Say, as a hypothetical, that Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 thriller Total Recall was an abject failure: science fiction for meatheads, an egregious violation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” anchored to a leaden, charmless Arnold Schwarzenegger performance. None of these charges are entirely true—or true enough to be damning—but even viewers who see the original film in the worst possible light will have at least been through an experience. And an excessively violent one, too, bearing the distinct residue of a pre-CGI era where action movies were about squibs, testosterone, and giant explosions.
Contrast that with the new Total Recall, a typically bloodless PG-13 affair that makes no impression whatsoever—and seems designed that way, too. The violence is severely muted, reduced to a few extended chase sequences, some generic Hong Kong-style hand-to-hand, and machine-gun battles that have all the impact of a laser-tag session. The hearty proletariats of Verhoeven’s Mars, all mutants and outcasts who work the mines or turn tricks, have been replaced by good-looking Earthbound have-nots who live like the Jetsons, even in squalor. And the mind-bending question of whether the hero’s dreams are really memories, and which one of his identities is “true,” are mostly withdrawn in favor of thoughtless spectacle. Its only evident passion is for excessive lens flares.
Directed by Len Wiseman, who made Live Free Or Die Hard and the first two Underworld movies, this Total Recall casts Colin Farrell in the lead role, replacing Schwarzenegger’s blockhead charisma and canned one-liners with whatever it is that Colin Farrell brings to the table. After chemical warfare made most of the Earth uninhabitable in the late 21st century, the only two populated areas are locked in class conflict: The elites reside in an area encompassing what was once Great Britain, and the wage slaves live in “The Colony,” a fetid hellhole in the former Australia that looks more like retro-future Shanghai. Farrell plays a factory worker who commutes to Britain on “The Fall,” a 17-minute rail line that takes a shortcut through the Earth’s core.
Though happily married to Kate Beckinsale, Farrell goes through life with a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, and continues to be haunted by dreams of far-off spy adventures with another woman. When he hears of Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting vivid memories into its clients’ heads, Farrell seeks to crystallize those fantasies. But it turns out that his memory has previously been erased, and he really was a secret agent in his former life, and he carries a secret that threatens a glowering dictator (Bryan Cranston) who seeks to tighten his grip on global power. Farrell finds an ally in Jessica Biel, the woman of his dreams, who materializes as a rebel fighter.
Total Recall takes a stab at contemporary relevance by positing insurrectionists—and accused terrorists—as heroes in the fight against the rich tyrants who force them to build the service robots that will replace them. But those politics are mere window-dressing for a CGI spectacle that’s as much a de facto remake of Blade Runner as an updating of the Verhoeven film. The citizens in Wiseman’s future live vertically in sleek super-structures, get around in flying cars and byzantine elevator systems, and have giant computer tablets for refrigerator doors. Farrell’s true identity isn’t far removed from Blade Runner’s “Is he a replicant?” question—such themes are common in Dick’s work—and Wiseman is more inclined toward Blade Runner’s moody space adventure than the raw brutality of Verhoeven’s film.
But Wiseman’s Total Recall isn’t intellectualized like Blade Runner, or even that much more sophisticated than his Underworld movies. Once Farrell’s wrong man goes on the run, Wiseman mainly wants the chase itself to be the movie, from the parkour-style dashes across rooftops and balconies to trading paint on magnetized skyways, like some cross between Top Gun and carnival bumper cars. In an expansion on the Sharon Stone role, Beckinsale—Wiseman’s real-life wife and muse—gets to kick all the ass she normally kicks in the Underworld series, while throwing out a few sinister one-liners. She and Cranston both appear to be having fun as the bad guys, but seeing Beckinsale punch and pound her way through blue-gray corridors underlines how little difference there is between Total Recall and Underworld. They’re just new contexts for the same brand of vacantly stylized action.
Adapting Total Recall to our globally fraught times isn’t the worst idea—and there are some vague Occupy sentiments at play here—but Wiseman’s version is the definition of “pointless remake,” an ineffectual gloss on potent material. Putting it next to the Verhoeven makes for a depressing case study in the state of the action movie: Gone are Rob Bottin’s practical effects and the knockabout pleasures of Schwarzenegger being Schwarzenegger, replaced by a low-impact CGI demo that does everything it can to stay within the PG-13 parameters while still inserting a callback to Verhoeven’s three-breasted prostitute. The breasts survive, to arouse and confuse another generation of teenage boys, but all other thrills are wrapped up in a digital chador.