Release Date: August 3, 2012
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and strong language)
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Run Time: 118 min
Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy
Whenever a remake comes along the reflexive thought is usually, “Does this really need to be made?” And when the original is a consciously campy, 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger over-the-top cult classic so bizarre it never spawned a sequel, the question is particularly warranted.
So why make a new Total Recall? For director Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard), the answer seems pretty simple: to make a better version of it.
It’s also a rather different version. While both share similarities in basic premise, initial setup, and a few memorable lines, from there the two essentially part ways. Most notably the planet Mars is completely absent from this new one, as is the grotesque mutant villian Kuato. Those major changes speak to the conscious tonal shift as well; this is a darker, more serious, and even more dystopic look at the future.
If anything, the new Total Recall takes its inspirations from other popular films, playing more like The Bourne Identity in a Blade Runner world. This film boasts many of the narrative and stylistic strengths of those movies, though it’s not quite as smart or philosophical as either. But it’s not dumb, and likely more ambitious than you might expect.
It’s the end of the 21st century in a post-apocalyptic world. The planet has been lethally contaminated by global chemical warfare. Two life-sustaining regions remain on opposites sides of the earth: The United Federation of Britain in the northwestern hemisphere, and The Colony (i.e. Australia) in the east to the south. A transit tunnel known as “The Fall” connects the two regions through the planet’s core, its high-speed shuttle traveling the distance in seventeen short minutes.
The culture is techonologically advanced, as you’d expect, but also highly industrialized. It’s equal parts slick and gritty, depending on which part of either metropolis you find yourself in. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell, Horrible Bosses) is just another assembly-line grunt from The Colony, happily married but haunted by a recurring dream he can’t shake.
When he pays a visit to Rekall – a place that offers the illusion of an exciting life by planting false memories into the mind – the recurring dream is not only triggered but revealed to be true: Quaid is a highly-trained secret agent whose memory had been replaced. With only his fighting instincts but no memories recovered, Quaid finds himself on the run from the law, as well as from his “wife” (Kate Beckinsale, Whiteout), a secret government agent who wants to capture Quaid before he rediscovers the details and secrets of his true identity.
For all the plot intricacies and inherent mind games played on both Quaid and the audience, Total Recall is a pretty straightforward thriller. It exists primarily to stage one exciting chase sequence after another, with a mix of on-the-run, high-speed action and numerous face-offs that involve intense gunplay and brutal, bone-breaking hand-to-hand combat. Thankfully, it’s not just run-of-the-mill stuff.
Fight sequences are intricately choreographed, action scenes spectacularly conceived and staged, with the level of scale often being broad and elaborate. Perhaps most impressively, Wiseman assembles it all with clarity. Quickly-paced but not frenetically edited, with clearly framed shots over shaky hand-held close-ups, the movie allows us to actually see and enjoy the action rather than confusing us with a muddled mess that borders on headache inducing.
Wiseman’s vision of the future is visual eye candy for special effects geeks, from detailed cityscapes and slums to the sleek and menacing robot police force. That we get to take it in, appreciate it, and even revel in it along the way makes this non-stop thrill-ride a very entertaining one.
It’s all anchored by a great cast that, to the actor, plays the material straight. Even when the script offers up intentionally contrived one-liners, the actors refuse to plant tongue in cheek. Their performances are still very character-rich but never overplayed with juicy genre schtick.
Ferrell makes for a compelling and complex action star, Jessica Biel (Valentine's Day) is his impressive equal in all respects, and Emmy winner Bryan Cranston (Larry Crowne) is a menacing foe (no surprise to fans of TV's Breaking Bad), even if he does nibble the scenery a bit more than the rest. Beckinsale is a formidable action star in her own right... and much more believable than any of Angelina Jolie’s numerously stiff attempts at the genre.
Stylistically, Total Recall strikes a deft balance; dark but not depressing, gritty but not grimy, and sometimes slick without sacrificing its sense of authenticity or dramatic tension. It does push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, however, from brief nudity (a quick nod to the infamous three-breasted woman from the original) to a fair amount of language and some cringe-worthy violence.
But on the plus side, this reboot is a solid and extremely well-crafted sci-fi feast that succeeds by remaining focused on its characters and story rather than being distracted by its admittedly-cool visionary world. It’s unlikely to win over people who don’t appreciate the genre, but those who’ve been hopeful since seeing the previews won’t be disappointed.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Alcohol is consumed at a bar; no intoxication.
- Language/Profanity: The S-word is used with regularity throughout the film. Four uses of the A-word. Two instances of crude slang for male genetalia. One F-word. Four uses of the Lord’s name in vain.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Brief nudity of a three-breasted woman. A husband and wife kiss passionately while in bed, dressed in their underwear. Scantily clad pole dancers seen in silhouette.
- Violence: Frequent violence throughout involving intense gunplay and brutal fistfights. Bones are violently broken a few times (though nothing visually gory). Three stabbings. Innocent bystanders are mowed down by collateral gunfire in a few scenes. Other people are shot violently and killed. A hand is cut open to extract an implanted technology. A head is cut open after a car crash (bloody, but not gruesome). Two different people are shot to death in the head at point-blank range. Two other people shot through the hands.
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