I confess to lacking total recall of Total Recall but, somewhere in my misty memory of 1990, these first impressions linger: It was a sci-fi vehicle for Arnie; it borrowed its little Proustian conceit from a Philip K. Dick short story; it was mild fun, mainly dumb, largely forgettable and loud; it made money. Well, imagine my embarrassment now. All these years and a few cultural downshifts later, I have come to learn that, more than just a wooden actor, Schwarzenegger was a worthy occupant of high political office, and, no mere cash cow, Total Recall was an important classic clamouring for a remake. Oh happy day – the wait is over.
But a warning to all you purists out there: Changes have been wrought, not simply to the star (Arnie out, Colin Farrell in) and the director (Paul Verhoeven absent, Len Wiseman present), but to the tale itself, which hews a bit more closely to Dick's version. So the planet Mars fails to make an appearance in this outing; instead, the setting is limited to the no-longer-friendly confines of Earth. It’s the not-too-distant future, after global chemical warfare has reduced our habitable terrain to two separate if unequal locales – the United Federation of Britain, which rules, and The Colony, which is ruled. The former is a spiffy place that, along with the inevitably snooty imperialists, boasts multitiered expressways and levitating cars and sundry other CGI adornments. The latter is a postapocalyptic cesspool where noirish rain doth ever fall. That's where Doug Quaid (Farrell) makes his humble home.
Happily, travel between the rulers and the ruled is facilitated by the Fall – no, not a ride at Wonderland but an elevator that tunnels through the very core of the Earth to connect UFB and Colony. Apparently, it offers a faster commute than your garden-variety train, plane or levitating automobile. By day, Doug elevators to work, toiling on the assembly line at a robot factory. By night, despite the ministrations of his lovely wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), he's a tad unhappy with his quotidian lot. Thus, touring the local demi-monde, the lad takes a pass on the three-breasted hooker (such a welcome returnee from 1990), but is seduced by the offer at the "Rekall" shop – to supplant his mundane memories with a more exciting brand. Doug opts for "The Secret Agent" package but, oops …
Hey, maybe he really is a secret agent, or at least a neo-George Washington poised to liberate The Colony from those frightful Brits. And maybe the lovely Lori is out to kill him, and the similarly lovely Melina (Jessica Biel) is keen to save him. Whatever, there's no maybe about the action which, in the efficient if uninspired hands of Wiseman, kicks off and trucks on with scarcely an expository pause. Naturally, those levitating cars get to chasing each other, followed by the usual ritual of capture/escape/rinse and repeat. At one point, our confused hero does stop to seek his identity in a safety deposit box – an old trope that, along with his lost memory, beckons to the Bourne series. As for the pivotal Is-It-Real-Or-Is-It-Memorex? sequence, it’s vaguely suspenseful and perfectly in keeping with everything else here: factory-issue quality, much like the robots.
Mainly, though, Doug just barrels on toward the fireballs and bigger bangs – or, in current Hollywood parlance, the third act. En route, Farrell infuses the role with a pop-eyed perplexity but, it must be said, fails to measure down to Arnie's cardboard standards. Alas, that probably rules him out for a second career. As we all know, B-actors make for the best politicians – they're just so good at awkwardly feigning sincerity. Speaking of which, today's Total Recall does nothing to tarnish the image of yesterday's – 22 years from now, I expect it to be hailed as a classic.