The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Total Recall

When seeing a remake, I try hard not to think of the original too much. Every movie, whether brand new or a redone version of something else, deserves to be judged on its own merits. Total Recall shows why this is easier said than done, though. I still remember the hot summer day in 1990 when I saw the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Paul Verhoeven version. The movie was a great ride – funny, exciting, and intriguing. I sat in the air conditioned theater having a blast, and left on a wave of euphoria. No one is likely to accuse that film of being brilliant art, but it was undeniably great summer entertainment. And here's the thing: there are two versions of this story, with the new one failing to measure up to the quality level of the original. When the Len Wiseman-directed remake so fundamentally loses everything that was special about Verhoeven's version, it's hard not to compare.

Colin Farrell takes over the role of working-class guy Doug Quaid. He decides to add some excitement to his life by visiting a company that implants dreamlike memories in the minds of its customers. Doug opts for the “secret agent” adventure, figuring it's more stimulating than his ordinary factory job. Something goes wrong during the procedure, and he awakens to discover that he may, in fact, actually be a spy. He doesn't know whether all the men shooting at him are real or a figment of the adventure he paid for. Kate Beckinsale plays Lori, the woman who may or may not really be his wife, and Jessica Biel is Melina, the mystery woman who's been popping up in his dreams.

Total Recall looks expensive. The visuals here are very intricate, as are the special effects. They're not exactly original – the movie is like Blade Runner by way of Minority Report - but they are continually eye-popping. You can tell that much care went into designing and executing them. The same goes for the action scenes, which are often quite elaborate in their staging. No expense was spared to make Total Recall look like a warm-weather “event movie.”

And that's exactly the problem. Everything about it feels designed by committee, almost as though studio suits were more responsible for the film's creative direction than the actual filmmakers. It's got chaotic shootouts and/or chase scenes every five minutes, a ton of stylized “badass” action shots, and a gratuitous glimpse of Beckinsale in her underwear. Every single frame of the movie has been CGI'ed to within an inch of its life. Last but not least, you also get the requisite nods to the original that have apparently become required by Hollywood law when doing a remake. All of these things are present and accounted for, as though being scratched off a checklist. Rather than feeling “crowd-pleasing,” they feel soulless. Total Recall gets suffocated by the attempt to deliver these elements. The picture turns into a slog, where you passively watch the mindless mayhem unfolding in front of you in a rote manner.

The Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger Total Recall was, in many respects, a satire. Its vision of a futuristic society was built on a skewed notion of what American culture was really like circa the late '80s. Wiseman's version has no humor to speak of, save for a few lame attempts at one-liners that elicit more groans than laughs. The remake also downplays the idea that Quaid could just as easily be dreaming as anything. Schwarzenegger's iteration of the character was perpetually trying to figure out who he was and what was real; Farrell's Quaid makes up his mind early on and largely sticks to it. The 1990 Recall additionally possessed an over-the-top quality that gave it a trippy, surreal vibe. The 2012 Recall hews to a very formulaic concept of what a big-budget sci-fi adventure should look and feel like.

The few pleasures to be found are in the periphery. There's an escape sequence in an elevator that is extremely well-staged. Beckinsale, taking over the role once played by a pre-stardom Sharon Stone, is delightfully nasty as Lori. A concept involving multi-layered city streets and traffic patterns is interesting. Anything at the actual core of the picture, however, is simply bland in its obvious prefabrication.

Again, I hate to spend so much time comparing a remake to the original. What else can I do, though? Total Recall brings up the question I often find myself asking when watching a remake: When the first version of this story to hit the big screen was so enjoyably effective, why does one need to bother with a vastly inferior version of the same thing?

( out of four)

Total Recall is rated RPG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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