It’s a cheesy 90s star vehicle, and for all the wit and intelligence Verhoven could throw at it, it never rose to much above that. The concept is clever, and it features some astonishing SFX work, but the performances are dreadful, the story half-arsed, and the massive Deus Ex Machina at the end utterly unsatisfying.
It is a lot of fun though, and it has a hell of a lot of fans, many of whom have had the knives out for Len Wiseman’s remake since before the script was finished. Which is a shame, because it’s actually pretty good.
From the outset this movie is very much its own beast. Gone is Mars (barring a reasonably subtle nod-and-wink reference), and instead we’re on Earth. Admittedly it’s an Earth that feels like the offspring of Serenity and Minority Report, but it’s definitely our planet, and we stay there throughout the movie. It’s also an Earth with only two inhabitable areas –‘The UFB’ and ‘The Colony’, which are, in essence, Britain and Australia. This gives the film a much more grounded feel than the original, in spite of it featuring robot police and levitating cars. It also gives it an excuse for quite possibly the maddest sci-fi concept of the last five years – a chuffing great commuter tunnel that runs through the centre of the planet. Regardless of your overall enjoyment of the movie, the people involved deserve your money for not only including that idea, but managing to make you believe it works.
Actually, that’s not the only reason they deserve your money. This new version of Total Recall plays like a slimmed down, streamlined version of the original, with a script written by actual screenwriters rather than people who had good ideas, but couldn’t quite make them work. Never more is this streamlining more apparent, or more successful, than in Kate Beckinsale’s role, which combines Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside’s characters from the original, giving Quaid’s wife more to do than just get killed in the first act.
The only downside, when it comes to the script is that we’re in familiar territory from the outset, and with a remake of something so ingrained in the popular consciousness, Wiseman et al are fighting a losing battle; they can shuffle the cards so they come up in a different order, but they can’t change the deck. At one point they use this to their advantage, with a little nod that serves as a terrific piece of misdirection, but ultimately, by the end of the second act, it’s easy to find one’s mind wandering away from the film, and (certainly in my case) onto just how this version of the movie would have played out had they cast Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Still, the third act, because of the non-Martian setting, is sufficiently entertaining to pull one’s attention back from the Austrian Oak. Like much of the movie, it shows a real creativity on the part of the writers and directors, which leads to a reasonably satisfying climax, with a couple of nice set pieces.
Performance wise, it’s a pretty solid affair. Farrell, Beckinsale and Biel are all decent enough – although the decision to cast two brunettes, particularly two who looked so similar, made it a little difficult to keep track of which was which. Bill Nighy was also ok, but ultimately he was, as always, just playing Bill Nighy. By contrast, Bryan Cranston was great. It’s becoming a cliché to praise a Bryan Cranston performance, but yet again he managed to be in a film and be utterly unrecognisable as himself, and utterly compelling as the character.
Sadly, the one thing the film really doesn’t get right, is dropping (or at least downplaying) the sense of ambiguity about Quaid’s adventure. With the exception of the inherent confusion between Beckinsale and Biel, at no point do we feel as if what we’re seeing isn’t the whole truth. Presumably the decision was made somewhere along the line that, as we’re all familiar with the original, the mystery element wouldn’t work. It’s understandable, but also a shame, because had they played that up, and kept us on our toes, they may have actually made the rest of the film feel a lot fresher.
Still, on the whole it’s an enjoyable film, and a big step up from some of the muddled, self-important sci-fi flicks that have come out this year. Definitely worth a watch. It’s also, by far the best looking film this year, or indeed the last few years. Absolutely stunning production design, and if it weren’t for The Hobbit, I’d have stuck a tenner on it winning the Art Direction Oscar already.