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film review

Wesley Snipes, playing an alien abductee astronaut who seeks to avenge himself, is terrific and charming in the old-school action-hero way. But even his performance can’t save The Recall’s limp script.D Films

What kind of movie, one wonders, premieres on a Wednesday night, in a Toronto multiplex, in Cinema 9, for an audience of investors decked out in Rolexes and embroidered jeans?

The answer, not at all surprisingly, is: a not very good one.

On Wednesday night, Toronto's Scotiabank Theatre hosted an "exclusive" cast and crew screening of The Recall, a cheapo sci-fi horror thriller starring tax-evading martial artist Wesley Snipes opposite RJ Mitte, the actor best known for playing breakfast-food aficionado Walter (Flynn) White Jr. on AMC's Breaking Bad. The ostensible selling point – apart from the opportunity for the film's Canadian investors to pose for pictures with Wesley Snipes on an ad hoc red carpet, then proceed to watch their money spiral down the toilet – was The Recall's presentation using Barco Escape technology.

Among the latest tricks to lure moviegoers back into brick-and-mortar cinemas, Barco Escape sees the standard film screen flanked by two adjoining screens, giving the sense of panoramic, wraparound immersion in the film. In some scenes, all three screens are occupied by expansive widescreen cinematography. In others, a conversation that would normally follow a classic-shot/reverse-shot editing rhythm shows one character's face on the centre screen, and another on one of the adjunct screens (meaning you have to suffer the sort of dopey reactions that are judiciously edited out of most movies). For the most part, the action unfolds in the centre screen alone. You know, like at a regular movie.

Now admittedly, while I consider film one of the higher art forms (right up there with recorded music, the novel, podcasts, magazine articles imploring pity for gentrifiers, audio lectures, prank calls, fidget spinners, dashed-off "covfefe" memes), I'm not the kind of person to get particularly riled up about formats, aspect ratios, pristine viewing conditions and other auxiliary environmental factors.

Sure, I'll go across town to see a gorgeous 35 mm print of Stalker or some other movie that's already worth seeing. But barring that, a 420-pixel YouTube rip will do just fine. Likewise, someone checking their phone in a movie theatre annoys me more because it's a flagrant violation of an implicit (and often explicit) social contract than because it snaps me out of the mesmerizing spell of the moving image. The film – what's going on up there, on the screen(s) – that's the thing. The rest is just plating.

My apprehension around Barco Escape screenings and other desperate ploys to make movies themselves more exciting (3-D, AVX, 4DX and other meaninglessly alphanumeric flavours of the week) stems from this belief that a film can stand on its own. There's also a desperation to it all. It's like how shock-horror pioneer William Castle used to sell life-insurance certificates to make his movies seem frightening, or wire theatre seats with buzzers to physically jolt spectators out of their slack-jawed stupor. Except much less fun.

As demonstrated via The Recall, Barco Escape is pure gimmickry. It adds absolutely nothing of artistic (or entertainment) value. More often than not, it results in disorientation and neck craning, as the discombobulated audience members jerk their heads around trying to figure out which screen to look at. It doesn't help that The Recall doesn't particularly lend itself to the experience.

A spook-by-numbers cabin-in-the-woods movie about horny twentysomethings waylaid in a remote cottage during an alien invasion, The Recall is the sort of movie you find wedged into an old VHS player purchased at a yard sale in the Kawarthas or sifted to the bottom of a mesh-wire DVD bin in a gas station somewhere on Highway 6. Its premise, its plotting, its visibly cheap budget are invariably constraining. It's a small movie that's meant to be seen small.

Nevertheless, as the sort of rote horror movie that's fun to laugh at, The Recall has its moments. Snipes, playing an alien abductee astronaut avenging himself on the invading "visitors," is terrific and charming in the old-school action-hero way. The scripting is so limp ("This is the U.S. military," a voice over a U.S. military radio says, as if it could be anyone else) that it almost productively verges on genre self-parody, and the film cribs images and ideas so blatantly (The Evil Dead, Signs, Star Trek: First Contact, The Matrix, Power Rangers) that it's possible, while viewing it, to distract oneself imagining the haste in which the whole thing was chucked together.

It's not enough to redeem the movie. Or even justify it. In an era when critics and fans cluck about the revitalization of low-budget indie-genre cinema, The Recall is ludicrous, almost unfathomable. Even the people who threw money into the movie were laughing at it – although there was, perhaps, an undercurrent of fretfulness under the disbelieving guffaws.

But it's more likely their investments are so well-protected and sheltered that losing money is a non-issue. Wednesday's "exclusive" screening was an opportunity for the well-heeled to play movie producer; to laugh and cheer and applaud themselves and see their investment unfolding onscreen – a tidy return rendered in the form of Snipes shooting an alien point blank in the head while chirping a glib one-liner not fit for print in this family newspaper. Let's just hope, for all our sakes, that everyone involved pays their fair share of taxes.

The Recall opens June 3 at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto.

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