It has been too long since I have seen the original Total Recall. I can't say that it is a brilliant bit of filmmaking, but I can recall thinking it was a lot of fun. Going into the remake of Total Recall (or reimagining or whatever term they opt for nowadays), I don't think I was going to get a deeper exploration into the source material. I can't say that Total Recall was terrible.
I can only say it wasn't very good.
Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a regular working-class stiff with a beautiful wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and a routine life. He is from The Colony (Australia) one of only two places on Earth left habitable after chemical war devastated the planet. The other livable place is the United Federation of Britain (see what happens when you dump the Monarchy?), and the Colonist must travel to the UFB via a trans-earth portal which crosses the Earth's core.
Doug is troubled by strange dreams, and to get his mind off his troubles and have some fun he visits Rekall, which can give you memories of things that never were. I would describe it as a bit of role-playing mixed with alternate reality. He selects being a super-spy, because obviously that's as far from his world as possible.
WRONG! Rekall inadvertently triggers his real memories of being a super-agent, and now everyone is apparently gunning for him. He's even being pursued by Lori, who turns out was an agent who pretended to be married in order to keep tabs on him.
Now Total Recall becomes a chase film, because from this point on that's all that happens: Doug (who discovers his real name is Carl Hauser) keeps running, finding clues here and there, while the relentless Lori goes after him. However, into his life jumps Melina (Jessica Biel), the literal girl from his dreams. She fills in some blanks: Carl/Doug worked for the villainous Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) in order to infiltrate the revolutionaries who want an independent Colony, but he ends up switching sides (and falling for Melina in the process).
Eventually, their journey leads them to the Resistance Leader Matthias (Bill Nighy), but alas that also leads Cohaagen and Lori to both. With Matthias dead and Doug about to be reprogrammed, Cohaagen is ready to lead the Invasion of the Colony and wipe out all opposition (think Bashar Assad with futuristic firepower). Doug and Melina now must stop Cohaagen and Lori.
I can't say I hated Total Recall, but I think it was a poor decision to focus on the almost non-stop action and less on anything else. A lot of things don't hold up when examined. Total Recall asks us to believe that Doug would eventually find that he wasn't who he thought he was but would be smart enough to figure out the cryptic clues he left for his brain-altered self.
I wasn't convinced by the relative ease which Doug figures things out and has people and things pop in to guide his way. Furthermore, I look at the performances and think even for something as pulpy as Total Recall (because it didn't look like anyone was taking any of this seriously while conversely acting as if this were a strict drama) there was never anything that had us actually care about these people.
I put the blame on many things. First was director Len Wiseman's decision to almost never stop the action. Instead, he decided to go from one action scene to another: bang, bang, bang. I'll grant that the central action scene in Total Recall, where Melina and Doug have to avoid a series of elevators that can go all around (a bit like Willy Wonka's Glass Elevator) was great-looking (congrats to cinematographer Paul Cameron), but on almost everything else Wiseman never wanted to stop to build up character or emotion.
We knew that Melina and Doug were going to be an item, but did we ever really see them interact as people?
The performances were equally weak. Colin Farrell can be great when he's given a chance to be great, but here, I think even he would admit this was a Bartha role. He showed that he had no interest in what's going on when there are attempts at pauses. Farrell actually looked a little bored, and when he doesn't he looks confused. I'll cut him some slack in that Doug was suppose to be confused (I imagine frightened) by his newly-found powers, but one wonders why at a certain point he couldn't just stop to accept the situation.
I can't think of a single good performance Kate Beckinsale (aka Mrs. Len Wiseman) has ever given. Perhaps if I had some time I could try to remember, but I think she's very beautiful if that helps. Here, yes, she was tough and relentless but whether she cared about Cohaagen's worldview or was just a bounty hunter we know not. Same goes for Biel.
That's it when it comes to thinking about Jennifer Biel.
I also wonder why Cranston decided to take a holiday from acting. I think he's proven his range (from the bumbling idiot Hal in Malcolm In the Middle to the dark and terrifying Walter White in Breaking Bad), so one would think he could show the younger set how it's done. Instead, he looks like he took notes from Biel and Beckinsale and decided to camp it up. Another Bartha role. Even worse is Nighy (who might have been recruited as a return for a favor from the Underworld series). Given we really don't get much sense of the revolution, we really aren't awed to meet the mysterious Matthias...especially since he is offed within minutes of his appearance.
The script by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback (with the screen story by Wimmer, Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, and Jon Povill) shows that again, having too many people attempt to work out an action film from Phillip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale draws attention away from whatever thought Dick had and decided to turn it into one chase/action scene after another.
It isn't so much that this is an action film that makes Total Recall a weak to bad film. It's that one can't have nothing BUT action. One needs a story and characters we care about to follow. If one can't give us that, then why go.
Despite all this, like I said, I can't bring myself to hate Total Recall. Perhaps because I didn't have high expectations for it (and/or because I think the original is even after so many years since I've seen it, a better film) I thought that it was pretty curious thing. Total Recall, a movie about memory and the mind, is completely forgettable and quite dumb.