It's an irony not lost on me that the remake of Total Recall (2012, directed by Len Wiseman) hit theaters on the weekend the Curiosity spacecraft landed on Mars. Ironic, I say, because the new Total Recall abandons the Martian setting of the original film and represents the withdrawing horizons of both the Hollywood and American imaginations. The Curiosity probe is the kind of bold undertaking that Americans used to pride themselves in taking, the kind of undertaking that is becoming an infrequent event as corporate bean counters and no-tax zealots take over the country. What is the value of Curiosity (Or curiosity) if it doesn't add to the bottom line at the end of the quarter? Total Recall is a film that withdraws to a limited and jaundiced vision of humanity's future. It may not be wrong (though it engages in some spectacular scientific illiteracies), but it's like an era is closed. No more do sci fi films exist on the frontiers. There are no frontiers any more. There are only ever constricting limits to human endeavor.
I'm not a fan of the original Total Recall. Too violent, I thought at the time. Too Schwarzenegger. Certainly, that film was no stranger to scientific whoppers (the explosive decompression scene at the end, for one, the lack of a time lag in the conversations between Mars and Earth for another). But that film could explain away some of those problems in the grand sweep of its big idea. Philip K. Dick, whose short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" "inspired" both films, was good for sweeping ideas. The new film isn't so easy to excuse. It doesn't give itself many outs as it sets up its story. Too much information is provided in the text before the big idea kicks in.
The story is the same, more or less: disaffected prole Douglas Quaid pays a visit to Rekall, a vendor of memories. If you want to remember a vacation you never took, they can remember it for you. Quaid's vacation is a career as a secret agent, but something goes wrong. Apparently, he's already a secret agent whose memories have been tampered with. Rekall awakens his latent identity, and Quaid discovers to his sorrow that his entire life is a sham. His wife? An assassin assigned to babysit him. His real name? Carl Hauser, the most dangerous man alive, wanted for terrorism. Is any of this real? Is he lost in the memories implanted by Rekall? The movie is mum on the subject in its text. There are clues in the subtext, but are they reliable? Meanwhile, the story takes off like a shot as Quaid flees through the future city where he lives and discovers the conspiracy that apparently put him in deep cover.
Some of the details are different, of course. This film never goes to Mars, never unearths an alien civilization, never hints at psychic abilities. Its only nod to the mutants in the first film is the three-breasted sex worker who steers Quaid to Rekall. It's conserved its characters, too, by combining Sharon Stone's wife/assassin character with Michael Ironside's head goon into Kate Beckinsale's Lori Quaid. Mostly, though, they've made the movie more mundane. In spite of the technological wonders this movie throws onto the screen, there's nothing with same baroque absurdity of Schwarzenegger removing a tracking device from his sinus by way of his nose or the explosion of bloodbags every time Quaid wades into combat. This movie has substituted robots for a lot of the faceless bad guys, which significantly dials down the violence quotient. The biggest difference between the new movie and the old is its setting. This film draws its inspiration not just from Total Recall, but also two other PKD movies: Blade Runner and Minority Report. Its vision of a future city is a kind of hybrid between the two, and though Blade Runner dominates this film's vision of the future city, Minority Report dominates its approach to action. The mag-lev car chase in this new film has Minority Report splattered all over it. We have seen all this before.
This film's world building had me asking uncomfortable questions. For instance, how is the food supply for its megalopolises maintained? How does this society find the resources to build its cities? If the rest of the planet outside of greater Great Britain and the Australian "Colony" are uninhabitable and without breathable air, where does the air come from and how do the open-air cities of this film keep the poisoned air from the rest of the planet from covering them. It's easy to nit-pick sci fi premises, though. I'm less forgiving of this film's big Maguffin: "The Fall," a trans-planet railway that "falls" through the core of the Earth. Such an engineering project seems entirely wasteful if not utterly impossible, though perhaps it answers my question about resources, because geothermal energy from the core could probably run that civilization. The main trouble with the way it's conceived is that the area defined as "Greater Britain" is not an antipode with Australia, in spite of Oz's various antipodean nicknames. Go through the center of the Earth like this movie does, and you end up in an ocean.
