It’s established pretty early on in Total Recall that our protagonist has no idea who he is or what’s happening around him. The audience has at least one of those questions answered. We know what’s going on, but not who these people are.
His name is either Doug or Hauser, but it’s not Doogie Howser, and something something something fighting for freedom. The opening titles tell us that some sort of war has happened, and now there are only two hospitable places on Earth: The United Federation of Britain (because Britain is the worst with imperialism) and The Colony (which is just Australia, formerly a British penal colony and in the movie a for realz British penal colony). Dougie Hauser is basically Edward Norton in Fight Club/Neo from The Matrix: a dissatisfied drone who has a terrible commute (halfway around the world, through a damn gravitational reversal), lives in a dumpy apartment (but like, a mile in the air, plus an awesome balcony), and overall just feels empty—that is, until he learns that he’s only been living this empty life for six weeks. Harold from Harold and Kumar tells him he’s a spy before getting shot, Dougie goes all Jason Bourne on some Storm Troopers, and Kate Beckinsale starts talking with a British accent. From there, we get a bunch of shootouts and chase scenes, Jessica Biel rescues Dougie in the middle of the highway, and Bill Nighy
reprises his role from Underworld hangs around for a scene before getting shot in the head.
I don’t mean to sound snarky. But these sci-fi movies where a super-attractive version of Joe the Plumber finds out he’s the messiah have to stop. You see it everywhere from Star Wars to The Matrix to I, Robot. And those are all movies I like, but they’re still the same writer’s wet dream: protagonist feels empty, but he’s totally right about his situation despite opposition, plus he’s married to Kate Beckinsale, then all of a sudden he’s a secret agent who’s destined to save the world from an oppressive regime, and he gets to be with Jessica Biel, too. It’s tiresome.
I know these screenwriters didn’t come up with the Rekall idea (shoutout to Phillip K. Dick), but the movie definitely felt like what an underpaid screenwriter would ask for at Rekall. There’s a certain “Hollywood hack who wishes he was James Bond” maleness to Doug’s fantasy. And yo, why is the movie called Total Recall, but the company is called Rekall?
As far as formalistic elements, it again feels like a lesser version of other great sci-fi films. It’s shot in the same brooding, high-contrast washout that’s been shorthand for “gritty” since The Dark Knight came out. Dougie’s apartment only looks rough because it looks like the film was brushed over with wet seaweed—when you look at the square footage, the giant balcony with the awesome view, I’d say life in the slums of The Colony isn’t so bad.
The dialogue is forced and vague. Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel look really similar, which can be confusing. I understand how that could be an interesting device for a film based on a flimsy sense of reality—in fact, I was hoping they’d play that up somehow. But it’s never really explored. Beckinsale seems to get less interesting and becomes more of a frothy-mouthed murderess as the film wears on. Biel’s character doesn’t distinguish herself as anything other than “the other woman on the side of the good guys.”
All of that said, it is a fun film. It raises some interesting philosophical questions, even if it has no interest in attempting to answer them. Here, we have an existentially dissatisfied worker drone who is part of a population completely exploited by the upper class. How effective a tool of oppression would a false memory device be? We’re never sure if the events depicted in the film are real or entirely a product of Dougie Hauser’s Rekall program. Either Colin Farrell’s character saves the world, or he gets an absolutely incredible memory to distract him from the boring doldrums of his pathetic existence. It’s a fascinating idea, and there’s enough action to keep the pacing tight, but none of it is handled with the talent it deserves.
It’s not the worst film of the summer, and it certainly did itself some favors by coming out after The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. It’ll attract people curious about remakes, and there are worse things you could do with a Sunday afternoon. Ultimately, though, you’ll wish it wasn’t so obviously a half-assed cash grab. There is potential in this movie, but the screenwriters were too busy fantasizing about being 007 to remember to make it great.