In the future according to Total Recall — the new version, not the 1990 movie with the same name and the same alleged source in a Philip K Dick story — Earth has been devastated by chemical warfare, leaving only two populated areas connected by a tunnel through the planet’s core. On one end is a sleek successor to Britain, an imperial metropole that exploits the teeming, watery Colony (Australia with elements of futuristic Hong Kong and Bangkok) down below.
This premise contains the seeds of an interesting economic and political allegory, but the ambitions of the filmmakers — Len Wiseman directed a script by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback — lie in the direction of maximum noise and minimum sense. The movie has a lot of chasing, shouting and fighting, carried out in crowded, overscale frames without much regard for either action-film effectiveness or narrative coherence. So much information is thrown at you in such a haphazard fashion that your ability to care dwindles along with your willingness to enjoy any of it.
Douglas Quaid, a Colony-dwelling proletarian who commutes via the Fall to his factory job, is haunted by strange dreams and is played by Colin Farrell. His wife is played by Kate Beckinsale (who is married to Wiseman), and now may be the time to note that in the earlier Total Recall the Quaids were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. Life is not fair: Farrell is one of the hardest-working would-be movie stars in the game, whereas Schwarzenegger is among the laziest action heroes in history. But after more than 20 years I retain a vivid memory of Schwarzenegger saying, “Consider that a divorce,” after putting a bullet in Stone’s head. After less than 24 hours I can’t recall anything Farrell said or did, other than run from Beckinsale, sometimes in the company of Jessica Biel.
Why all the running? Quaid may not be the working stiff he thinks he is but rather a super agent of some kind mixed up in the ongoing struggle between the authoritarian Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston of AMC’s Breaking Bad) and the shadowy leader of the resistance (Bill Nighy). Don’t get too excited about those names. Cranston appears to be trying for an odd kind of career balance, as if starring in one of the best shows on television obliged him to take supporting roles in some of the worst movies in theatres. And he doesn’t really do much except sneer sadistically and look plausible with hair. Nighy does even less.
The 1990 Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is not a great movie, but it has a garish, perverse energy and a willingness to be at once gleefully silly and slyly philosophical that stands up pretty well. It also has Sharon Stone.
Why bother with an update? A parallel-universe (or wishful-thinking) answer would be that Philip K Dick remains a name and an imagination to conjure with, as neuroscience, technology, corporate power and political authority conspire to bring some of his paranoid visions closer to reality. But this Total Recall has less to do with Dick than its predecessor did, and it might have fared better without the baggage of expectation and comparison that it inevitably carries. A science-fiction movie about a guy on the run and the two slender, combative, black-suited women who may or may not love him might not be all that memorable, but it would at least be forgettable on its own terms.