To his credit, Len Wiseman admirably creates enough of a different looking world that rarely does the Paul Verhoeven version come to mind while watching this film. He also has the basis of an unusually strong humanist theme built underneath the familiar story from the Verhoeven film. Ultimately, the picture is a merely serviceable lens-flare heavy sci-fi action film, soulless and stale, despite its strong foundation of character, theme and visual design. So what's missing between the lines? Style. A sense of cinematic authorship present in all the other notable Dick adaptations - 'Blade Runner', 'Minority Report' and the original 'Total Recall'. Even when those pictures didn't work, we admired the cinematic hand of the director.
Total Recall (2012) dir. Len Wiseman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Jessica Biel, Bill Nighy
By Alan Bacchus
Instead of a story of Earth and Mars, this film tells us about a global environmental crisis during which the world’s population has been confined to two places on Earth, Great Britain and Australia (referred to as The Colony). And instead of a 16-hour flight between countries, it’s a comparatively shorter elevator ride of sorts through the earth’s core. I have to admit that was pretty cool.
This is where Wiseman excels, creating separate but equally detailed visual worlds. The Colony is where our hero Quaid (Farrell) lives. He's a man with dreams of another life, but he's coolly steered away by his dutiful and super-hot wife, Lori (Beckinsale). Wiseman creates a neon, wet and seemingly perpetually dark world with a jigsaw puzzle of shantytowns - think Hong Kong crossed with a Brazilian Favela. There’s also the new Britain, a wealthy urban world and a jigsaw puzzle of concrete, skyscrapers and skyways.
As an assembly line factory worker building robots, we see these two worlds through Quaid’s eyes. He's a man with a failed career, continually passed over for promotions by the intellectual white collar elite, stuck in a monotonous soul-sucking job. This emotional conflict is sharply conveyed by the duality of this future world – a great thematic basis for this film.
Wiseman builds this human story into Philip K. Dick’s ultra-cool story of implanted memories and the clandestine world of espionage in which Quaid finds himself after having his brain jacked. The underrated John Cho delivers a terrific speech to Quaid as his pitch to get him to buy in, a speech which further supports the theme of duality and conveys important plotting exposition. This is a terrific scene.
From here it’s a rock ‘em sock ’em sci-fi chase picture, following the path of the Verhoeven film with enough deviations for us to forget about the original. Unfortunately, everything else here is cribbed from other people’s films. Some directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, can get away with it because of the value added from their own unique artistic sensibilities. But in this case Wiseman’s film just feels like cardboard cutouts.
The world of the Colony aligns too closely to the wet Asian fusion world of Ridley Scott’s LA in Blade Runner and the concrete urban world aligns itself with Steven Spielberg’s bleak vision in Minority Report. It’s not hard to see Wiseman’s motivation here. After all, both films were based on Dick novels, thus he is paying homage to the original cinematic incarnations while trying to combine both worlds into one. But Wiseman falls under his sword and the action suffers from his overly detailed designs. Whereas Scott’s and Spielberg’s chases were carefully choreographed and precise, Wiseman’s action is chaotic and too confusing in the overly complex geographical space.
And something has to be said about the implausibility of Kate Beckinsale’s character portrayed as a relentless ass-kicking Terminator-like assassin. Sure, we can applaud the notion of female empowerment here, but Wiseman has 104-lb Beckinsale going toe-to-toe with the uber-ripped hardbody of Farrell (consciously shown shirtless in the opening). This is simply not believable, even for a mindless popcorn movie. If it was Arnold Schwarzenegger on the screen, he certainly would not stand for such gross inaccuracies.