I don’t know how Len Wiseman’s pitch meeting for the Total Recall actually went down, but it must have gone something like this: “Remember that 80’s Schwarzenegger flick with the three-boobed lady? You remember how it combined breathtaking special effects; Paul Verhoeven’s button-pushing, decency-violating, theatrical sense of fun; ultraviolence, some biting satire, and Mars! Yeah, well. Here’s my idea: Let’s remake it, only let’s get rid of all that other stuff that people loved about the original and replace it with lots of special effects and my wife!”
The only good choice that Len Wiseman made, ironically, was in casting his wife, who provides the only sense of fun — muted though it is — in 2012’s Total Recall. When Kate Beckinsale isn’t throwing around some high kicks or playing her British accent for a deliciously wicked affect, Total Recall is a total bore. There’s a lot of whiz-bang, razzamatazz sprockets and lights flashing all over the goddamn place, but it’s not nearly enough to obscure the achingly dull movie hiding underneath or the fact that the remake doesn’t have that much in common with the original except for the woman with three boobs.
Wiseman abandons the Mars piece, and plays the whole film straight, wasting Collin Farrel’s resurrected star in a role more suited to one of those stubbly wooden action-movie vessels like Sam Worthington. Hell, not even Bryan Cranston can liven it up as the film’s big bad, as Wiseman must have used all of Cranston’s worst takes. “Can you maybe not bring so much personality to the scene this time, Bryan? It really distracts from the expensive set pieces I’ve got lying around. Also, I really would prefer it if you’d try not to show up my wife. It’s important to me as her husband to support her career, and the best way to do that is to make sure she’s the most memorable presence in the film. So, maybe tone it down. If you really want to act, pretend we hired you for your good looks and not your screen presence.”
Set in the 21st century, there are only two inhabitable spaces left on the planet: The Colony (Australia) and the United Federation of Britain. Basically, Britain is the ruling class, and the residents of the Colony commute each day on a space-age subway to do all the sh*tty jobs that the people in Britain won’t do.
Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a working-man grunt living in the Colony and commuting to the UFB to clock in on an assembly line responsible for building robocops designed, ultimately, to put down any resurrections in the Colony. He’s married to Lori (Beckinsale), they live in a dump, and Doug is having a lot of nightmares. He decides to check out Rekall, a parlor where they implant awesome memories in your brain so you’ll at least have the memory of doing something cool in your miserable, grinding existence. Things go awry, of course, and Doug finds out that his existing memories are actually fake. In reality, he’s the leader of the Colony’s resistance, and his wife is not his wife, but an agent for the UFB planted to keep him in check.
After the 15-minute setup, Total Recall basically turns into a game of cat-and-mouse. Quaid runs, trying to piece together the reality of who he is in the process, and Lori chases him under the command of Cohaagen (Cranston), who has designs on wiping out the Colony’s population under the ruse of stamping out a resistance. There are a few predictable plot turns and eye-rolling twists, and the only reason to stay awake through the mess is to occasionally watch Beckinsale and Jessica Biel (who plays the real version of Doug’s girlfriend) exchange punches (Biel, for the record, is a total wet blanket). In the end, (MINOR SPOILER) Wiseman can’t even muster the bravery to leave a top spinning and let us wonder if Doug was in the Rekall chair the whole time or if he was actually the double-agent leader of the resistance that he asked to be before he was strapped into it.
In other words, it’s a real hangnail of a movie. It’s one of the rare moments where the audience may actually feel some nostalgia for Schwarzenegger. The man can’t act, but he has a presence, and that’s precisely what is missing from Wiseman’s Total Recall: Someone big and bold enough to make you care about all the empty movement taking up so much space on screen.