By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Total Recall is, ironically enough, just about entirely forgettable.
It’s a remake of an exhilaratingly escapist 1990 science fiction thriller about false memory set in 2084.
The 1990 original, directed by Paul Verhoeven, starred post-Terminator, pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger as everyman Douglas Quaid, who chooses a trip to Mars as a fantasy adventure to be implanted in his mind.
Director Lee Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard, Underworld, Underworld: Evolution) takes a different approach in style and tone compared to the original, eschewing the signature Ah-nold one-liners that were so popular back in the day and exploiting the advances in special effects in the two decades since.
The source material remains the 1966 short story by Philip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” But the screenplay by Mark Bomback, James Vanderbilt, and Kurt Wimmer does not take us to Mars. Instead of repeating the Mars setting, the reboot remains Earth-bound and focuses on the political conflict between two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain (U.F.B.) and The Colony – the former powerful and controlling, the latter deprived and struggling — that are battling for supremacy following a devastating war.
Colin Farrell stars as Quaid, a factory worker plagued with violent nightmares. He pays a visit to Rekall, a corporation that promises in its ads to turn clients’ dreams into memories by providing them with implanted artificial memories of the lives they wished they were living – as long as their fantasy persona doesn’t actually correspond to or overlap their actual experience.
But the seemingly ordinary procedure goes wrong, and a Rekall representative (John Cho) discovers that Quaid has actually lived the life he seems to be yearning for – that, let’s say, of a dashing spy — and has thus had his memory erased.
That brings Quaid to question his relationship with his wife, played with one-note superficiality by Kate Beckinsale (Mrs. Lee Wiseman in real life), and to go on the run when he comes to suspect that he might actually have been a secret agent. But for which side?
The production-design creation of a dystopian future, occasionally recalling Blade Runner, is visually arresting. But director Wiseman, with his sledgehammer style, seems to care so much more about the action component than anything else in the film that the premise, the story, the characters, and the theme get lost in the shoot-em-up shuffle. You get the feeling that if he could eliminate everything else from the source material but exchanges of gunfire, he would.
Whereas the original version is recalled as a movie of ideas, this reboot is mostly about bullets. Gunfight follows gunfight in tedious succession. And you notice pretty quickly that the world depicted is one in which no one can shoot straight: even at close range and no matter how many villains are shooting at them, the heroes never quite find themselves in the path of a harmful bullet.
So, yes, the wall-to-wall gunplay is not only unconvincing but childish and idiotic.
Jessica Biel plays a resistance fighter who comes to Quaid’s aid, Bill Nighy the head of the resistance movement, and Bryan Cranston the tyrannical U.F.B. Chancellor. But not one of them creates a character who stays with us in any significant way.
Farrell is a credible enough leading man in this kind of vehicle even if he lacks the oversized physique and charisma that Schwarzenegger brought to the party. But he too is defeated by the sketchy, indifferent screenplay.
So we’ll implant 2 stars out of 4 for a ho-hum sci-fi adventure redo. You won’t have anything close to total recall of Total Recall because all you’ll remember is the goofiness of the godawful gunfights.