Set in a high-tech yet shabby future, the remake of Total Recall is a fully realized piece of production design. But its script, credited to six authors, is more like a preliminary sketch.
Directed by Underworld franchise veteran Len Wiseman, the movie retains some elements of Paul Verhoeven's friskier (and more graphically violent) 1990 original. Yet it also makes lots of changes, notably by downplaying the brain-bending aspects of the scenario in favor of thought-free action. (Also, it never leaves a devastated Earth for Mars.)
Our hero (Colin Farrell) might be Doug, an assembly-line worker who lives in the Colony, which used to be called Australia. He commutes daily — right through the earth's core, no less — to the only other inhabited part of the planet, a neo-colonialist Britain. Talk about the perils of outsourcing!
When he's awake, Doug is content with his life, as well as his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale, another Underworld franchise veteran, and Wiseman's spouse). In his recurring dreams, however, Doug is another man altogether. There he travels with another woman, who is eventually revealed to be Melina (Jessica Biel). So Doug goes to Rekall, a company that implants recreational false memories in its customers, in the hope of discovering the basis for his nightly reveries. Rather then being modernistic, the company's offices look like an upscale Chinese opium parlor. This is a joke that, like much of the movie's depiction of the Colony, teeters on the verge of being an ethnic slur.
Although it's what's left of Australia after a devastating global war, the Colony has a strong Asian character. (In one version of the script, reportedly, it was dubbed "New Shanghai.") The signs are mostly in Chinese — English, Korean, Russian and Japanese can also be glimpsed — and the rainy weather and teeming tenements suggest 1960s Hong Kong, only with more hookers and robot cops.
The other thing the Colony resembles is the L.A. of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, another vision of a decrepit, Asian-ized future. (Both that film and this one are loosely derived from Philip K. Dick's fiction.) But where Blade Runner had a unified sensibility, the new Total Recall is a series of set pieces whose CGI environments trump narrative logic. The multidirectional transportation systems of the movie's neo-London, for one, offer many opportunities for chase and battle scenes, but otherwise make no sense.
Eventually, Doug learns that he may actually be Hauser, a double agent torn between a genocidal colonial overlord (Bryan Cranston) and a revolutionary leader (Bill Nighy) who's either a terrorist or a great liberator. Nighy passes through the story with barely a hiccup, while Cranston and Beckinsale are given more to do. This is a movie that loves its villains and is reluctant to bid them farewell. (It's almost as if Beckinsale is still playing one of Underworld's undead.)
The original movie was, of course, a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, not exactly a versatile performer. Yet that movie was slyer than this remake, which doesn't make much use of its star's superior acting chops. In one scene, Farrell does pretend to play a little Beethoven. But mostly he just runs, jumps and shoots.
During a brief reflective moment, one character tells Doug that "the past is a construct of the mind." Then a bunch of white-armored storm troopers smash their way in, reminding us that this Total Recall was constructed mostly to bypass the mind altogether. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.