Review: ‘Total Recall’ Has Less Personality Than Carboard

Well, this seems…familiar.

Sony Pictures

Total Recall (2012):

The Plot: Handsome everyman Doug Quaid (Colin Farrel), unable to face another unbearable day of manual labor and pants-less Kate Beckinsale, decides to try out a mind-bending new procedure called “Rekall,” in which the patient is implanted with fake memories, allowing them to imagine life as a spy or whatever. But it turns out that—record scratch—Doug has been a spy this whole time, only he didn’t know it! And now his real memories are coming back! Maybe! And his loving, pants-less wife is actually another spy, only now she’s trying to kill him and she’s wearing pants! And now Jessica Biel is in love with him too! What’s a handsome everyman to do?

Oh man, where do I start?

First impressions. Those are supposed to be important, right? Sure, 50s dating guide. I—what?

I did not hate this movie, but I did hate the “classic” original with a fiery, burning passion. Total Recall (1990) is a late-coming exercise in 80s cheese, made palpable by Arnold Schwarzenegger and very little else. While the premise—of both films, since the new version does little beyond filter the original’s aesthetic through a sterile modern lens—is incredibly though-provoking, the original movie is, at the end of the day, a gory, cheesy, generic sci-fi romp. It’s pretty goddamn terrible.

So where does that put the new version? Well, it’s a very obvious re-make, as opposed to a ground-up adaptation of P. K. Dick’s original story. There are even cheap, easy throwbacks to the 90s film. That hooker has three boobs! Just like in the original! That woman at the airport looks like Arnie’s disguise in the original! And so forth. Lazy references to the 90s version don’t add much beyond the initial stimulation of Getting a Reference. Thanks, but we have memes to take care of that now.

I liked Portal too, but goddammit nerds read a book or something.

James, you seem to kind of hate this movie. Disembodied voice, I’ve barely even talked about it yet. How do I hate this hollow, empty shell of a sci-fi action film? Let me count the ways.

Total Recall is a mess of clichés, taking an interesting premise and reducing it to something utterly, frustratingly generic. Yeah, I didn’t hate this movie. Much in the same way that nobody hates cardboard. It’s just there. Actually, now that I think about it, I love cardboard. Because cardboard is useful. Cardboard is versatile. Cardboard constantly surprises me by showing up disguised as pretzels. Total Recall doesn’t surprise, and doesn’t have much of a function beyond numbing the viewer. Which, okay, fine, whatever. I just wish that I’d know beforehand so that I could’ve pre-gamed a little bit. It was my friend’s birthday, I would have gotten away with it.

Even I know it’s not fair to just condemn a movie without backing up my outrageous claims. This is the internet, not 1600s Salem, Massachusetts! Let’s start with the casting. In general, I’m left pretty indifferent by Colin Farrell. I haven’t seen any of his really good movies—he must have some—and he’s been in a lot of terrible movies. Currently, the only time I’ve seen him really add something to a film was with his turn as the coke-addicted boss in Horrible Bosses. Mostly, off the top of my head, I believe that Colin Farrell is known for playing Lead Male Roles in Action Movies. A Lead Male is tough, white, and stubbly. His hair reflects whatever the current trend is. He has sex with unreasonably attractive but totally forgettable Love Interests. A Love Interest for a Leading Male is always a Woman. I’m not trying to make this political. I hate politics. I hate gender studies. But come on, people. What is this, the 90s? If you’re going to keep giving us this same archetype, at least give us another John McClane.

20th Century Fox

What you should be getting from that last paragraph is that this is a poorly-cast film. The actors are competent enough, but they don’t do much to add the personality that the script so painfully lacks. Kate Beckinsale as Lori—Doug’s pants-less wife—is reduced to little more than a marionette, all wild hair and tough poses. Jessica Biel’s role is equally forgettable. Both women can fight, sure, but so can everyone in this movie. They’re almost as bland as the faceless robot soldiers used by the film’s under-written villain, Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Everyone is too busy jumping off and into things to bother talking about anything that doesn’t immediately forward the plot. Speaking of jumping, I find it interesting that people can take so much damage without getting any injury beyond a small cut on the forehead. No bruises? Really? Batman takes more damage than these guys. Batman.

Warner Bros.
Bruises, guys. They happen when stuff hits you.

I could go on about how it’s a shame that most roles for women in Hollywood are one-dimensional and interchangeable, and maybe I will someday. But that day will come when I’m a bit older, because if experience has taught me anything, it’s that most of your opinions about the “big issues” before you’re twenty-five are kind of stupid. Sorry, that was maybe too generous. Make that thirty. Either way, I’m still twenty-two.

I will say this: I am tired, ladies and gentlemen, of villains who don’t realize their full potential. Bad guys who wield power far greater than anything the hero can ever hope to get his hands on. Masterminds who hold back from vanquishing their sworn enemy just so they can explain their plan. People like Total Recall’s Cohaagen , who gets Doug in a vulnerable position but just really, really has to talk about his plan before he does anything significant.

Skip to 0:39 for things like monologue-ing and character development. This is a PG movie, and the villain is more of a threat than the one in Total Recall.  Look how he actually tries to kill the hero.  Mr. Incredible barely escapes, and not because the villain is stupid and talks too much.

Bryan Cranston deserves better.

Now that I think of it, maybe Bryan Cranston should have been the lead. Colin Farrel as an unhappy construction worker isn’t convincing. Nor is Colin Farrel as an unhappy construction worker discovering that he’s a secret agent. Bryan Cranston has the range to play both parts, and he’s old enough where “disaffected everyman” is fairly believable. Am I saying that he’s a better actor than Colin Farrel? Nooooo…yes. Maybe? I’m at least saying that Colin Farrell has never been in a film as good as Drive.

But enough of why I didn’t like this movie. Will you like it? Do you like explosions? Does character development not especially matter to you if it’s wrapped in an intriguing sci-fi premise? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then you will probably enjoy this film.

Will you need to pick this film out of a lineup of shitty action movies at some point? If your answer is yes, then you might want to just re-watch Die Hard.

This new Total Recall is too humorless. It allows itself a few moments of personality, but for the most part seems to be content with repetitive action sequences and close-up shots of Colin Farrell’s stubble. That may be good enough for some, but it wasn’t good enough for me.

And if you’re tempted to watch the original, just watch this instead.

6 thoughts on “Review: ‘Total Recall’ Has Less Personality Than Carboard

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