The first thing anyone needs walking into a fast-moving action-saturated movie like this is a suspension of belief so large and weighty you need a cherry picker to hoist it into the cinema seat next to you.
Once that’s done, Total Recall, directed by Underworld’s Len Wiseman, and based loosely, very loosely (in common with many Hollywood book adaptations) on Phillip Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale about a restless clerk, Douglas Quail who find out he is in fact a spy, is a rollicking good ride.
From the elegantly done set up, where in a matter of minutes, with minimal exposition, you learn that the Earth has been rendered largely uninhabitable by a devastating chemical war that has left the United Federation of Britain (or the UFB, where the moneyed classes and true power resides) and Australia, renamed The Colony and the source of the grunt labour that keep the UFB humming along, to the somewhat tacked on final fight scene high atop the remains of a blown apart building, the movie barely pauses for breath.
That is both a good and a bad thing.
On the positive side, it propels the action forward at the sort of frenetic blinding speed you would expect of a movie where the protagonist is running for his life. (After all, with people pursuing you with the means to cause you life-ending harm, you don’t exactly stop for extended sessions pondering the meaning of your fake life, or hitherto unknown actual life.)
Awoken from his slumbering existence as a assembly line worker in a factory producing robots for the security forces, and restless for something more but stymied at every turn (he is denies job promotions, is bored by sitting in the same seat each day on The Fall which takes people via the planet’s core from The Colony to the UFB), Douglas Quade (Colin Farrell in the role originally played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 movie of the same name), suddenly finds his world imploding and his life in danger after a visit to Rekall in a dingy part of the train wreck of an urban conurbation that is The Colony’s main city.
And so he runs. And fights. And discovers that he has all these skills and memories that he never knew existed. With his world turned upside down, Quade is on a desperate mission in both the Colony and the UFB to piece together the puzzle set before him, a puzzle that if unsolved will lead to his death.
So clearly there is a lot to motivate him, and Farrell does a stellar job of representing a man struggling to reconcile his fake past and his real one, with all the conflicting emotions this would stir up, who ultimately must make a choice about which one is real, and pursue that wholeheartedly lest he become lost in a limbo of non-existence.
He is ably supported by Jessica Biel as Melina, a member of the resistance seeking to win The Colony’s independence from their overlords in the UFB and his lover, and Kate Beckinsale as Lori Quaid, Douglas’s fake wife, and the UFB Intel agent assigned to track him down and ensure the secrets he holds die with him.
Lori in particular is relentless, merciless, and determined that Douglas Quade won’t escape her grasp.
So far, so manic and exactly what a movie like this needs to be since running for your life is not, as I said, exactly a walk in the existential park.
However, on the less than positive side, this means the movie, which visually is a lush treat with a richly detailed realisation of a slick, technologically-fuelled but dystopian society to its credit (and flying cars!), is short on some of the wise cracks and personable moments that defined Verhoeven’s version.
While that is not exactly a fatal oversight since the seriousness of the action does graphically underline the gargantuan struggle that the resistance movement has to wrestle power out of the hands of the leadership of the UFB headed by Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) who has plans to plan and subjugate The Colony, it does make for a movie with not quite enough of a personality.
And far too many firefights. Endless firefights seemingly jumbled one on top of the other till you can’t remember where one finished and the next one began. To be fair, the fight scenes are well executed, and while the light injuries sustained from what I would assume would normally be body-crushing blows do seem a little incongruous, there is a rich tradition of movie protagonists sustaining injuries that would fell mere mortals and getting up to fight another day … or 300.
But even in a movie as adrenaline-fuelled as this one, the fight scenes blur into each other without much of a pause for breath, and this obscures somewhat the intelligence that underlies the movie. It is a cut above many of these types of movies, and wastes some of that storytelling superiority on trying to have battles where some extended tension may have served the story just as well.
On balance though the movie is essentially a well-executed fast-paced futuristic thriller replete with some token geo-political posturing and suffused with just the right amount of dystopian bleakness (but not so bleak that it veers into caricature; by and large most people in Total Recall are simply getting on with life), that captures the desperate race by one man to save not just his life, whoever he may be, but those of everyone around him.