A Very Forgettable 'Total Recall'

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

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).

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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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