Is ‘Total Recall’ worth a recall?

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON – In an era of Hollywood recalls, the crown jewel of recycled mediocrity has arrived.

“Total Recall” Version 2012 is the perfect “canary in the coal mine” in Hollywood’s search for its own identity. Not only does its title scream “recall,” its production company carries the name Original Film, a sad irony for the reboot machine of “21 Jump Street,” “Battle Royale” and the sixth incarnation of “The Fast and the Furious.”

If you loved the 1990 version for the concept alone, you may enjoy this one. But if you loved the original as a landmark in sci-fi action history, you may want to replace the theater experience with memories of the first time around.

Based on the classic story by Philip K. Dick, this “Recall” isn’t total. It erases the Mars setting of the original, but follows the same general premise. A factory worker, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), yearns for a more exciting life. So he visits Recall, a company that provides “virtual vacations” from reality by supplanting new memories in your brain. Quaid wishes to play “secret agent man” for a while, but when the process goes terribly wrong, he no longer knows what is real.

2012 Trailer

1990 Trailer

My distaste for the remake was puzzling, considering so many elements were just as good, if not better, than the original:

  • Colin Farrell is a much better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger, though the latter blows him away in “shoot ’em up” action scenes.
  • Kate Beckinsale matches Sharon Stone as a sexy femme fatale.
  • Jessica Biel is about equal to Rachel Ticotin as the love interest.
  • Bryan Cranston is a more decorated villain than Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox, having won three Emmys for AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”
  • And the remake has some really cool visuals — cellphones embedded in characters’ palms, underground elevator set pieces, and anti-gravity fighting reminiscent of “Inception” and “The Matrix.” It follows the example set by the original, which won a Special Achievement Oscar for special effects with a receptionist’s futuristic nail polish, Schwarzenegger’s face-shifting disguise as a fat woman and the hilarious Johnny Cab service.

So if all these elements are either equal or better in the new one, why does the film as a whole fall well short of the original?

It all comes down to the storytelling.

The screenplay is co-written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback. The former’s best work may be “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1999), but he has since written some mediocre CIA thrillers like “The Recruit” (2003) and “Salt” (2010). The latter’s most famous work is “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007), and that’s not saying much, considering he also wrote “Race to Witch Mountain” (2009).

Their script for the new “Total Recall” has a promising first act, introducing us to the various characters and acclimating us to a potentially compelling futuristic world. But once the action starts — and fine action it is — the script forgets to weave in what we viewers really love: a good story.

The blame falls on director Len Wiseman, who becomes giddy with action sequences and loses sight of Dick’s thematic vision. I’ve never been a big Wiseman fan. Perhaps I’m just jealous he’s married to Beckinsale (hats off, sir). But if I’m calling a Sam Spade a spade, Wiseman is yet to prove he can create consistent quality work like the original “Total Recall” director, Paul Verhoeven.

Not that Verhoeven is in the upper echelon either, but at least the Dutch filmmaker had established a string of quality work in Europe before coming to Hollywood, from “Turkish Delight” (1973) to “Soldier of Orange” (1977) to the very Hitchcockian “The Fourth Man” (1983), which Empire magazine ranked one of the 100 Best Films of World Cinema. His Hollywood arrival marked more mainstream work, from “Robocop” (1987) to “Basic Instinct” (1992) to “Starship Troopers” (1997), but they were still raw, sexual and creative, with consistent author trademarks.

“Total Recall” has his fingerprints all over it:

  • An X-ray screen showing the gun on Schwarzenegger’s hip as skeleton authorities surround him and force him to break the screen’s “fourth wall.”
  • A mirror image replicating his every move, “Duck Soup” style.
  • Blood on a monitor dissolving into the blood-burning sky of the Red Planet.

Wiseman comes from a much different background than European auteur. He made his bones in the art departments of “Independence Day” (1996) and “Men in Black” (1997), both great popcorn flicks and charming vehicles for Will Smith. However, since taking the directing reins, the charm has waned.

He was responsible for four “Underworld” films starring Beckinsale. They found enough of an audience to make money and fund sequel after sequel, but none is held in high regard by either the critics (Rotten Tomatoes: 31 percent, 16 percent, 30 percent, 27 percent) or the public (IMDB: 6.9, 6.7, 6.5, 6.4). From there, Wiseman has directed only reboots, from “Die Hard” Part 4 (2007) to the pilot of the new “Hawaii Five-O” (2010), showing little desire to try anything new.

In Wiseman’s defense, a “Total Recall” spinoff has been in the works for years. Dick’s short story “Minority Report” was originally adapted as “Total Recall 2,” where the Pre-Cogs were people mutated by the Martian atmosphere from “Recall.” This script was eventually trashed, and the project morphed into Steven Spielberg’s gem “Minority Report” (2002), which ties “Memento” (2000) and “Eternal Sunshine” (2004) as my favorite treatments of memory erasure. “Minority Report” might damn near be a masterpiece if you remove the moments of Spielberg excess (i.e. chasing after a rolling eyeball).

You can see much of Spielberg’s futuristic world in Wiseman’s “Recall,” particularly the futuristic highways. However, while “Minority Report” used the phrase “Everybody runs” to recall the hero’s painful grief, the new “Total Recall” uses it as a plot summary. After Act One, the script may as well read, “Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel run away from the bad guys. Lather, rinse, repeat.” If only pre-crime could have prevented this remake.

My advice: Save your money on the movie ticket and go buy the Blu-ray of the original “Total Recall.” Best Buy is running a $7 special at select locations. That’s the great thing about the era we live in. Netflix and home video have all but erased time, allowing us to “recall” the best version of a given film, be it past, present or future, while erasing the imitations we’d rather forget.

★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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