Before Hollywood became obsessed with comic books and cinematic universes, needless remakes were the poison supposedly killing the movies.
In 2012, a remake of a cult classic science-fiction film from 1990 — itself an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, which starred one of the literally biggest action stars ever and unfolded as a cerebral conspiracy thriller with tinges of Marxist allegory — proved the haters right, delivering an uninspired remake with glossier visual effects and more rudimentary, formulaic plotting.
Streaming now on Netflix is Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall, a film that’s surprisingly still worth watching, especially if irony-induced thrills are your bag.
The bones of 2012’s Total Recall are the same as those of the original, though Paul Verhoeven’s version easily stacks more meat on them. On a future Earth (and not Mars, like in Verhoeven’s movie) ravaged by chemical warfare, there remain just two major territories: The United Federation of Britain and The Colony, which covers what used to be Australia. (The politics of referring to a futuristic Australia as “The Colony,” when in reality the country was never ceded by its indigenous groups to the British, are scarcely addressed, making the worldbuilding of this movie extra wobbly.) Travel between the UFB and the Colony takes only minutes, thanks to a high-speed elevator called “The Fall” that runs through the core of the Earth.
It’s in this dark future we meet Douglas Quaid, played by Colin Farrell, a factory worker who has strange dreams of running for his life with a woman (Jessica Biel) he doesn’t know. Gaining popularity is a fad called Rekall, which implants fake memories into customers’ brains since exotic travel, vacations, and other luxury getaways are non-existent. Douglas is interested in Rekall — which is depicted like an illegal opium den, rather than Verhoeven’s glossier, luxurious service — and on a whim decides to try it out.
If only Douglas just went home. Rekall activates in Douglas his razor-sharp training as a spy, kicking off a journey of self-rediscovery while as he evades his “wife,” an agent named Lori (Kate Beckinsale) who was tasked with overseeing Douglas in his sedated, amnesiac state.
While Verhoeven’s film was a richly designed sci-fi with featherweight socialist messaging, Wiseman’s Total Recall is comparatively dumber, communicating messages in even broader strokes about authoritarianism and imperialism. Wiseman — for a time Hollywood’s biggest wife guy, given that he’d been married to Beckinsale and directed her in the Underworld films — is a less delicate helmer than his predecessor, which complicates the film’s ability to deliver this commentary.
Though Wiseman is technically proficient, orchestrating foot and car chases aplenty and demonstrating a decent sense of space as Douglas navigates the sprawling and densely constructed Colony, he renders Total Recall in unfortunately drab colors, dreary lighting, and derivative Blade Runner-inspired aesthetics. Wiseman’s Recall perhaps has the edge on muted color palettes from Marvel movies, but having any colors in one’s movie is a terribly low bar that’s still exciting to see cleared these days.
Wiseman also refuses, compared to Verhoeven, to say anything at all with this story. Verhoeven is famously a satirical filmmaker whose other sci-fi works — like RoboCop from 1987 and Starship Troopers from 1997 — lampooned fascist states in their depictions of superheroic militarized police and naked young people horny for war. Verhoeven approached Total Recall from a more populist perspective, but his film (scripted by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman, whose story credits remain present on the remake) didn’t lack bite.
And yet the 2012 remake is surprisingly toothless. Consider the most famous piece of iconography in Verhoeven’s film: Mary, the prostitute with three breasts (played by Lycia Naff). In Verhoeven’s movie, Mary is a “Mutant,” an underclass populace who suffer bodily mutations due to poorer constructed shielding from Mars’ radiation and lack of oxygen. Meanwhile, the wealthy stay perfectly human because they can afford the infrastructure needed to do so.
That bit of social commentary is excised from Wiseman’s movie. Mary does return in the 2012 film but with the implication that her modifications were 1) intentional, and 2) for vanity’s sake. Social media is of course encouraging people to change their bodies in unhealthy ways, but that doesn’t hold water when nothing else in the film deals with physical self-image.
Wiseman’s film takes place on a dystopic Earth, one ravaged not by climate change but vaguely defined “chemical warfare.” Most of the planet is inhospitable, which the movie makes clear from the jump. You get the feeling the movie is going somewhere with that idea. (And would, again, give a more concrete reason for someone like Mary existing.) Instead there’s more emphasis placed on “The Fall,” the less consequential gravity elevator that connects the UFB with the Colony. Its inevitable destruction isn’t seen as a revolutionary act so much as an inconvenience to public transportation.
And then there’s Chancellor Cohaagen, the film’s villain, played by Bryan Cranston, a dictator of no specific political leaning but who seeks a full-scale invasion of the Colony. As the hero of the story and the opposing force to Cohaagen, Douglas is hardly a revolutionary. He’s just an amnesiac spy who doesn’t want anything other than answers to questions about himself. Verhoeven’s version of the character, memorably played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (himself a real-life “Never Trump” Republican and former politician) at least had the more noble cause of bringing oxygen to Mars to equalize its class strata. Farrell’s Douglas merely causes a traffic jam.
If Total Recall is so weak compared to its predecessor, why am I suggesting that you watch it on Netflix? For all its faults, this is still a fun movie. It’s agreeably dopey, its production values are high-quality, and it goes down easy. It’s also a relic from a time before theatrical cinemas were bombarded by big-budget Marvel releases or low-budget “prestige” horror. Priced at a no-nonsense $125 million, Total Recall was a big swing that did, in fact, attempt to adapt Philip K. Dick’s story than remake Paul Verhoeven’s movie. (Though several of Farrell’s lines are pretty much copy-pasted from Schwarzenegger’s script.) And when it’s on, it’s on; a standout moment involving a silent free-fall from a skyway to the road far below actually left me breathless.
Verhoeven’s Total Recall is a stone-cold classic that subversively snuck political themes into a Schwarzenegger-shaped Trojan horse. Wiseman’s Total Recall is a self-serious, humorless retelling that makes an utter waste of everyone involved, including John Cho and Will Yun Lee in the tiniest of roles. (That the studio also trotted out Cho for the film’s marketing tour, including Comic-Con, is baffling.) But the remake is still worth streaming if, unlike its main character, you keep your brain out of the equation.
Total Recall (2012) is now streaming on Netflix.