The original director of the first Total Recall was David Cronenberg, who introduced the idea that Quaid might not like who he was before his memory was wiped and might not want to go back to being him, an idea that is central to both films. Cronenberg also conceived of Quaid as an everyman rather than a Schwarzeneggerian action hero. His ideal actor for the role at the time was Richard Dreyfuss, an idea that screenwriter/producers Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon nixed. Paul Verhoeven's bombastic choice for the role was Schwarzenegger, of course, but this film retreats from that a little by casting Colin Farrell as Quaid, which is cheating a little. Farrell can function as an action hero (and has in previous movies), but he's not such a cartoonish action star. He can also play everymen. The new film's leading ladies, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale, are very much an action movie concession to audience fetishes. Beckinsale is once again dressed in fetishy fashions by her husband, director Len Wiseman, though this film doesn't quite violate the Kate Beckinsale in a leather corset rule (which states that if Kate Beckinsale appears in your movie in a leather corset, your movie probably sucks). Biel gets off easier. She's got a blue collar browncoat-ish outfit that doesn't quite hide the fact that she looks like a supermodel. Both of them are given the opportunity to chew the scenery, with Beckinsale having the advantage by virtue of playing the villain. Bryan Cranston's Chancellor Cohaagen has the same advantage, and boy howdy does he chow down. I remember that Cranston was a sit-com actor not so long ago. His fortunes have changed. I wish the screenplay were better for these actors. This is a film that might have come more alive if they had had even the sophomoric wit of the original film. A one liner or two wouldn't have hurt.
Visually, this is fairly accomplished moviemaking. Wiseman has learned a bit by toiling in genre cinema over the last decade, and his camera takes in the sights with startling verticality. This is a movie that plunges up and down with a fair amount of frequency, a visual strategy that echoes its big Maguffin, as it so happens, and seems dictated by a city setting that has no where to grow but upward. The action scenes--and this film is mostly action scenes--are reminiscent of reading a comic book, with tiered shot framings that scroll sideways and then plunge downward before scrolling sideways again. The exception to this is the mag-lev chase, which alone plunges deeper through a three dimensional space. Although I'm glad I didn't see this in 3-D (the film wasn't made in 3-D or released that way), that sequence is one that might actually benefit from the process. The city this film creates is one of the better pieces of unreal estate in recent cinema, too, so whatever else this film's deficiencies, art direction isn't one of them. As the great grandchildren of Metropolis go, this one is particularly pretty.
I wonder if the filmmakers wouldn't have preferred to use global warming and pollution as the reason for its global wasteland than some contrived chemical war that has somehow not been washed away by decades of weather. It would make more sense, I think, with civilizations at the poles rather than huddled in the arbitrary geographies this film posits. They have the benefit of being actual antipodes, for one, and would give the film an excuse to have its cities perpetually night-shrouded. Alas, no. Even so, this is a film that labors under the idea that the world is winding down, that humanity's options for living on this globe are diminishing, and that we are escaping into fantasies rather than confronting this reality. The thing about Philip K. Dick is that he was mostly writing about the present when he was writing about the future. Dick's present, as it is for our present, is a paranoid's paradise, in which dark forces move behind everything. This is a film that groks that truth. Science fiction has always shown the world through a scanner darkly. Most sci fi movies are cautionary tales, after all, when they aren't outright fantasies. What's lacking in this film is the will to name names or express an ideology. At some point smuggling "fair and balanced" viewpoints into your films is a zero sum game, a kind of sickly cowardice, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and all that. We are a species that is still capable of miracles, as the Curiosity probe so aptly demonstrates. We need a call to arms, we need vision and will, not this pale thing that will wink out at the box office and shuffle off to the vampiric half life of streaming video in the years to come. Pity.