A Very Forgettable 'Total Recall'

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Colin Farrell can't save the remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger vehicle.

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Columbia Pictures

"He awoke—and wanted Mars." Thus began the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," a mind-bending little fable of memory implantation and erasure. But then, in 1990, along came the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall, which was loosely based on Dick's story. And I think it's fair to say that the film's interplanetary shenanigans left an awful lot of moviegoers wanting anything but Mars.

So give the new Total Recall remake this, if not a whole lot else: There's no Mars in it.

In this telling, directed by Len Wiseman and starring Colin Farrell, an apocalyptic war has rendered the Earth uninhabitable, with the exceptions of the United Federation of Britain and "the Colony," a.k.a. Australia. The relationship between the two is not all that different from the one that prevailed in the 18th century, except that rather than send its criminals to New South Wales, Britain instead has its work force commute in daily from there.

This commute might seem impractical, but it's actually a great deal shorter—and vastly, vastly sillier—than you'd imagine: a 17-minute ride through the center of the earth in a massive train named, like the extravagant roller coaster it resembles all too much, "the Fall." (Insert Milton joke here.) Yes, that's why, rather improbably, the only habitable zones on Earth are Britain and Australia: The filmmakers needed two places roughly on opposite sides of the globe and, international market or no international market, they weren't prepared to go with Indonesia and Brazil.

Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a colonist who works in a British factory assembling the very security robots that ensure his second-class citizenship. Every night, he dreams that he and a beautiful woman (Jessica Biel) are breaking out of a secure facility. And every morning, he awakes next to his beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale) in his drab Colony apartment, craving adventure. Eventually this desire leads him to Rekall, a firm that specializes in the implanting of false memories, where he asks the technicians to cater to his fantasy of being a secret agent. But the implantation fails, because it turns out he actually is a secret agent—one involved in missions so clandestine that, in Bournesque fashion, his handlers decided to erase his memory. In no time, he has hooked up with the woman from his dream (a member of the resistance) and the two are running for their lives from platoons of government enforcers and robots led by his erstwhile wife (herself, of course, also a secret agent).

And running, and running, and running. Dick's original short story was a crafty, witty little brain-tease, but, like its 1990 predecessor, Wiseman's Total Recall basically uses the rough framework as an excuse for a litany of action sequences: shoot-outs, blow-ups, chases on foot and in hover-car. And while these sequences are perfectly competent, they're not nearly inventive enough to sustain the movie's flimsy narrative. An hour in, I was wishing that I, too, could wake up—with or without Kate Beckinsale.

Total Recall is inane in all the ways you might expect from a second-tier summer action-movie, and a few you probably would not: For instance, if my rudimentary arithmetic can be relied upon, in order to meet its schedule the Fall would have to travel through the planet at an average speed of around 28,000 miles per hour. The movie's look is stylish enough, but it is borrowed to the point of plagiarism from prior Dick adaptations Minority Report and, especially, Blade Runner. (The dingy, perpetually rain-soaked Colony resembles nothing so much as the latter's Los Angeles after a few additional decades of neglect.)

Colin Farrell is not bad, exactly, but his performance offers yet more evidence that he is best in smaller films (In Bruges) or smaller roles (Minority Report). Yes, we have come a long way from the pituitary excess of the Schwarzenegger era, and haunted, emo-assassins now dot the filmic landscape. But, refreshing though it is in many respects, Farrell's lack of inherent alpha-ness makes him a poor fit for action star, his eyebrows perpetually poised to teeter outward in sadness or confusion, as if they might just fall off the sides of his face.

Biel and Beckinsale are essentially interchangeable bites of ass-kicking eye candy, though it is perhaps a bit of cinemato-karmic justice that the former (who played a vampire hunter in Blade III) spends this film being chased by the latter (who played a vampire in the Underworld films). The ubiquitous Bryan Cranston shows up as the scheming British head of state, and Bill Nighy is badly wasted as the sonorous leader of the resistance. As for Wiseman's direction, it does little to challenge the presumption that he is in the business primarily as an excuse to film his wife (Beckinsale, whom he also directed in two Underworld movies) slinking about in form-fitting bodysuits.

I was no particular fan of the first Total Recall, but I confess that this flat, by-the-numbers remake made me a tad nostalgic for its bombastic preposterousness, the high-tech Halloween masks (the movie actually won an Oscar for its special effects) and conjoined telepaths and Considuh daht a divhorce. Wiseman's film almost—almost—made me want Mars.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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