Review: The depths of Total Recall

The new Total Recall film is a fun sci-fi flick, but it did have the potential to be a great movie.

It’s very difficult to write about this film without comparing the reboot to its 1990 predecessor, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, so, I’ll get that out of the way first: It’s a better film.

Not, perhaps in every way, but the only thing that the previous adaptation has on this one is that it is more bold, more unabashedly unafraid to be what it is without pretense.

The new Total Recall, however, is more tentative about its roots and  tries to be both a readaptation of the original Philip K. Dick story, We Can Remember it for yYou Wholesale, as well as a sort of homage to the other film.

It’s this identity crisis which mostly holds Total Recall back from being the truly great movie it could have been, and keeps it squarely in the camp of ‘fun sci-fi flick.’

There are a lot of moments in the film when one can see the producers are trying to touch on the original tale’s deep, dark themes of identity, memory and exposure to the core of our inner-selves, but then shies away from that darkness and blows up something else instead. The protagonist only has a few moments of real doubt as to who and where he really is, and the story instead becomes more about the mystery of why his memory was altered – dismissing whether or not it actually was – and, of course, the gratuitous romantic subplot. The 1990 film makes these same mistakes, but it does so more bravely, simply discarding the themes of Dick’s story entirely, and with no flinches.

In every other way, however, the new film is much better. 

First, the special effects are outstanding. There are several long fight/chase sequences which are artfully, outstandingly crafted, and not just action for action’s sake. Each sequence is filled with analogs to the greater plot, especially in Duaid’s struggles with the ‘synthetic’ police and soldiers which starkly illustrate the John Henry tale that lay under the fabric of the plot. Particularly engaging is a sequence in which Quaid and his romantic interest are running from the villain on a series of elevators which run from side-to-side as well as up and down. The visuals are stunning, and clever yes, but the chase is also full of symbolic imagery, including several moments of cog-in-the-machine type danger, moments of corporate tool shock-and-awe, and even a scene in which Quaid is forced into protracted physical combat with a synthetic, while the romantic interest fights the villain.

The effects are complimented by some great performances. I’m not saying that Schwarzenegger is a poor actor, but he was never chosen for roles because of his expressive range. Colin Farrell, however, is on target in nearly every scene, and creates a version of Quaid that we want to sympathize with, though one occasionally gets tired of his ‘confused ‘ face.

Shining brighter, however, are both Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale, who play the romantic interest and the villain respectively, both of these ladies contribute some genuine character to their roles, which is seldom seen in such effects-heavy films, especially in female support roles.

Overall it’s a fun film with a slick sci-fi story, and it’s a great experience in the theater with just the right pacing for the silver screen, but ultimately, it’s just another action flick. If only they’d gone deeper into the original story, cut ties completely with the 1990 film, and left the resolution more ambiguous, it could have been a new classic of genre cinema.

Total Recall is in theaters now.