Philip K. Dick’s brief science fiction story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (1965) has travelled a long way since it was adapted for Paul Verhoeven’s film, Total Recall in 1990. In Dick’s original version, Doug Quail visits a business called Rekall that promises to provide its clients with a false memory superior to the real thing. Given a choice of fantasies, he adopts the persona of a secret agent sent on a mission to Mars, but there is an surprise in store. The technicans soon learn that Doug really has been a secret agent on Mars, living with a false, implanted identity.
That’s almost the entire story. In Verhoeven’s film Doug Quaid (not Quail) – played by the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger – actually goes to Mars and joins a rebellion against the sinister Governor Cohaagen. The plot is much more involved, but it is not the most important part of the movie. The original Total Recall is notable for its startling inventions such as the mutant leader Kuato, who lives inside the body of an assistant; and the cross-dressing disguise that Quaid adopts to get through Martian customs.
The script is full of clichés, but the wooden way Arnie delivers his lines somehow makes them sparkle. Everyone remembers the moment when he shoots his assigned ‘wife’ (Sharon Stone) through the forehead and says: “Consider this a divorce.”
Most importantly, Verhoeven’s film captures the comic elements of Dick’s vision, which transposes the popular culture of the United States circa 1955-65, onto a future in which people travel to other planets and communicate telepathically. All of Dick’s novels and stories are broadly satirical, which is one of the reasons his work transcends the science fiction genre.
As a dedicated reader of Dick since my teens, it’s almost painful to have to discuss the new Total Recall. In this version Mars is never mentioned. The world has been ravaged by nuclear war, leaving only the United Federation of Britain (UFB) and The Colony – ie. Australia! Every day, Aussie Doug and his fellow workers commute to the UFB, in a device called The Fall, which zooms down a hole in this side of the planet and emerges 17 minutes later on the other.
The Colony echoes the grimy, slum-like vision of the future found in Blade Runner, but now coloured by a crass orientalism. There are the same tiny boats that used to cluster around Hong Kong harbour 50 years ago, along with signs in various Asian languages and Russian. The branch of Rekall that Doug visits is dolled up like a chintzy Chinese restaurant, and even the boss – McClane – is now Asian.
This time the rebels are seeking to thwart the evil Chancellor Cohaagen of the UFB, who apparently wants to kill everyone in The Colony who ease a housing shortage at home.
If one ignores the offensive racialist overtones, which suggest that the slum culture of The Colony is essentially Asian in character, one is left with a film that is merely an insult to the intelligence. Director, Len Wiseman, began his Hollywood career in the art department before graduating downwards to the Underworld franchise of action-fantasy sagas.
Wiseman has systematically removed the all the wit and creativity of Philip K. Dick and Paul Verhoeven, and given us a mindless, charmless action flick. The script is so lame it sounds like it was written by Dan Brown; the plot so ridiculous it might have been brainstormed in the local kindergarten. Bits and pieces of films such as The Bourne Identity have been lifted and stitched into a story that never threatens to make sense.
This new Total Recall is a video game thinly disguised as a movie. After a slowish beginning it devolves into a protracted sequence of fights, chases and explosions. Presumably the viewer is supposed to find this exciting, but the effect is tedious in the extreme.
Colin Farrell, who plays Doug Quaid, is a poor subsitute for Arnie. He is almost upstaged by Kate Beckinsale, who plays Doug’s ‘wife’, Lori. In real life Beckinsale is married to the director, who has expanded her role to mammoth proportions. This svelte actrine spends the entire film snarling, shooting, punching and kicking. I hope this doesn’t reflect the Wisemans’ domestic arrangements. Jessica Biel, who plays Melina, Doug’s rebel girlfriend, is virtually Beckinsale’s Doppelgänger.
The new Total Recall is a candidate for the coveted title of of Worst Remake of All Time. It adds nothing to what we have seen before, and empties the story of meaning. It is an utterly unnecessary exercise that doesn’t attempt to be anything but a cash-in: a film that treats its audience like morons. It probably won’t be the last time you hear this, but Total Recall is the most forgettable movie of the year.
Total Recall, USA/Canada, rated M, 118 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 01, 2012