It's tough to address "Total Recall" 2012 without first going through all of the tortured motions of acknowledging that it's a remake and any debts it might owe to the 1990 film by the great director of bombast, Paul Verhoeven. It might be easy to separate the two movies, as different as they are, if the 2012 version didn't go out of its way to call back to its predecessor, a curious move that robs the update of a little of its identity while inviting unwelcome comparisons in terms vis a vis "who did it better--Len or Paul?"
Let's try to untangle the two movies from one another, though and see how director Len Wiseman's ("Underworld") take acquits itself.
Stop me if you've heard this before: in the future, everyman Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) toils away at a job he hates even as he shares his home with a beautiful, loving wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). He's haunted by dreams of another woman, of action, and of being a hero while harboring the suspicion that something's just not right in his life, guiding him to the high-end memory manufacturer Rekall. He wants a fantasy where he's a secret agent, tasked with saving the world, but something goes wrong in the process and he discovers that he is a secret agent tasked with saving the world, pursued by his wife who works for government strongman Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).
Working from a script by "Equilibrium" writer-director Kurt Wimmer and "Live Free or Die Hard" writer Mark Bomback, Wiseman's take on the material changes the setting (its now based on Earth) and the stakes, based around a trans-continental elevator called The Fall, which links Australia and England, the only two habitable landmasses following a massive world war. We're told Australia is where all of the backbreaking labor is doled out, and a shadowy rebel, Matthias (Bill Nighy) is leading an effort to gain autonomy for his people there.
By shifting the setting and changing the setup, the basics of the script gave everyone an out to do their own thing with "Total Recall" 2012, but the problems are two-fold: first, the actual setup never gets elaborated upon beyond some expository dialog (we're told a lot about this world, but don't actually get to see its impact on the characters); second, there are so many nods towards the 1990 film, that sometimes it's hard to feel like this one can stand on its own footing.
The big joke in "Total Recall" was that Arnie was the least believable everyman, but here, Farrell nearly nails it, playing his Quaid as a dissatisfied thinker who discovers he can unleash sudden, deadly bursts of violence. We get a small window into this world's struggle through him as he boards The Fall each day with his buddy Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) for a day's drudgery assembling android parts in a factory. But outside of some talk about Quaid being passed over for a promotion because he wasn't born in the right place, we never really get to see how bad it is for the people on the bad side of The Fall or why Cohaagen wants to sic his android army on them. Plus, even with some cramped, tightly-constructed, well-realized environments from production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, neither location feels visually distinct from the other. That has the effect of making it hard to care about the two factions or really, whatever it is they're fighting for.
The action fares a lot better, with the 360-ish fly around during the Rekall scene being one of the standouts along with a close-quarters man-on-droid-on-woman-on-woman fistfight in an elevator. Wiseman keeps his camera in medium to close, but unlike other recent action films, you can see the performers' limbs and follow the action. Another is the rooftop chase sequence seemingly grabbed from a platformer or endless runner game, with Quaid (pursued by Lori), tumbling, rolling, and running across the dilapidated roofs of their neighborhood. Special notice should be given to Beckinsdale who, throughout, gets the plum role as the ruthless, hard-brawling government agent. If I haven't mentioned Jessica Biel much here it's because she's kind of just in the movie, and we never get a sense of her character's connection to Quaid and since it's hard to care about what the rebels are up to--and she's the main face of the rebel effort for most of the running time--it's hard to care about her.
As for the callbacks to the previous film, where other remakes would be content to recreate a line, a moment, or a scene, this one has several which never feel less than crammed in a mercenary way in the hopes of getting you on board. It never works though, and you just wonder why this one keeps calling attention to that one.
"Total Recall" is going to take some knocks for not being the other "Total Recall," and in some cases rightly so. And while the remake might not hold a candle to the 1990 interpretation of the material, it can stand on its own as a solid action movie. I can't help but play "what if" and wonder if this weren't a medium to low budget cheapie with a less well-known cast, not saddled with the name "Total Recall," how many more chances it might have been allowed to take?
Special features and presentation
The first disc contains both the theatrical and extended cuts of "Total Recall," clocking in at around 01:58:00 and 02:10:00 respectively (give or take). "Total Recall: Insight Mode" is a feature-length series of pop-up text and video windows adding technical and historical detail to the movie (i.e. "this is how this scene was shot," etc.). Director Len Wiseman also offers commentary for the film's extended cut. Wiseman is an amiable speaker and offers a rudimentary look at the decision-making process behind the film.
The second Blu-ray contains the bulk of the bonus features, including a gag reel (8:00, HD) featuring the cast and crew goofing off; "Science Fiction vs. Science Fact" (09:28, HD) features physicist Michio Kaku comparing some of the concepts in the film to real-life science; "Designing the Fall" (02:55, HD) is a quick look at the design and development of the trans-continental elevator in the film; "Total Action" (20:00, HD) collects eight featurettes focused on the actors and individual action scenes and their execution; finally, "Stepping Into Recall" (25:30, HD) shows off the pre-visualization for five of the film's key sequences, starting with their rough, CG counterparts, set to the film's score.
Oh, and PS3 owners, don't forget that the disc includes early access to the "God of War: Ascension" demo, if you're looking to check out the prequel to the Sony Santa Monica series.
"Total Recall" is available now on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray from Sony Home Pictures Entertainment.