‘Total Recall’: Times have changed

August 3, 2012

At about the halfway point in the new remake of “Total Recall,” I thought, “Wow, this is pretty good.”

But pretty good is all it managed. Though Len Wiseman’s reworking of Philip K. Dick’s story (and the 1990 Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger film that was extrapolated from it) comes up with stunning visuals and a truly grand scale, it runs out of both excitement and sense in the final half-hour. At that point, it downshifts from innovative sci-fi thriller to standard action tale. More’s the pity. Still, for longer than you imagine, this is an exciting and unexpected ride.

Colin Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a laborer on a future version of Earth, post-chemical warfare cataclysm. The only habitable places left on the planet are Great Britain (now known as the United British Federation) and Australia, known as the Colony. Somehow, scientists and engineers have connected the two via a tunnel straight through the planet. The transport that carries laborers from the Colony to UBF is known as the Fall.

Doug lives a humdrum life in a squalid Colony apartment with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and dreams of having adventures that seem impossible on his salary. So he walks into a company called Rekall, which promises to implant memories of experiences he’s never actually had. It’s cheaper than the real thing, after all.

But, after selecting “secret agent” as his implanted memory, something goes wrong; his memory is already someone else’s, he’s told, so he can’t have the implant– and then the cops break in and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly Doug is on the run from the police – and when he goes home to his wife, she tries to kill him, too.

It’s a classic Dick theme: that reality may not be what it seems. In Doug’s case, he makes his escape and gets to UBF, but finds himself being chased again, this time on an elevated highway system of fast-moving hover cars. He’s rescued by a beautiful woman named Melina (Jessica Biel), about whom he’s been having dreams.

Doug finds that all sorts of people know him as someone other than Quaid – and that he is a key component in the struggle for power between the despotic chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) and Mathias (Bill Nighy), the leader of a group of insurgents from the Colony.

When Wiseman just has to keep his players in motion, with Farrell and Biel on the run from Beckinsale and her robot cops, this movie soars. That’s particularly true in a breath-taking sequence involving fast-moving, free-ranging elevator cars that move both horizontally and vertically. These black cubes are alternately life-threatening and life-saving – but you have to be fast enough to figure out which, and in three dimensions.

On the other hand, when writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback (working from the original script by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman) have to explain what actually is at stake, things go a bit fuzzy. As Cohaagen’s motives becomes clear, it seems a bit small – and not particularly sensible, given the resources he’s throwing into it. Instead of peeling back the layers to find a plot that’s more complex than you imagined, the movie ultimately seems much less imaginative than you’d hope.

The production design is spectacular, a blend of the “Blade Runner” landscape, by way of that planet, Coruscant, where the Jedi council meets, in “The Phantom Menace.” Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos imagined a future that manages to look new and used at the same time, depending on which part of the planet you visit.

Still, while the acting is all serviceable and real, the accents are troublesome. Though this is all set in what was England and Australia, somehow everyone speaks with an American accent – except Beckinsale, who reverts to British tones once she reveals her true identity. It’s particularly annoying when Bill Nighy speaks; his normally plummy tones are rendered high-pitched and nasal when pronouncing American vowels.

So chalk “Total Recall” up as an improvement on the original, a film I remember liking quite a bit when I first reviewed it but found unutterably corny and stilted when I saw it again recently (Rialto Pictures is rereleasing it on Aug. 10).

But “Total Recall” starts out well enough that it can’t help but disappoint when it falls into the rut of standard action for its final 30 minutes.

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