As a child of the ’80s, a key ingredient of my learning and development while growing up was a healthy and consistent dose of Arnold Schwarzenegger. My love of film, combined with Schwarzenegger’s ability to deliver action and humor through his various roles in some of the most memorable films of 1980s-90s, helped shape who I am today.

Among the Arnold-branded action fans got from Conan and Terminator, Commando and Predator, one of the most thought-provoking and memorable adventures of Schwarzenegger’s career came to moviegoers through Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990).

What made Total Recall stand out as a special breed of action film for me can be broken down into two categories: over-the-top moments and one-liners – but more importantly, a brilliantly imaginative concept. For the 2012 reimagining of Total Recall as directed by Len Wiseman, it’s the concept originating from Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” that remains intact, wrapped in a new, stylish and contemporary package, grounded in a world we can all relate to.

The official Total Recall Synopsis:

Total Recall is an action thriller about reality and memory, inspired anew by the famous short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories. For a factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), even though he’s got a beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale) who he loves, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs. But when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man. Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with a rebel fighter (Jessica Biel) to find the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy) and stop Cohaagen. The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.

On September 9, 2011, I drove to Toronto to check out what was happening at Stage 4 (the Mega Stage) of Pinewood Studios, the biggest indoor soundstage in North America. It was here that my mind was taken on a trip to the future. It was my own ‘Welcome to Rekall’ experience, if you will, and for a good 15 hours I explored the sets and chatted with the cast and crew of this Columbia Pictures’ production. But more on that later.

As I entered the enormous hanger that was Pinewood’s Stage 4, my eyes wandered from corner to corner as I gazed upon not only one major set piece, but multiple. There were green screens everywhere. A grungy modern building with a hanging futuristic helicopter acted as the centerpiece, while a complex of odd-looking connected structures took up a large space on the left. There were crew and tech everywhere and this was only one soundstage of several, highlighting the sheer amount of practical effects and sets being employed for this shoot.

Across the paved flats surrounding the building were many other stages, one of which contained a massive wall covered in green screens and wires where Colin Farrell had done some stunts days prior. Another building housed a multi-tiered structure which had been repurposed for several scenes of the film that take place in New Asia.

New Asia, you ask? The story presented in Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback’s  Total Recall screenplay, while familiar to fans of the original – and certainly similar from a character perspective – is vastly different. Gone is Mars, the mutant storyline and alien technology, and in its place is a story grounded on a believable and relatable future version of Earth, where land has become the most precious resource.

In the future depicted in Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, pollution has wreaked havoc on much of the Earth’s surface, so terrain has become one of the more valuable resources. As a result, there’s a sense of verticality to the cities. New Asia, for instance, features layers upon layers of urban structure; in one of the other stages there was a multi-tiered set that doubled as both the bottom (where they filled the lower level with water) and top layers of one city segment – where all the shops were converted into a different set.

Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is again the protagonist, and this time around he’s traded construction work for a job on the assembly line in a factory that builds robots. Stan Winston’s Legacy Effects crafted the robots, called “Synths” (short for Synthetic Police), which again highlight the film’s focus on utilizing practical effects. The robot actors were shot moving at different frame rates to make their movements appear more “robotic.” Walking around the sets, we met (and ate lunch with) soldiers and police, both human and synthetics that would be enhanced by CG later. One of them was even nice enough to pose for with me for quick shot behind-the-scenes.

Despite being able to walk through sets and gander at props, vehicles, characters and weapons used in the film – to get a clear understanding of the world in the year 2084, we toured the art department with Patrick Tatopoulos, the production designer of Total Recall. Tatopoulos has a working relationship with director Len Wiseman, having worked with him back on Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998) then again on the first three Underworld films, where he actually sat in the director’s chair for the prequel, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.

We walked through and examined a wall of concept art where Tatopoulos described the dystopian future moviegoers will find themselves exploring on their journey with Quaid. We also got a look at the advances in technology and changes in the physical landscape of the world, which in this take on the future, has been split into two massive nation states: New Asia, as we mentioned above (where Quaid resides), and the more sophisticated United Federation of Britain (UFB), where Quaid travels to for work.

The UFB, like New Asia, is also a city with multiple tiers, mostly consisting of massive skyscrapers encompassing a blend of contemporary tech with Victorian feel, described as “neo-classic” European (image below). The design of the UFB environments are in stark contrast to the grungy, darker aesthetic and oppressed vibe given off by downtown New Asia.

Much like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) – also based on a Philip K. Dick short story and also starring Colin Farrell – the details in the designs of futuristic life are very believable and grounded in reality. Where Minority Report featured automated cars and highways for instance, Total Recall features two-sided highways where – in an effort to increase efficiency – cars travel on top and below highways, and buses are raised so they can travel on top of regular traffic.

