In this year’s model of Total Recall, any resemblance to the characters, actors, and filmic angles of the original is partially coincidental and circumstantial. Unless you have recently revisited the kitschy 1990 version, you will not find yourself constantly comparing Arnold Schwarzenegger to Colin Farrell, or pondering the implications of an Austrian accent versus a stubbly hint of an Irish brogue.
Yes, this new item is officially a remake, but it’s also a rethink and a conceptual-palette makeover, aided by the more riveting sensory blitzes and illusions that superior CGI can accommodate. At its core, the new film attempts, and almost succeeds, in bringing new integrity and a new IMDb screen-credit list to the visionary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, whose original story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” serves as the source material.
It is the future, and not a nice one. (Are nice futures even in the offing anymore, given the state of things planetary?) By the end of the 21st century in this grim and dystopian world, most of the Earth is uninhabitable, and the dominating United Federation of Britain exerts an oppressive hand over the Colony. A struggle between rebel and evil political forces creates a limbo state, where our everyman–turned–super spy hero (Farrell) races, rages, and zooms his way around a future world gone inhuman.
This film dips happily into the mind-tripping cinema realm, a genre that has expanded since the Arnold-era Total Recall by delving into our protagonist’s slippery-sloped, mind-warping nether-state of being. Is our hero, in fact, a high-level operative or a victim of the brain-altering force of “Rekall,” sent into a “paranoid dissociative break” fantasyland? And does his brain contain a secret code that will save the Colony from vicious authoritarian interlopers? Furthermore, which of these attractive, kick-ass, and fiercely smart women — Kate Beckinsale or Jessica Biel — is he, in fact, in love with?
These and other narrative questions drive the story forward and tug at our attentions from below, but to the film’s demerit, too often we’re just sucked into a blur of excessive action, chase, and shoot-’em-upping. What feels cool and involving in the first half or two-thirds of the film turns dull and oppressive — and not arty oppressive — by film’s end. Total Recall, circa 2012, is a semi-success.