It's Like Deja Vu, Except Not...

Total Recall 2012

(This entry will have spoilers for anyone that hasn't seen Arnold Schwarzenegger's film output from the 1980s, and the various latter-day remakes there of. Please be advised.)

So what the hell were the people behind the new Total Recall thinking? Don't get me wrong -- I understand the desire to remake movies. Hollywood and a money-grubbing machine, and over time they'll have to remake films just to keep the cash rolling in. People complain that all Hollywood ever does is remake movies, but that's what the system has been doing for decades now. How many versions of the works of L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis have we had over time? Just because a movie is a remake of a newer project and not based on any of the "classics", that doesn't necessarily mean its going to be any better or worse than the original.

Arguably, one of the better remakes I've seen in recent memory was the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Did the world need another version of Charlie after the beloved Gene Wilder Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? No. (Well, okay, my mother would argue "yes", but then she disliked the parts of the film that deviated from the source material, and I can't blame her for that. The Oompa Loompa songs in that version were terrible, and no one will ever be able to explain to me what the fuck that boat ride sequence was about aside from "because the 1970s".)

And yet, the more recent Charlie and the Choclate Factory was a vast improvement of the "original", with better songs, better production value (again, because the 1970s), and a nice swath of dark humor than the original was able to match (I know, some would argue that last point).

Believe me, saying I like a Tim Burton movie -- let alone a Tim Burton remake -- pains me. I will never forgive that bastard for Planet of the Apes. Never.

So yeah, remakes can work. My issue with the new Total Recall is that it basically tries to be too many things and never succeeds at anything.

Let's not sugar coat this, though. The original 1980s Total Recall is not a great movie. It's big and dumb and fun and the only reason it really works is because it commits to it's own concept. Ahnold Shwatewhatever plays Douglas Quaid, a construction-worker everyman with dreams of visiting Mars and having a secret agent adventure. He ends up going to Recall, a memory vacation company (you sit in a chair and they implant memories of the trip you "took", because in the long run, all you really have from a vacation is memories). Unfortunately, things go wrong during the memory implant, and Doug suffers a schizoid embolism (I'm pretty certain that's exactly what they call it in the movie, which makes me sad and proud I can remember that).

When Doug gets home, he gets attacked by his wife (who ends up being an agent for the governor of Mars). It seems he really wasn't Doug Quaid all along, but was actually a secret agent named Houser, and he has to get to Mars, meet up with the resistance (lead by Melena, who looks a lot like the dream woman Doug was going to meet on his Mars secret agent vacation), and save the denizens of Mars from the evil government.

Or did he? Was it all a dream? In several places the movie hints that everything Doug is experiencing is just a dream (and maybe Doug is even trapped in a coma the whole time). The movie never explains if what he's experiencing is real or not, and it even purposefully ends on the question of it. Doug gets his happy ending, but he may also be a vegetable in the Recall chair.

Unfortunately, the new version of the movie isn't able to be anywhere near as smart as the Ahnold version (which, come on, his movies aren't very smart to begin with, so that's saying something). The basic setup is the same: Colin Farrell is Doug Quaid, an every-man robot assembly worker who lives in one of the only two habitable colonies on Earth, :The Colony" founded in the ruins of Australia. The other colony is the well to do United Federation of Britain. Most of the Colony workers travel to UFB via "The Fall", a giant elevator that travels back and forth through the center of the Earth.

So, firstly, lets establish some things I have issue with just from the setup. A global biological war struck the planet, and every place is rendered uninhabitable except for the U.K. and Australia. Now, don't get me wrong -- I like the U.K. and Australia. They're very nice places, and if we're going to destroy the world, I'm certainly all for sparing those two countries. But, they're both allies of place like the U.S., Canada, and just about every other European super power. If the rest of the world is rendered chemically dead, why were two of the U.S.'s better allies spared? That doesn't make much sense.

Add to that the fact that these two countries were spared, but when we finally see the chemical waste of what is (I can only assume) France, it's a cloudy, hazy nightmare-scape. What confuses me is: how is the U.K. not affected by that? Weather patterns would dictate that, eventually, the chemicals will end up in the U.K. They may have been spared, but idealistically their rain and water supplies will still easily get polluted (not to mention the air) and eventually they'd be destroyed as well (and, if you think of it, in the long run Australia won't fare much better).

And the Fall is just a dumb a concept. Explain to me how a giant (effectively) space elevator can travel straight through the center of the Earth. From the diagrams they show, it's right through the center, as in straight through the hard iron core of the world. All that pressure, all that heat -- we're supposed to accept that humanity found a way to defy the basic laws of physics? Suuuure.

But, okay. Let's not nitpick the basic science of our science fiction movie. How does the plot fare? Not any better, sadly. Doug ends up going to Rekall (different spelling, same basic concept), and ends up getting into the chair. Before the procedure can even really start, though, his brain begins to reject the process, and then the police show up to capture Quaid and haul him away.

Quaid, of course, manages to escape (because there wouldn't be a movie otherwise), and runs home. Once there, his wife tries to kill him, and he ends up embroiled in a race to find the underground resistance (who are fighting against the oppressive government of the UFB), and save the day.

Aside from ditching Mars, it sounds like the same movie, right? Well sure, but it's just not smart enough or deep enough to get everything to come together. Quaid gets to the UFB after escaping his murderous wife. There he meets up with Melena, and they immediately fall in love and start trusting each other. Melena doesn't really have much of a character aside from "pretty, brunette, can fight, and is part of resitance". She acts as the love interesting, but she's just not interesting. Compare that to the Melena from the 80s movie, who had a personality (she was just a little mean and quite sassy), and a whole plotline (she was lovers with Hauser, but he disappeared, and now she doesn't know who to trust -- all she knows is she can't trust Quaid).

The new movie rushes from one action beat to the next, and we're expected to just understand that Melena is the love interest, but the original movie took the time to actually develop her into someone we naturally liked (Quaid's feelings on the matter be damned).

But the big conceit -- that it's all a dream in Quaid's head -- is handled even more poorly. There's exactly one nod towards it, and it comes in more or less the same form as the original movie. Quaid is confronted by an agent of the dreamscape (here played by his construction worker buddy) who wants to help Quaid escape his dream and wake up (back at the Rekall offices, where he's supposedly been the whole time). The scene plays out more or less the same (and certain ends the same, with Quaid shooting the "agent" and going back on the run again). However because up until this point all we've gotten is just a bunch of action sequences and no real character development, we really don't care if Quaid chooses the dream or not. The first movie developed characters while the new movie just substituted in more CGI.

And, what annoys me most about the whole "it could still all be a dream" thing is that, near the end of the new movie, Quaid is knocked unconscious, and yet still the movie goes on. How can it all be a dream if we get to see stuff Quaid can't be privy to? It violates the basic setup (something the original movie didn't do).

Oh, I know some of you will be like "but the tattoo he got at Rekall that showed he was a customer was missing at the end of the movie" (or you would, if you bothered to watch it and really cared at all two hours in). To which I say: if that's supposed to be a clue, they should have mentioned it was a tattoo (and not just some ink he could have washed away at any time). Also, they shouldn't have knocked their main character out and yet still had plot actively go on around him while he was out cold. It doesn't work.

Don't get me wrong -- I didn't go into the new Total Recall (less taste, less filling) expecting a good movie. I just had hoped that it wouldn't be as dumb as it was. As it is, I can't really recommend the flick to anyone. It's not good enough to recommend on its own merits, and anyone with a passing interest in a remake of the 1980s movies is better served by the original.