Remember to have a good time
Two stars (out of four)
Total Recall suffers from amnesia, which is normally a good thing for a remake. Who wants to watch a straight repeat of what came before?
Yet in this case, a little memory would go a long way. Missing in action from this sci-fi actioner, apart from a trip to Mars, is much of the dark humour that made the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger original so entertaining.
Colin Farrell is a fine dramatic choice to play blue-collar warrior Douglas Quaid, the man who knew too little. He’s also capable of humour, as Horrible Bosses proved last summer and which he demonstrates here with a few droll asides.
But Farrell lacks Schwarzenegger’s zest for the cheesy one-liner — such as when Ah-nold grunted “SCREW YOU!” at a man he’d just impaled on an industrial drill.
You can hardly blame Farrell for this, since only Schwarzenegger is Schwarzenegger. And Paul Verhoeven directed his version of Total Recall as a comedy vehicle for the big guy, which is why he didn’t pay much heed to Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story that inspired it, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.
Len Wiseman guides his committee-written remake as if he has something else in mind: namely, the Underworld undead franchise that he writes and occasionally directs. He casts his Underworld lead, Kate Beckinsale, in the significant role of Mrs. Quaid, and gives her vastly more screen time by essentially combining her character with the one played by Michael Ironside in the 1990 Total Recall.
That’s not the only change. The setting is disagreeably Earthbound: Mars is only talked about, and the setting is a Toronto smudged up and digitally tweaked to be a post-Apocalypse London of the 22nd century.
It’s all relentlessly grey buildings and artificially lit interiors, with few of the vivid colour flourishes of Verhoeven’s take. If it weren’t for the airborne cars zipping about and Star Wars shock troopers that seem to have been borrowed from George Lucas, you’d almost take this to be T.O. decades from now, the deserved result of our permanent planning paralysis.
Toronto spotters won’t recognize much beyond glimpses of the financial district, waterfront highways and the TTC’s film-loving Lower Bay station.
For this, they shut Lake Shore Boulevard for two days last summer?
Earth has been reduced to two functioning locations: the United Federation of Britain, which seems to combine U.K. territory with American leadership and Blade Runner inhabitants, and The Colony, aka Australia, where low-paid factory drones such as Farrell’s Quaid reside. He commutes to the UFB each day via a funhouse ride called The Fall, accompanied by best pal Harry (Bokeem Woodbine).
What begins as an unnecessary-but-OK remake steadily becomes an annoying one. The antagonists take turns pointing guns at each other, diving through walls and setting off those Acme Co. bombs with red LED timers that people apparently still use 100 years from now. They also spend a lot of time talking about what’s real and what isn’t, and who’s doing what to whom, providing much more exposition than this film needs.
Total Recall is better with the details than its predecessor, and some of them provide a few laughs, such as a brief flash of currency with Barack Obama’s face on them (will the U.S. yield to U.K. rule sometime this century? Discuss).
But it makes you yearn for the screw-you goofiness of Verhoeven’s film, which was considerably more violent but also more fun. The new movie repeats the visual pun about a three-breasted hooker, but even though it looks much more realistic thanks to CGI, it’s still a 22-year-old gag.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.