Saturday, August 4, 2012

"Total Recall" (2012)

Starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale
Written by Mark Bomback, James Venderbilt and Kurt Wimmer
Directed by Len Wiseman
Rated PG-13: Language, violence, brief nudity
Running Time: 121 Minutes

In the future, chemical warfare has left much of the planet uninhabitable.  The only remaining places of human society are the United Federation of Britain, and "the Colony," formerly known as Australia.  The Colony, despite existing on the opposite end of the Earth, is financially dependent on Britain.  British Federal Police patrol its streets, and its citizens are exploited as migrant workers.

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) works a monotonous job at a factory in Britain.  Every day, he boards a gravity elevator called the Fall with his friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), and travels to the factory where he works on the assembly line constructing sophisticated new robotic police soldiers.  Lately, Quaid has been suffering from strange nightmares where he's trying to escape some kind of facility with a beautiful woman he doesn't know the name of.  His wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale) worries that Quaid isn't happy with their marriage.

One day after work, Quaid decides to visit Rekall - a company that advertises the promise of realistic memories, far cheaper and safer than going on any real vacation or adventure.  Quaid decides he'd like to be a secret agent for a while, but before the new memories can be implanted, the Rekall employees discover that Quaid really is a secret agent!  Soon enough, the Federal Police raid Rekall, and Quaid manages to kill them all singlehandedly.  When he goes home, he confesses to Lori, and she promptly attempts to kill him.  She explains that he is not, in fact, Douglas Quaid, and that she is not, in fact, his wife.  The entire life he knows are implanted memories.

Now, Quaid is on the run.  Traveling to Britain, he meets up with a resistance fighter named Melina (Jessica Biel) who works for a man named Mathias (Bill Nighy).  Melina and Mathias believe that buried deep within Quaid's mind is the information necessary to bring down the corrupt government run by Chancellor Vihos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) and stop a military invasion of the Colony that would cost millions of innocent lives.

"Total Recall" credits its inspiration from the short story by Philip K. Dick entitled "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale."  But it's named after the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Paul Verhoeven film (also based loosely on that story), and it takes more from that film than it likely does the story, which I have not read.  What's fascinating about this incarnation of "Total Recall" is the ways in which the film mirrors the Schwarzenegger flick, and the ways in which it is completely different.

This 2012 "Total Recall" constructs a completely different vision of the future from the original, but it borrows its plot almost beat for beat, and references that film even on down to occasionally borrowing lines of dialogue ("Two weeks!") and staging similar scenes.  In the Schwarzenegger film, the planet Mars plays a huge role; in fact, it's central to the entire plot.  Here, Quaid only off-handedly mutters that he'd rather be on Mars than living his current life.  And yet, despite the absence of Mars in the film, the plot remains nearly identical.  The same ideas have been executed in a parallel manner.

Unfortunately, while the Schwarzenegger version of the film is goofy (albiet ultra-violent) fun, this 2012 film tries to be deadly serious.  Even the score by Harry Gregson-Williams lacks the playfulness and wonder of Jerry Goldsmith's original.  Worse, while the film features a lot of clever production design and cool gadgets, the script is woefully lacking in character.  I'm not even sure the name of Jessica Biel's character is even spoken aloud until the film's climax.  She doesn't bother to introduce herself to Quaid at any point.  In fact, she promises to tell him everything he wants to know, but we are robbed of any scene in which she actually does so.

Similarly, Bill Nighy appears as Mathias for a grand total of one scene.  Even Cohaagen is barely in this movie; much of the film is Colin Farrell running and jumping away from masked soldiers and robots, and the almost Terminator-like Kate Beckinsale.  So when either of those characters does appear, the actors are obviously trying to give them gravity, but the script simply won't allow them to do so.  Ronny Cox made a fantastic, scenery-chewing villain in the original because he was allowed the room to breathe - the character appeared throughout the film, and each time he did we learned a little bit more about him and what it was he was after.  Here, Cranston is shown briefly in some news footage, and then via a phone call with Beckinsale, and then in person at the climax.  He never feels like any kind of threat himself because we know nothing about him.  How he's so good at hand-to-hand combat escaped me until I remembered a quick line earlier in the film that Cohaagen had fought in the wars years earlier that had rendered the planet so damaged.

There's a hint that Cohaagen and Mathias used to know each other, and perhaps even were friends, and yet this concept is not explored.  Mathias is briefly mentioned to be some kind of near-mythical resistance leader, but when we meet him, it's very brief and he's quickly dispatched in order to make the film's third-act plot twist seem more chilling - though, again, if you've seen the Schwarzenegger film, you know exactly what that twist is.

The problem is simply that the movie is all action.  It hints at a deeper, more interesting story, but that's all it does.  The characters simply move from one gunfire-filled chase sequence to the next.  It starts off well enough, but eventually just becomes numbing.  The first half of the film is enjoyable enough because of the slick special effects and cool fights, but by the second half, it seems to run out of tricks and you start to realize that those pretty effects is all this film has.  Quaid's first fight with Lori in their apartment features some impressive fight choreography, and a later fight through a maze-like futuristic elevator system, is also cool.  But eventually the film just falls into this pattern of run, fight, run, fight, run, fight that grows dull.  Even when there are some cool ideas injected in, they don't make enough use of them to liven up the second half.  For example, Quaid gets a very cool gravity lasso that he uses only briefly in one fight, but that's it.  The rest of the action is your standard automatic gunfire.

The effects are very pretty, though; the production team should be congratulated for their cool, "Blade Runner"-esque designs.  The world of "Total Recall" is fantastically detailed, with lots of cool ideas like that any pane of glass can be turned into a touchscreen computer via implants in the palm of your hand.  The Colony, drenched almost constantly in rain, is an odd mix of wooden Asian design elements and glossy high-tech gadgetry.  There were plenty of moments in the film where I wanted to just stop and examine the world around the characters, which sadly ends up being more interesting than the humans that inhabit it.  If only the film had more depth, otherwise it reminds me of a hollow version of "Minority Report."