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“Total Recall” review: Some memories you just can’t erase

Colin Farrell in Total Recall

Photo: Colin Farrell in "Total Recall," courtesy Columbia Pictures

Memories of the original film just might be the biggest obstacle for this remake of the 1990 sci-fi classic.

When a studio decides to remake a movie, it generally tends to be an all-or-nothing gambit. In the best-case scenario, the new film improves on its predecessor’s flaws, offers some surprises, and samples from the story and tonal elements that made the original film so memorable. What usually happens, however, is that the film collapses under the weight of the movie that inspired it, with every similarity and difference judged against those of its predecessor and — more often than not — found lacking.

And that’s why the remake of “Total Recall” hitting theaters this week has two factors working against it: not only was the first film very, very good, but the general public’s threshold for remakes simply doesn’t allow for mediocre imitations, no matter how entertaining they manage to be.

It’s probably worth noting early on that yes, I’m aware that “Total Recall” isn’t technically a remake. It’s actually another big-screen adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. However, anyone familiar with the original story will find that the new film veers even further away from the source material than Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film, which was itself a loose adaptation.

For those not familiar with the 1990 film or the 1966 story that inspired it, the narrative thread shared by all three projects follows an ordinary guy who longs for something more than his hum-drum life, and decides to visit a company that implants made-to-order memories in your brain. Things go awry, however, when the company’s technicians discover that someone’s already been fiddling with his brain. But is he really a secret agent, or is it all just a part of the adventure he paid for?

And that’s about the extent of what the three projects have in common, with the new “Total Recall” existing as sort of a remix of a remix, with the latest version bearing little resemblance to the original material beyond an occasional sample or recycled verse.

Still, that’s not to say that “Total Recall” is a bad movie. Unshackled from the burden of its title and the expectations that come with it, the movie manages to be an entertaining, action-packed adventure peppered with interesting science-fiction elements. Director Len Wiseman has a knack for creating great fight sequences filled with epic gun battles and moments that slow down, speed up, and zoom in at just the right points to make a scene more impressive than it has any right to be, and Kate Beckinsale is endlessly fun to watch as Lori, the government agent masquerading as the wife of reluctant hero Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). Her role combines the characters played by Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside in the original film, and the result is a one-woman killing machine who steals every scene she’s in.

Unfortunately, the elements that set the new film apart from its predecessor in positive ways are far too rare, and it feels like the creative team behind the remake never quite recognized what made Verhoeven’s film so great. Time after time, when the new movie has opportunities to push the limits and set itself apart from the previous film, it stops shy of the benchmarks set two decades ago. Basically, it has all the polish and shine of a 2012 movie, but lacks any of the heart and personality that would make it feel like a successor to the original “Total Recall.”

These shortcomings are especially apparent in the changes made to give the project a more mainstream-friendly appeal. Where Verhoeven pushed the limits of the “R” rating with brutal gunfights that left bodies — including scores of innocent bystanders — strewn about in bloody heaps, the new film puts Quaid up against a task force largely composed of lifeless, infinitely replaceable robots. This removes much of the shock and the feeling of high stakes at play in the 1990 film, and instead of wincing at every death along Quaid’s adventure, you’re left shrugging (if any reaction at all) each time a robot is decapitated, blown apart, or otherwise dismembered.

Even the nods to the original film seem forced and included as placeholders to justify the title instead of necessary plot elements that advance the story in any way. The overweight woman who was revealed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s disguise in the first film makes a cameo in this one, and so does a triple-breasted prostitute who’s wealth of assets is never quite explained. The film even recreates a few memorable fight scenes from the 1990 film — albeit with Quaid fighting robots instead of people this time around. Quaid also makes passing mention of Mars at one point, which is as close as the new film gets to the Red Planet, opting to ditch the interplanetary adventure of the original film for a mission that shuttles him between two colonies here on Earth.

And though the decision to make the fundamental conflict in “Total Recall” a class war between two Earth colonies instead of Earth and Mars seems questionable (and eliminates the chance to put a 2012 spin on some of the 1990 film’s most iconic scenes), it does provide one of the more entertaining plot devices in the movie.

In the world of the new “Total Recall,” the remaining human civilization is split up between the exploited working class of “The Colony” (Australia) and the wealthy elite of the United Federation of Britain. People travel from one area to the other via “The Fall,” a shuttle capable of going through the Earth from one side to the other. (It’s basically the science-fiction evolution of “digging a hole to China.”) The commute between UFB and The Colony is not only a key element in the film’s plot, but it also serves as a great example of how much potential the film had with some of its more inventive sci-fi elements.

Along with some great scenes that unfold during (and after) commutes via The Fall, “Total Recall” also features some cool pieces of future-world tech which seem to indicate that at least some of the elements that made the original film so great were noticed. Guns that fire glowing, electric restraint harnesses and phones surgically implanted in people’s hands are just two of the many notable pieces of sci-fi tech that earn the film some legitimate sci-fi cred.

For all of its achievements in tech, however, the film falls conspicuously short in the way it utilizes its cast. It seems strange to write this, but Farrell’s take on Quaid shows little of the personality that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the role, and Jessica Biel does little to make the role of resistance fighter Melina anything more than a pretty face. Even Bryan Cranston seems criminally underused — or more accurately, misused — as the villainous despot Cohaagen, who spars with Quaid physically, but is rarely given the chance to be the psychological threat we know he’s capable of playing.

Perhaps the most egregious flaw in “Total Recall,” though, is the way it assumes the worst of its audience’s ability to handle uncertainty. Both the original short story and the 1990 film did a masterful job of keeping you uncertain whether the main character’s adventure was really happening, or a figment of his imagination. For every piece of evidence that pointed toward it being a reality, there was a strong argument to be made that it was all in the hero’s mind. The remake removes that uncertainty entirely, and leaves little doubt as to what’s real and what’s imagined in Quaid’s adventure, and relegates that feeling of uncertainty to just another homage to the source material instead of an actual element of the story.

In the end, there’s a case to be made that “Total Recall” would probably be more successful with a different title, as it’s a fun, entertaining sci-fi adventure with flaws that come from the comparison to its source material more often than the movie itself. And no matter how enjoyable of a film it is, those comparisons will be made — and should be made — because that’s the nature of remakes and the gamble studios make when they go down that route.

Does “Total Recall” succeed as a movie? Sure. But unfortunately, the movie never quite succeeds as “Total Recall.”

“Total Recall” hits theaters Friday, August 3, and stars Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel, and Bokeem Woodbine.

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