Blu-Ray Review: Total Recall

'Total Remake isn’t raping my childhood or anything… it’s just bad.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

When I was writing about Total Recall earlier this year, I once accidentally typed Total Remake. I caught it before I published it, but now that I’ve finally seen the film I’m going to agree with my subconscious on that one. I will henceforth refer to the 2012 film as Total Remake to distinguish it from my references to the original Total Recall.

A Total Recall remake isn’t necessarily a bad idea. The original movie had so many possibilities and interpretations, you could just tell another Total Recall story with different characters and explore how a memory implant affected their sense of self. The real mistake was copying the basic plot of the Arnold movie and trying to change it enough to justify your own remake, thus removing any depth to the story and getting it just plain wrong. Note: I watched the Extended Director’s Cut on the Blu-ray but had not seen it theatrically, so I learned about most of the additions and changes after my initial viewing.

Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) dreams of an action sequence with a beautiful action heroine (Jessica Biel, playing Melina though I don’t think anyone ever says her name). In “real” life he works at a robot factory while his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is some sort of future emergency worker. There’s no Mars in Total Remake but the idea of The Fall, this elevator system that cuts through the earth linking London and the working class ghetto takes longer to explain than Mars did in Total Recall.

It feels like the screenwriters copied the dialogue from Total Recall but didn’t understand the plot. After Quaid goes to Rekall for a memory implant and has an encounter with police, he goes back to Lori to explain. They have a dialogue reminiscent of Sharon Stone questioning Arnold Schwarzenegger’s story about defending himself against attackers, only it doesn’t make sense anymore. Beckinsale’s Lori burns through protests so fast that she’s clearly just waiting to reveal herself. It’s not even written like a scene designed to portray a normal person reacting to an extraordinary incident. She just has to get the words out because someone wrote them.

Also, Rekall came up with a new rule where your fantasy can’t incorporate any true parts of your life, so they’re basically saying all of this is real. There’s no ambiguity, because his real secrets are what made the implant go bad. That also makes later holdover scenes, like Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) trying to convince Quaid that he’s having a paranoid episode, impotent of their ambiguity in the original. A tear in the paranoid episode scene does not reveal what the sweat in the original scene revealed. Quaid’s very dissatisfaction with his mundane life is harder to believe without his ambition to go to another planet. Building robots feels like pretty exotic work. Arnold was working standard mundane construction, so of course he wants to save the world instead. They’ve changed the story but keep using the same scenes. If they understood the story they were changing, they’d know why those scenes no longer fit.

I’m a guy who loves references to my favorite stuff, but the way Total Remake plays it is obnoxious. Quaid offhandedly comments, “I’d like to go to Mars.” That’s cute because there was another movie where he actually did! The three-breasted woman isn’t really funny or sexy without the Martian context. She was a mutant who happened to benefit (depending on your point of view) from the mutation. Now, what, she just got a third tit to work the red light district? I do like the “two weeks” callback. That’s much more subtle and something only true fans would appreciate, and doesn’t take you out of the movie at all. But Quaid has to do something with his hand, instead of his nose. Man, they really did not get why the nose scene made an impact, and a hand is not something equally evocative. Quaid’s comment about Lori’s true identity, “It’s safe to say we’re separated.” Really? Since you haven’t shot her in the head yet you can’t say, “Consider this a divorce?” At least no one sees anyone at any parties.

The story goes in pretty much the same direction, that Quaid used to be Hauser, an agent of Cohaagan (Bryan Cranston). The worst part is that Total Remake adds an element of a face transplant to Quaid’s identity confusion (this is only in the director’s cut). So now you’ve lost the greatest mindf*ck of Total Recall: how can the same body reject his own personality? Now it’s some dissociated other guy, and a frankly stupid cameo from the original Hauser. Neither the theatrical or director’s cut have the moment where Hauser wants his body back, which makes it totally clear these writers didn’t get Total Recall. I’m surprised director Len Wiseman didn’t insist on that scene. The idea that Hauser wants his body back after all this, and that Quaid refuses, means that Quaid’s natural instincts became heroic when removed of the corrupting influences. But that existential crisis wasn’t important to Total Remake. They just wanted to make a story about a dude who became someone else and fought all the robots or something. Actually, here’s one fix that would have saved the whole thing: cast Cranston as Quaid. That would have made a much more interesting everyman who finds out he’s a spy.

