This new version of Total Recall succeeds in many ways. It has all the necessary ingredients to make a great contemporary action Sci-Fi: it is based off a cult classic based off a Philip K. Dick story, has a great action-class cast with a few British A-listers on the side, it includes three or four exhilarating action sequences, and some incredibly rich production design, packed with lost of juicy details. Unfortunately, for the film, its characters, plot, and - most importantly- logic get drowned by the opulent production that surrounds them. What comes out is a bit of a mess, but a fun mess nonetheless.
Lets start with the good stuff.
For starters it is a good re-imagining of the Phillip K. Dick source and the 1990 Schwarzenegger movie. This time around the hero Quaid (Colin Farrell) wakes up one day only to find out his life is a lie. He has been cluelessly married to Lorrie, (Kate Backinsale) who turns out to be a government agent; and is then involved in several high speed chases alongside another dashing female (Jessica Biel), while everyone - including the woman he thought to be his wife is trying to kill him.
The film does away with the swashbuckle in Mars, and replaces it with a grittier version of Earth devastated by chemical warfare. In this post-apocalyptic world, humanity has huddled into to mega-cities on opposite ends of the globe. The United Federation of Britain, and The Colony. The former is an opulent city of glass skyscrapers and magnetic flying cars - think the Jetsons meet Minority Report; the Colony is an amalgam of shacks, that when stacked on top of the other have become as tall as sky scrapers themselves. Both are a triumph of production design in their own unique way. And thankfully the camera pulls away so we can see the characters interact in this world and enjoy it as an audience. The action sequences use the design to their advantage and cleverly interact with it.
There are four or five great action chases through out the film. Generally I am not a fan of the twenty-minute action sequences held together by a flimsy narrative in between. This is an exception. The sequences are fun, ingenious, and easy to follow. They are not just a series of explosions followed by noise. Each one has its own personality and dynamics: A stealth chase that leads to a bank vault, a parkour run through the slums of the future, one involving elevators that go up down and sideways, and on zero gravity ala Inception. What a ride!
But this is all superficial fluff. Unfortunately all of the characters are overwhelmed by the background they inhabit. They are flat place holders for the more interesting chase scenes. And despite the fact that the casting is spot on, the script never finds something good to do with the actors. Collin Farrell, is admittedly a better actor than Schwarzenegger but is allowed less emotion for some reason. Kate Beckinsale, who has proven herself to be a decent action star in the Underworld series, dons a sexy British accent but is reduced to an nagging angry ex-wife. And Bill Nighy, who’s cameo would generally not go to waste is wasted in a very short cameo. Pity.
There is also the issue about several plot holes in the films universe. Consider the mega-structure referred to as The Fall. Like everything in this movie The Fall is an achievement in production design; it is a gigantic elevator through the core of the Earth. The characters utilize it to commute from their homes in The Colony to their jobs in Britain. This is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by chemical warfare; how did humanity find the resources to build this technological wonder! Surely terraforming Mars would have been the cheaper option? There are also huge logistical issues in justifying the need to commute cheap labor through such elevator, which renders The Colony’s efforts for independence pointless.
But the film doesn’t want us to ask such questions. It’s mere goal is to entertain with a well-crafter high energy action flick. And for brief moments it does that. It is just a shame that it had all the pieces to be something more and then chose not to.
Then there is also the question about whether or not a remake was necessary. The Schwarzenegger movie is just as entertaining and well-crafter. It is also somewhat sillier - Schwarzenegger plays the role of Quaid with his usual charm of a giant. No, a remake was not necessary, but why not welcome it. After all the story of a man with amnesia and a greater purpose has been told in many ways; I just wish they had kept the original title by Phillip K. Dick: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Much better title.