Saturday, August 4, 2012

Movie Review: Total Recall (2012)

If there's one question science fiction cinema loves asking over and over to the point that it ceases to mean anything, it's this: "What is reality?" The limitless possibilities of the genre provide plenty of opportunity to explore the unreliability of human senses, creating false worlds and illusionary scenarios within each other to make the audience question their own memory and perception. How can you ever truly be certain that the life you know is real?

The problem with most of these films is that they always pick a reality by the end. The Matrix is probably the worst offender. Once Neo is out of the Matrix it is never once even suggested that the world he now inhabits is in fact real. The possibility isn't even given a moments lipservice. How do we know he's not still in the Matrix, or that he's not just some office drone who went insane? If your protagonist can have his entire concept of reality destroyed and still be so assured of his new surroundings, it defeats the entire purpose of an existential questioning of reality. Oddly enough, one of the few times the concept was taken to it's logical conclusion was in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "Normal Again".

However, a decent example of unreliable reality done right was the 1990 film Total Recall. Remembered mostly today as that one Arnold Schwarzenegger movie with the triple-breasted prostitute, it's actually one of director Paul "Robocop" Verhoeven's best works, a film that manages to be smart and thought-provoking, but still a fun, goofy Schwarzenegger vehicle at the same time. The false memories device made for a story that questioned not only the nature of reality but also of one's own identity. Sure the ending is comfortingly happy for the casual viewer, but there's enough subtly ambiguity to intrigue those who care to think more deeply about the film. So naturally they would remake it at some point. After all, sci-fi blockbusters about ambiguous reality always do well, and we can't very well come up with one of our own!

The story is basically the first film with everything interesting filtered out. The original took us from futuristic earth all the way to lost Martian civilizations. Unfortunately, "Mars" has apparently become a dirty word in Hollywood ever since Mars Needs Moms & John Carter bombed (lets hope that changes before the Justice League movie, lest we suffer through "The Uranusian Manhunter"). So instead there are no mutants, no lost alien civilizations, and Mars has been replaced apocalyptic Australia. Look, I'm sure Australia is a perfectly lovely place, but um, well...MARS. Kinda hard to beat that.

The new setup is your basic post WWIII scenario, with the only remaining nation being the United Kingdom, fabulous land of the 1%, and a harsh factory colony called "The Colony" (up all night on that one, were you?), where the dirty ungrateful 99% slave away. Yes, it's another sci-fi film capitalizing on the class war, but unlike last year's In Time it doesn't actually have anything to say about it, it's just kinda there. Oh, and despite the fact that only the UK and Australia remain, only one character in the entire film actually sounds like they're from either. Workers are ferried back and fourth between the two (apparently there are no living quarters in Australia) by way of a train called "The Fall", so named because, no joke, it drops straight through the earth's crust and mantle to reach its destination. The only reason I can fathom for this in the future it's apparently easier to devise a safe way to travel through the earth's molten interior than it's radiation-scarred surface. It also provides our rebels a nice chant: "The Fall enslaves us all". Sure, The Fall isn't actually enslaving anyone, it's just a means of getting from point A to point B, but I guess "The Colony enslaves us all" isn't as catchy.

The film is directed by Len Wiseman. He's in that small group of directors like Rob Zombie & Paul W. S. Anderson who love either showing off their trophy wives or building cinematic monuments to the goddesses they were lucky enough to marry, however you choose to see it. He certainly knows his way around an exciting action scene but he's never displayed much of a knack for subtlety or storytelling. He fills the film to bursting with as many gun fights, knife fights, robot fights, and hover car chases and he can muster, and it's all fun to watch, but none of it is going to stick with you for very long. If you've seen Minority Report or I, Robot you've pretty much seen this movie.

It might've helped had they had a more daring script, but unfortunately they went with Kurt Wimmer as the writer. Wimmer is a fantastic director with a talent for translating simple basic stories into emotionally arresting visual masterpieces, but he's always been a rather pedestrian writer. There's so many paths that he could've taken to truly distinguish this remake from it's predecessor, perhaps make the ending more direct and less ambiguous, or maybe focusing more on the crisis of identity than the crisis of reality. But in the end, the script takes no chances, retreading the original beat for beat, save for ejecting most of the weirder, more interesting moments.

So in the final analysis: forgettably average. It'll hold your attention for two hours, but nothing about it will stick with you. If you're looking for a sci-fi film that's both smart and exciting, I'd wait for Looper next month, that looks pretty good. In the meantime, you could always watch the first one again.

Fun Fact: There originally was going to be a sequel to Total Recall based on another Phillip K. Dick story. The script was eventually adapted into a little film called Minority Report. So basically, Colin Farrell has been in the shitty Total Recall sequel AND the shitty Total Recall remake.


Dan O. said...

The cast and action make this predictable story a whole lot more enjoyable, but it’s still the same, old formula as the original. Except this time, it’s without all of the hilarious Arnie one-liners. Nice review Joshua.

Thomas Watson said...

The original Total Recall is by far the better movie, hands down. The new one doesn’t even produce any intrigue or over the edge excitement. Too bad, good actors who were really desperate for a script.