The concept art on display depicted the unique aesthetics, architecture, technology and attire of the cultures inhabiting both cities, but it was more than concept art that we got to see throughout the day. From the Total Recall trailer, you’ve seen the hover cars (above) featured in action and chase sequences. Eight of those vehicles were actually constructed for use and eventually smashed to bits during the filming of key action sequences.

Continuing with the theme of practical effects, these vehicles were actually functional automobiles, and to create the effect of hovering, each required two drivers. One driver drove the vehicle as normal, the other controlled the pitch/rolling. One sequence shot earlier in production involved using these vehicles on an actual freeway with the actors in the vehicles – no CG effects.

Next: Watching scenes of Total Recall being shot and fun facts about the film.

On the topic of transportation, the grungy-looking building I described as the eye-catching centerpiece of Stage 4 is more than just a building. It’s the top of a tower on what’s called the China Fall. The China Fall is a significant piece of the story, and a location for various set piece moments in the new Total Recall. Think of it as the substitute for travel to and from Mars in the original. Instead of interplanetary travel this time around, the China Fall is a transit system built through the center of the Earth, capable of moving passengers back and forth from New Asia to the UFB.

It’s literally a tube that runs through the center of the earth, so workers can get from one side of the world to the other. There are massive towers on each end of the world that serve as the hubs and open up to vent out the heat gathered from launching what are essentially subway cars from one side to the other. We’re told that in theory, these are built with material similar to the heat shields on NASA space shuttles. As it travels near the core, the passengers experience Zero G and there are some neat scenes highlighting the effect of no gravity on passengers and their items on their 20 minute cross-Earth journey.

While this sounds extreme, the idea behind it is based on research where scientists believe that if we dropped a metal ball through the center of the earth from one side, it would take 30 minutes to get to the other. That’s based on velocity from the laws of gravity – with a powered transit system through a concrete tube, such travel would theoretically go faster, ignoring the issues of passing through the Earth’s core.

Both the subway car and the terminal which launches them were realized with complete sets and made up the complex of connected rooms on the left side of Stage 4. The terminal doubles as an Atrium, where it works from bottom and top. The entire terminal literally flips, something that differentiates itself from other sci-fi flicks. Being able to walk through this structure and the tram while filming in these real sci-fi environments helps balance out what otherwise would feel like a heavily digitally-animated production.

What we witnessed being filmed however, all took place on the main China Fall set. We saw Colin Farrell piloting and landing the turbofan-powered futuristic helicopter, which actually moved thanks to some crafty wirework. The vehicle was stealthy in design, also serving as a small troop carrier.

The latter part of the day, as the sun went down, involved the entire principal cast with several squads of troops. Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), Melina (Jessica Biel), Quaid/Hauser (Farrell) and a double for Kate Beckinsale (she was shooting Underworld 4 at the time) all took part in the scene. After a few hours of that, I had the chance to sit down for a few good, long chats with Biel, Cranston and Farrell, along with producers Toby Jaffe and Neal Moritz. Those interviews will be up throughout the week as we explore the ideas and characters behind the Total Recall remake, along with what differentiates the film from the original.

For now, a few fun facts about the film, New Asia, the United Federation of Britain and the future as depicted in Total Recall:

  • The Kuato character was renamed Matthias (Bill Nighy) to avoid any confusion/expectation about mutants.
  • The film does not use the terms ‘New Shanghai’ and ‘Euromerica’ as reported earlier in production.
  • New Asia is built on the water with boat taxies.
  • New Asia residents wear stylish rain jackets because of the acid rain. Jackets were designed by Sanja Milkovic Hays whose past credits include Blade, the Fast & Furious series, Mission to Mars, Star Trek Insurrection and more.
  • New Asia is highly-multicultural and its aesthetic is very grungy, worn-down, but colorful in its own way, thanks to the night life.
  • Look out for glow-in-the-dark tattoos and phones built into people’s hands (Kate Beckinsale uses one).
  • There is a three-breasted woman!
  • Tallest part of New Asia is the China Fall tower.
  • The UFB is made up of massive skyscrapers, encompassing a blend of contemporary tech with Victorian feel, described as “neo-classic” European.
  • The people of UFB mostly wear suits.
  • Cars travel below and above freeway and beneath buses, all emphasizing the idea of condensed space.
  • It only takes 20 minutes to travel from New Asia to the UFB with the China Fall.

It was a wonderful set to spend time at, thanks in no small part to the high morale and excitement of the cast and crew. Colin Farrell, I’m told, was on set practically every day and brought a fun, positive, and high-spirited energy to the production – which I witnessed myself as he goofed around in the helicopter cockpit during scene setups.

Being able to step onto real sets of futuristic locations and structures, sitting inside real space-age vehicles, and wandering through a series of props, costumes and armor exemplified the creativity of such talent as Sanja Milkovic Hays and Patrick Tatopoulos who, with their teams and the rest of the crew, were able to realize an intriguing and innovative vision of the future, one that I’m anxious to learn more about.

Total Recall opens in theaters August 3, 2012.

Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.