards dark and drab, so complaints about the colours are boggling. The movie was brighter than Underworld was and the did not have that look of being almost black and white that Underworld did. In fact, I would say that this movie reminded me of the look of Blade Runner with the way the lighting, and the general demeanour of the cities looked. All in all, I'd say that this reviewer needs to understand that he went to see a sci-fi/action summer flick, and not the next Oscar winner.

Peter MartinAugust 2, 2012 6:24 PM

True, I am not the fastest reader, though I usually have no problems with most subtitled movies. For the record, I did not "complain" about the colors, but I noted that they belonged in the same stylistic realm as Wiseman's previous films. As you observed, and as I noted, Blade Runner was clearly an influence. Finally, I understood exactly what I went to see, and made every effort to appreciate the film on its own merits. And for all we know, the film will be an Oscar winner -- perhaps in one of the technical categories!

katranjamzAugust 3, 2012 6:12 AM

The flare in 'Super 8' ruined it for me. I found it massively irritating.

mountaingreenskyAugust 6, 2012 11:44 AM

I thought this movie was great! In fact, it inspired me to dive deeper into the works of Philip K. Dick. A Dish coworker mentioned that he is also the brains behind stories like Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau. I feel silly asking, but is that true? If so, do you guys know of any other film adaptations of his work? I have the Blockbuster@Home service through my Dish account that has tons of titles available to rent, so tracking down movies won’t be a problem. I just don’t know what to search for! I feel like I should be more familiar with him but, hey, better late than never!

MarsHottentotAugust 6, 2012 11:58 AM

Wow. Bots are getting smarter.

buyusedyardsaleAugust 7, 2012 12:01 AM

This is one big multi scifi movie smashup... Literally Irobot with the car scene and the CUBE elevator then to the either the fugitive jump or fifth element...

I am sure there are many others but I am not sure if they are exploiting the public for not knowing older movies or paying homage. Like the obvious red head and the other proir total recall huge moments. The tech was ok at best but not well thought out more like updated versions of blade runner.

If you can think of any other possible movie references pleas post I would love to know.... Thank you...

BlakberiAugust 8, 2012 11:57 AM

Love to, Dick is one of my favourite authors, I have been a Dick lover since the early 80's... so to speak....

In no particular order...

Next with Nic Cage, based on short The Golden Man
Paycheck with Ben Affleck
A Scanner darkly with Keanu
Imposter - haven't seen it
Screamers with Peter Weller, based on Second Variety
The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon from The Adjustment Team
Obviously Total Recall (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and Minority Report (The Minority Report) too

There was a French version of one of his non sci fi books but I forget that and haven't seen it

xtcrefugeeAugust 13, 2012 12:03 AM

The reviewer is absolutely spot on with some of these observations, and I agree completely with his assessment - something I normally NEVER say about movie reviews.

I definitely agree with the similarities to underworld, both in terms of the palette and Beckinsale's action sequences. I actually thought one scene where she falls through a glass ceiling she had previously shot out might have been a deliberate homage to an action sequence in Underworld. I didn't check who the director was before watching this, but 2/3 of the way through I said to my friend "this MUST be a Michael Bay film, with action scenes like these" so it's interesting to know that it's actually Christian Wagner's work I was recognising. Production design and the visuals overall are definitely the main reasons for watching.

It almost pains me physically to say this, but Beckinsale's character was one of the big disappointments for me. Michael Ironside's character in the original was given clear motivation for why he wanted Quaid dead, by contrast Beckinsale's motivation is baffling - is she 'evil' just because she feels like it? Because of some rivalry between her character and Farrell's? There's no rhyme or reason whatsoever for her disobeying orders and wanting to kill him.

If the same people who tore down Prometheus were to seriously look at this film, they'd have a field day. For example, how do you explain the presence of the 3 breasted girl when there are NO other mutants (or surgically altered people, if we're supposed to buy that explanation) seen at any time? Why did Melina (or Quaid, for that matter) not question the fact that at the time he made the piano recording he knew the super-secret robot deactivation code, but had inexplicably not chosen to share it with anyone? I could go on, but there are really too many inconsistencies to go into.

The one thing this film proved was that an Arnie film could actually have a more coherent plot, deeper characters, and ultimately more emotional relevance for the audience than modern blockbusters do, which is kind of a sad state of affairs. 27, 2012 1:34 PM

If the reason why you can remember the 1990 Total Recall is because of those horrific props... that is a total baloney! 2012 Total Recall is way way better!