Phillip K. Dick’s writing has served as one of cinema’s primary premise-generators, ranking right up there with Shakespeare and, thanks to recent trends, superhero comics. Like the Bard (or, sure, Spider-man), Dick’s body of work is, first of all, enormous enough to offer a range of adaptable scenarios. It’s also amorphous enough to weather various revisions and reimaginings. So news that a new Total Recall was heading to the screen wasn’t, strictly speaking, a bad omen.
Everyone involved—director Len Wiseman, writers Kurt Wimmer and Matthew Bomback—swore their Total Recall wasn’t so much a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s superlative 1990 sci-fi satire as an “original” interpretation of Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. And given the layered liberties and narrative developments that Verhoeven and his fleet of screenwriters indulged to draw Dick’s yarn out to feature-length (the original Total Recall script reportedly went through something like 45 drafts), there was reason enough to buy into the idea that even a frat-pack troika like Wiseman, Wimmer, and Bomback could spin the story into some interesting directions. So much for good faith.
Wiseman’s Total Recall isn’t a reimagining of Dick’s story. It’s a redressing of Verhoeven’s movie, in sanitized, soulless textiles spun from the sort of endless CGI spool a $200 million budget can provide. Granted, some major plot points are changed. Instead of staging a conflict between Martian colonists and their tyrannical administrators, Wiseman’s film offers a futuristic cold war between two Orwellian supercontinents: the United Federation of Britain and the Colony (or “New Asia”), an overgrown Australian mega-metropolis that suggests the drizzly, Orientalist aesthetics of Blade Runner as much as the continent’s own history as an expat penal camp. Colin Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a Colony-dwelling assembly-line worker (spot-welding together the synthetic police drones that keep his underclass subjugated) with dreams of being a revolutionary superspy sticking it to the Federation. (It was funnier when Verhoeven cast his Quaid, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a hulking ditch-digger, pointlessly jackhammering away like a strapping Soviet posterboy.)
Oppressed by his workaday malaise, Quaid heads to Rekall to receive a chemical memory implant designed to satisfy all his superhero fantasies. Naturally, the procedure backfires. Quaid has been a secret agent all along, his banal job and curiously gorgeous wife (Kate Beckinsale) carefully stage-managed to sustain the illusion that’s he’s just another browbeaten, blue-collar Colony serf. Awakened to his suppressed secret identity, Quaid travels—via a planetary commuter elevator that speeds straight through the Earth’s core, one of this film’s few honest inventions—to Federation territory to piece together his identity and depose the string-pulling Chancellor Cohagen (Bryan Cranston) responsible for his midlife identity crisis. He also meets up with the lithe radical who’s been haunting his dreams (Jessica Biel) and confusedly stumbles through a series of double- and triple-crosses that, save for a scene in which Quaid learns that he can play piano, more or less follows the beats of Verhoeven’s film.
Maybe it’s unfair, comparing Wiseman’s commercially-tooled late-summer tent pole to something as imaginative and deeply ironic as the original Total Recall. The problem arises in Wiseman’s insistence that we do just that. This Total Recall is spoiled with stupid indexical nods to its predecessor (the notorious three-breasted prostitute, the “two weeks” lady crossing through inter-continental customs), compounding its bankruptcy of imagination with active, self-conscious references to that very insolvency. Watching it, you half expect that Arnold Schwarzenegger (or Sharon Stone, or Michael Ironside) will pop up and literally wink at the camera. As if it’s not enough that Wiseman can’t work out of the long shadow of Verhoeven’s movie, he must constantly remind you that that’s precisely where he’s operating, as if he’s either brassy or plain stupid enough to remind you of his film’s essential pointlessness.
It’s not just a matter of a misguided conception either. Total Recall’s a trifling mess, as superfluous as a third breast. Farrell’s a proficient talent. But he plays it too doe-eyed and disordered, never really sinking into the action-hero material. Beckinsale and Biel might as well be interchangeable as his two love interests. And typically sprightly talents like Cranston and Bill Nighy, as revolutionary leader Matthias (Kuato lives no more), barely register in all their scowling and smirking, respectively.
As a director, Wiseman’s a nonentity, bereft of anything like a discernible style. He can capably string together several unbelievably acrobatic martial-arts scenes, and just as capably overstuff a chase that imagines the floating automobiles of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report by way of the cartoon physics of Nintendo’s F-Zero. He works on nonexistent virtual canvases and shoots in impossible, digitally augmented camera whooshes. He has nothing in the visual wit of a Paul Verhoeven, save for when he’s explicitly referencing the visual wit of Paul Verhoeven.
Wiseman’s less a filmmaker than a hired-hand master of ceremonies, charged with executing all the computerized digital-effects program routines and shepherding this superficially remodeled widget through production and into multiplexes. The intermittent fits of excitement he can muster are attributable more to algebra: to the fleeting sense of dread at seeing people narrowly evading being crushed, smushed, squished, or otherwise pancaked again and again and again, with diminishing returns. For a film about remembering—or rather, a film about a film about remembering—the sterile digital textures and manic action rhythms of Wiseman’s movie are entirely forgettable. Still, if nothing else, his Total Recall is an object lesson at the gears an original (read: truly original) film gets ground through on its way to becoming a marquee property.