Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Movies - Total Recall review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Len Wiseman
Stars: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy
Running Time: 118 mins

The 1990 Total Recall was by no means a classic, but had such a distinct flavour - full of wonderfully barmy prosthetics, and Arnie in full zinger mode - that this remake feels even more inessential than the myriad others clogging up our cinema screens. Len Wiseman's movie scrubs away everything that made the original fun and offers nothing by way of compensation. It's as generic an example of a sci-fi actioner as could be imagined, making only token nods to the original to justify the use of the title.

It's difficult to fathom the reasoning behind grounding a movie like Total Recall, where the outlandish bits are all most people remember. Any pretence of playing up the vaguely metaphysical aspects of Philip K. Dick's short story is quickly abandoned, since the original movie's plot is recalled wholesale, only replacing the excursion to Mars with an Earth-based wasteland. This is a Total Recall where nobody is having enough fun to say 'Get your ass to Mars!', and that should be all you need to know.
Colin Farrell is certainly no replacement for Arnie, although this is as much down to the script's complete absence of characterisation as any deficiencies on the actor's part. The Paul Verhoeven version did not give its version of Douglas Quaid much in the way of personality, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is such an immediately eccentric presence that it didn't need to. He had the accent, he had the muscles, he had the zingers, we had the character. Farrell is fine at looking handsome and confused, but is a complete non-entity as either the factory worker he starts off as, or the resistance fighter he (possibly) turns into. He's too well groomed to fit and pouty to fit either role convincingly, and plods through his action sequences as though more concerned with remembering his choreography than making any of it look natural.

Kate Beckinsale fares better as Lori. As per Farrell, she's too radiant to have spent any time in the slum community where she's supposed to live, although at least this can be partially explained away by the possibility of her being an undercover assassin. Beckinsale's an experienced enough action woman to execute her beats more fluidly than Farrell, and the comedy value of her role as the ultimate angry wife is the closest the movie comes to finding a personality. She's virtually unstoppable (although the movie gives her a disappointingly offhanded end), following Quaid wherever he goes and always armed with a large assault rifle or rather delightful sliding crotch attack...

Jessica Biel plays the girlfriend to Hauser, Quaid's alter-ego (or other way around, depending on how you look at it), but suffers from being considerably more mopey than the utterly unhinged Beckinsale. Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy pop in for glorified cameos, but like Farrell and Biel, they're charismatic performers undone by the material's lack of flair. Cranston's villainous Cohagen is given a climactic fight scene with Farrell, and with all due respect to the one who knocks, attempts to make them seem physical equals comes off as ridiculous, not to mention the obvious flaw in logic as to why a Chancellor / supreme overlord would be doing the donkey work of a police chief instead of leaving it to his more than able lieutenant, Lori.

Such inconsistencies are rife throughout, and while each is relatively insignificant on its own terms, they add up quickly enough to undermine whatever investment Wiseman was hoping the audience would make in his futuristic world. If the movie committed more thoroughly to the question of whether Quaid's adventures were real or the product of Rekall manipulation, these slips could be attributed to the shortcomings of the memory machine: the clinic Quaid visits certainly appears grungy enough to not be trusted, and doesn't have much of a reputation. However, as per the original movie, any consideration into the matter leaves the only possible conclusion that the story is unfolding exactly as it seems, not least thanks to the many events which happen beyond Quaid's perception, which makes no sense as the product of a machine creating memories. Dick's short story used its conceit to explore how imagination and self-perception can seem just as real as reality and change the way we lead our lives. In the movies, it's nothing but a starting point for an action extravaganza. That's fine, but attempts to pretend otherwise - Verhoeven's movie never really bothered - fall flat.

Wiseman's direction is functional for the most part, although the rote material makes it difficult to find anything (beyond Lori) worth getting excited about. To his credit, he eschews the post-millennial trend for shaky-cam that has been ruining the genre since Paul Greengrass decided motion sickness and action were a perfect match in his tiresomely overrated Bourne movies. There's a solid sense of geography to how his fights are shot and edited, and while the occasional directorial flourish comes across as trying too hard, it's methodical and coherent. A car chase at the movie's halfway point particularly benefits from this approach, as it allows the relatively novel idea of magnetic motorways to demonstrate the possibilities they create for action without being lost amid frantic cutting or blurry camerawork.

It's a shame the movie doesn't invest more often in such unique ideas, as the rest of its world is busy but lacking unifying logic. The two key locations are supposedly Britain and Australia, but everyone except Beckinsale (eventually) speaks with an American accent. The slums where Quaid lives seem to have been inspired by Chinese locations, plus a few pieces lifted from Blade Runner as is standard for such unimaginative projects. A tri-breasted prostitute turns up, despite the absence of mutations anywhere else, even in the movie's wasteland. A giant lift system linking the planet's two remaining nations is an initially intriguing idea, but predictably reduced to nothing more than a platform for an underwhelming final smackdown. Total Recall posits a world where the drudgery of daily life can be escaped through thrilling imagination, but is found tragically lacking in original ideas of its own. [ 4 ]



Dan O. said...

Good review Xander. This one may have been fairly predictable in spots but at least it kept me glued to the screen with it’s fun, sci-fi look and action. Also, Beckinsale seemed like she was having a ball with this role and it’s probably the best I have seen from her so far.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks, Dan! It sounds like you enjoyed the movie more than I did, but Beckinsale was definitely the best thing about it.