Action-wise, the pursuit of Quaid results in mostly generic shootouts and the same martial arts moves you can teach any Caucasian actor to do for a movie. You know, the disarming a bunch of armed guards, wall flips and landing from a jump in a badass crouching pose. Beckinsale has some cool moves like a knee slide, and she just relishes being evil with some energy so it’s fun to watch her.

CGI sure has gotten sophisticated, but you still feel like you’re looking at CGI. They’ve populated the digital world really densely with lots of digital people walking through the corridors, and can make giant behemoth structures explode and crumble. The man-hours all that CGI work must have taken are phenomenal, but in the end I’m still looking at a picture someone drew. There’s nothing to “wow” about because the achievement is stagnant. We have achieved the most a computer artist can create, and it’s just as good as the last one. Having a foot chase across floating landings is a cool idea, but I’m still never excited. Farrell and Beckinsale may be digital doubles at that point for all I can tell. I know when Lori runs at the elevator cube and jumps into it in a single take, the run looks like a digital double and the “real” Beckinsale (probably her stunt double) does the jump. Seeing post-apocalyptic London for a minute is cool. I just feel bad for all the artists, technicians and designers because they’re working so hard to bring something unspectacular to life. It wasn’t their fault. They just gotta work.

The film looks fantastic on Blu-ray. It’s a flawless transfer and every shot looks like Best Buy home theater demo standard. Well, there is one soft focus shot of Farrell’s reactions to John Cho in Rekall. Let’s not mince words, Farrell is out of focus, but that’s a shooting problem, not a Blu-ray problem. You see all the gritty detail in the set portions of the future worlds, the concrete steps and floors of exotic safety deposit locations. With the CGI you can make out all the little digital people wandering through the halls and windows. It’s a colorful film with lots of bright colored lights, especially the Asian lanterns and the Rekall office. The transfer is very flattering to the leading ladies and their perfect skin. The lighting as well is full of great shadows and highlights, and Blu-ray captures the deep blacks and shiny highlights.

The bonus features are presented as Insight Mode, popping up behind the scenes featurettes while the movie plays. While interrupting the movie may seem like a turnoff at first, this actually seems to be a smooth way to present the bonus content. Otherwise it’s just generic fluff pieces on the costumes, music and visual effects. Incorporated as it is, the segments engage you at the moment you’re most inclined to be thinking about each specific aspect of the film. It also keeps everything flowing in under two hours, rather than selecting a mishmash of menu options. You do also get a few standalone segments on a second disc, including a gag reel that seems centered on Biel and Beckinsale dancing between takes. The trivia factoids that pop up in the corner of Insight Mode spoil the original Total Recall though, so don’t read them first. Go watch Total Recall. Really, it’s good. The factoids are also a bit difficult to read with their blue text on black with blue borders.

Len Wiseman always seems sincere and enthusiastic about his work. It makes me sad because we could have saved him some time sand said, “Sorry, Len, this is still too similar to all that other stuff, so it’s not going to blow our minds.” There’s plenty of ego stroking sound bites among the actors too, but it’s the producers who sound totally Hollywood. The most glaring example is when the makeup guy keeps saying how real the new three breasted woman looks. Is he effing crazy? We’re watching this in HD. It totally looks like a prosthetic. It’s a different texture and shade of color than her real skin. Dude, don’t believe your own hype and don’t oversell your product. The O.G. three-breasted Martian was obviously a gag but it was funny. Don’t start pretending you’ve made an appliance that looks like reality.

Wiseman also gives a feature length commentary over the extended cut and explains the new additions and his choices for both cuts. He continues to share his passionate ideas and sounds like a friendly guide through the filmmaking process. The menu screen is a tad confusing too. Blue text turns white when you select it, but it’s hard to know whether you’re choosing theatrical cut or extended, commentary on or off, or any of the limited menu choices. You won’t know until you select it and if you made the wrong choice, you may have to wait through some unskippable screens to back out.

I would have loved a generically fun Total Recall remake. I’m Franchise Fred. I want there to be Total Recall 5 with Vin Diesel as Xavier Quaid trying to figure out if he’s his father’s Rekall implant of a kid. Total Remake isn’t raping my childhood or anything… it’s just bad. It’s not boring, and an extra 12 minutes didn’t hurt the pace, but it’s frustrating to watch a movie squeeze all the interesting parts out of a concept. It’s not that you have to have the same themes, but the original movie meant something. Total Remake just goes through the motions and doesn’t even deliver on spectacle alone. If it had captured the imagination of a new generation, then I might be wrong, but it didn’t. 

Read CraveOnline's original review of Total Recall

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel