Total Recall is one of those remakes that just are. There was no real reason to dust off Paul Verhoeven's 1990 semi-classic. And yet we have a new Total Recall, apparently inspired by little more than a dim realisation there was money to be made. In that sense the new film, which has proved something of a box office bomb in North America - taking $57.6m to date on a budget of $125m - deserves its fate.
Beyond the fact of its mercenary nature, though, the new Total Recall is about as good as could be expected: uninspired, to be sure, but made with solid craftsmanship. That's thanks mostly to the production design of long-time Roland Emmerich collaborator and Underworld franchise veteran Patrick Tatopoulos, who knows to steal from the best. Its terrific used-future look gives Total Recall the spice the film's bland direction, acting and plotting lack.
Towards the end of the twenty-first century, an opening infodump informs us (I'd say that's a particularly modern sin, but I do believe Escape from New York commits the same transgression, with as little justification), the earth has become largely uninhabitable with the exception of two regions: the United Federation of Britain (UFB), comprising north-western Europe, and Australia, now known as the Colony. In a society where his compatriots are treated as second-class human beings, Colony citizen Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) undertakes a daily commute to his assembly-line job by using 'The Fall', a lift that goes straight through the earth's core.
Plagued by dissatisfaction with his life as well as recurrent nightmares, Quaid goes to Rekall, a company that specialises in implanting real-seeming memories. Just as he's being strapped to the chair, though, the place is raided by special forces; Quaid, suddenly using combat skills he never knew he had, makes short work of the intruders. Gradually realising his memory of being an operative of the resistance led by Matthias (Bill Nighy) was wiped, Quaid flees from UFB goons led by his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale).
This Total Recall's plot is no more ludicrous than the Verhoeven film's: and yet nonsense set on Mars somehow seems more believable than same happening right here on earth. That said, the transition from space to a terrestrial setting is generally handled well and gives Tatopoulos room to shine. He does so by more or less plagiarising the look of Blade Runner: dark megacities, Oriental cultural artifacts, and a heck of a lot of rain. The sight of English landmarks in a futuristic setting is thoroughly satisfying even as the technology level is disappointing for a film set a century in the future. Unfortunately Total Recall suffers from that bane of recent films, not-quite-there CGI. At times Wiseman's film reaches the plastic unreality of Sucker Punch.
The story beats are more or less the same, excepting an expanded role for Lori, whose presence throughout the film is surely explained more by the fact that Beckinsale is married to the director than by any narrative reason. If anything, Total Recall is hurt by this move, since Beckinsale's character is given no narrative arc whatsoever, leaving the actress stranded with little to do but snarl wickedly and be badass. Which she does with panache, of course. Jessica Biel is saddled with an equally slight character, while Farrell gives the film's most effective performance. His Quaid is far more relatable than Schwarzenegger's ludicrous superman, which is nothing but good in a film in which an ordinary man is thrust into events he cannot understand.
What remains is a sense of weirdness as a slick twenty-first century sci-fi aesthetic delivered by generically beautiful people is grafted onto the gnarled skeleton of a Paul Verhoeven film. Say what you will about Verhoeven, but he was no hack; even in failure his brand of satire, exploitation and gore between the silly and the disturbing was distinctively his own. The result is a film whose 1980s blockbuster subconscious keeps disrupting its modern garb.