Total Recall may be the first straight action film I’ve seen in several years. When asked to see this movie, my mind jumped to another recent film, Prometheus, an interesting sci-fi piece even for all of its action and monster movie shortcomings. Prometheus succeeded on an exploration of interesting and grand ideas. They may not have been flawlessly executed, but the film was stimulating nonetheless. Total Recall takes a Philip K. Dick short story (for reference, a novel of Dick’s became Blade Runner) and turns it into some interesting set pieces and a reason to chase around Colin Farrell.
This film doesn’t really have any character set up, and the plot doesn’t make much sense outside of its immediate context. It doesn’t really beg a lot of discussion. Farrell plays Doug, and he gets chased around a lot because the government wants him dead, but actually not dead because he’s secretly on their side but only a few guys in the government know that. A good eighty percent of this movie must be action sequences, which is rather problematic. Action scenes have the same problems that sex scenes do - if you’re not into them, there’s no reason to watch. Regardless of what surprises are thrown in, you always know how they’re going to end. Of course, a stronger film could use either basic scene as a more specific expression of plot or emotions. What we get here is nonstop and dull. They try to work in interesting set pieces on which to do battle like upside down magnet roads and a subway/elevator system that’s highly reminiscent of the plot twist from Cube. We get a barrage of camera movement and gunshots and nothing inventive to follow. There’s a phenomenon on YouTube called Let’s Play where people watch other people play through video games. I imagine that if you like that, you might like this movie.
Nothing really looks threatening either. Nearly everything is CG except for some select foreground objects. The police are wearing uniforms that look more like laser tag outfits than futuristic kevlar. If this camera were a person, it’d be one heck of a close-talker. We hardly get any breathing room from our characters’ beautiful faces. These sets are really small, and visually, it often looks like the commercials for the TV series Alias that I would see during Lost in the mid 2000s. This film has one of the worst offenses of lens flare - at nearly every moment either a yellow or blue streak is blooming across the screen for whatever reason. Even though this is an apocalyptic future, our characters look incredibly good. Everyone’s skin is gleaming and orange - there must be a sex scene in the outtakes for the DVD release.
Total Recall includes some very interesting ideas. The sci-fi concept here is that there is a way to artificially create memories. What then is the value of an experience? If you believe it was real, does it matter that it isn’t? There’s also the implication that the film itself could simply be Doug’s experience during recall. Here is a list of interesting ideas that Total Recall fails to explore: What is the value of an experience?; Does it matter what is real?; Is this entire film just a created experience? The film, by nature of its concept, implies these things, but it goes no further. These are all left haphazardly lying around. The notion of the film being simply an experience is loosely touched upon. In the conclusion it’s vaguely considered, but it’s only an interesting idea if Doug is stuck in the experience. Otherwise, had the movie continued for another few minutes, we’d see Doug waking up and find out our answer. There is also a fine scene around this film’s halfway point that works far stronger than anything else in this movie. A friend of Doug’s addresses him in a Mexican standoff and tries to convince him that everything that’s happening to him is fake - to end it, he just needs to shoot his partner. It’s a sequence that actually works on tension and characters rather than whose bullets are allowed to hit their targets. Of course, it being in the middle of the movie, we know very well what’s going on. Unfortunately, outside of this, there is no exploration of the sci-fi concepts. We’re given so much to consider for ourselves, but none of it is actually discussed by the movie.
This film opens with text that explains to us the nature of the apocalypse that we’re about to step into. This is horrifically lazy filmmaking. Novels don’t come with illustrations because it’s the author’s job to explain everything to us properly. Films shouldn’t include text because a few lines of banter could explain everything that it told us in a much more natural way. The world itself is interesting enough but something of an impossibility. It would be exciting to look at if it weren’t all CG. The area Doug lives in is an Asian influenced almost Rio de Janeiro type slum. The area the rich people live in is Britain with floating cars. In the slum, homes are staggered and crop out over one another in the middle of the sky because this is how engineering works best in the future.
There are no real characters in this film to speak of. The problem with setting up characters and relationships and then telling us that none of that was real is that suddenly we have no characters. Doug doesn’t even know who he is. He bumbles his way through these action scenes while two women do all of the fighting. There is a moment that must be spoken to that is awfully offensive. Doug’s main captor is perhaps the most developed character. That doesn’t mean much, but she is shown to stand up to authority and to have a hard enough will to boss everyone else around. That’s very nearly true, expect for one man who in some bizarre moment degrades her with a ‘playful’ grabbing of her chin in front of everyone for no apparent reason. It’s a misogynistic moment that’s utterly unnecessary and makes no sense in context. It’s there simply to add sexuality to a film with nothing to stand on. On another note, when you’re given Bryan Cranston, please give him more screen time. He puts forth the most interesting performance of this mess.
This is not to say that Total Recall is egregiously bad - it’s just horribly inane. I don’t like to rate movies here, but I’ll say this: earlier last week, for about the same amount of money as I paid to see this movie, I had some chana masala that gave me heartburn - if I were pressed to repeat one of these activities, I’d gladly take the curry.