'Total Recall' Review

The director's attempt at re-imagining Philip K. Dick's story will present action/sci-fi lovers with a compelling (albeit thin) sci-fi world to explore.

Colin Farrell in 'Total Recall' 2012 (Review)

The director's attempt at re-imagining Philip K. Dick's story will present action/sci-fi lovers with a compelling (albeit thin) sci-fi world to explore.

When the Total Recall "remake" was first announced in 2009, the producers were clear on one thing: in spite of the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this movie would offer a different (albeit still loose) interpretation of iconic sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Nevertheless, the collective moviegoing community exploded in a near-universal chorus of outrage, and in the coming months, as director Len Wiseman began sharing his vision for the project, more and more fans continued to rail against the idea on principle alone - calling it an "unnecessary cash grab" and decrying the idea of an alternate Total Recall story interpretation, one that didn't feature Mars, mutants, aliens, or Schwarzenegger.

As a result, it's safe to say that anyone who is fundamentally against this film based solely on the fact that it's a remake, isn't likely to be impressed by what Wiseman has put together. However, does Total Recall (2012) - despite similarities to its namesake - offer an interesting and action-packed reinterpretation of the core concept - an everyday man wrestling with his grip on reality and sense of self?

Fortunately, the answer is yes.

While Wiseman's Total Recall includes a number of familiar story beats and fun nods to its predecessor, it also presents plenty of fresh material that should deliver an enjoyable (although somewhat thin) experience for fans who aren't too bogged down in comparing/contrasting the film with Paul Verhoeven's 1990 treatment. Anyone who has been following the movie's trailers (or seen the original) will already be privy to a number of the film's biggest "reveals," but there are still plenty of explosive set pieces and tongue-in-cheek one-liners to make the moment-to-moment onscreen action immersive and enjoyable. Without question, Total Recall is skewed heavily in favor of style over substance - but that shouldn't dissuade cinemagoers from taking a trip to Rekall with leading man Colin Farrell.

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in 'Total Recall' 2012
Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in 'Total Recall'

As mentioned, the story differs in a number of ways from both the original film and Dick's short story source material. The "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" narrative still serves as the film's outline, though, and unlike the 1990 version, Wiseman's story remains grounded entirely on Earth. This round Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in a post-World War III society where tensions flare between the last two habitable places on the planet: The rich United Federation of Britain and the impoverished Colony (Australia). Quaid is a blue-collar factory worker who commutes (via a massive transit system called "The Fall") from The Colony to the UFB, where he assembles synthetic Police robots before making the return trip home each night to his lovely wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). Ultimately, Quaid isn't content with this mundane existence, and is haunted by dreams of a mysterious woman (played by Jessica Biel), as well as a life with actual purpose. In an effort to scratch his itch for excitement, he visits Rekall to have artificial memories implanted in his mind - only to discover that, unbeknownst to him, he's already an instrumental player in a much larger threat.

While some fans will most likely miss the campy (and, at times, visually arresting) aesthetic of Verhoeven's Total Recall, Wiseman's interpretation plays all of the sci-fi plot material with a very straight face. Despite a number of witty remarks, the film takes itself extremely seriously, and with the exception of select hat tips to the first film, works hard to ground events in a believable vision of 2084. Certain elements still offer eye-popping visuals (such as The Colony skyline and "hover car" effects) but this Total Recall puts most of its effort into nonstop action - which should easily be apparent after the third multifaceted chase sequence. Similarly, the film provides several slick hand-to-hand combat scenes and loads of stylish sci-fi gadgetry (get ready to trade in your iPhone) that should keep genre fans happy.

Futuristic action and Sci-fi effects in 'Total Recall' (2012)
Futuristic action and Sci-fi effects in 'Total Recall'

That said, with all the flash and bang action, character development takes a back seat. For the most part, Farrell delivers a strong leading man performance that allows Quaid to be likable - even though the character is mostly a blank slate, scrambling to uncover his true identity. He's empathetic enough, especially when faced with other people who seemingly know him - despite his inability to reciprocate. Less forgivable is the supporting stable of characters who are mostly one-note killing machines. While both Biel and Beckinsale successfully offer solid (as well as butt-kicking) performances - there isn't much to either character beyond their function in eliciting different reactions from Quaid or moving the plot from point A to point B. Similarly, fan-favorite Bryan Cranston doesn't disappoint, but his character, Cohaagen, is sorely underused - given the role he plays.

The prevalence of thin but hard-hitting character archetypes is in keeping with much of Wiseman's directorial repertoire (which includes the first two Underworld films as well as Live Free or Die Hard) - as is the filmmaker's reliance on the aforementioned slick action over thought-provoking substance. The overarching Total Recall 2012 story concept is serviceable - since the premise (along with the core concept) is actually pretty compelling; however, as the movie tracks from one lengthy chase/gun battle/fist-fight sequence to the next, there isn't much room to build upon the rich world that's introduced in the opening. Thematic elements (tension between "The Haves" and "The Have Nots")  as well as philosophical questions ("What defines who we are?") are quickly glossed over with overly-cheesy, throwaway lines of dialogue - failing to "say" anything particularly interesting about several ideas the movie develops.

Bryan Cranston and Kate Beckinsale in 'Total Recall' 2012
Bryan Cranston and Kate Beckinsale in 'Total Recall'

Certain moviegoers will argue that Total Recall was an entirely unnecessary remake (i.e., a 'cash-grab') - but there are enough differences to justify Wiseman's effort. While not all of these ideas are successful, the director's attempt at re-imagining Philip K. Dick's story will present action/sci-fi lovers with a compelling (albeit thin) sci-fi world to explore, intriguing (albeit thin) characters to follow, and enough visual spectacle to make viewers wish they had three eyeballs.

If you’re still on the fence about Total Recall, check out the trailer below:


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Still wondering how this Total Recall compares to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 action film as well as Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” source material? Read our Total Recall: 2012 vs 1990 vs… 1966 feature.

For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Total Recall episode of the SR Underground podcast.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Total Recall Spoilers Discussion.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Total Recall is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5 (Good)
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