Hello, and welcome to another installment of the film review column that can sometimes go a whole edition without mentioning Jason Statham (but not this week, obviously). I remember my mild surprise at seeing the cover of a movie magazine, a short while ago, with the caption 'Classic Sci-Fi Remake Special! Total Recall! RoboCop! Starship Troopers!' My friends, whether or not those movies constitute classic sci-fi is a knotty question, but it certainly constituted a 'Paul Verhoeven Remake Special!' First out of the traps is Len Wiseman's go at Total Recall. To be honest, the 1990 Total Recall is my least favourite of the Dutchman's excursions into SF, and I was further mildly surprised to discover it was being remade at all.
And the new movie initially appears to have departed even further from Philip K Dick's original short story. My heart always sinks a little when an SF movie kicks off with captions and graphics setting up the backstory, but at least the backstory here is engagingly preposterous. The world has been devastated by chemical weapons (oooh) and become totally uninhabitable (ahhhh) except for two regions (phew): what appears to be an extremely small section of central London (put it this way, Big Ben's in the habitable zone but the Post Office Tower isn't) and an unspecified chunk of Australia. Needless to say, the United Federation of Britain (no, honestly) is oppressing the Colony (don't get your hopes up, this is as deep as the political subtext gets).
Every day hundreds of workers from the Colony get up and commute all the way to London to work in the UFB's factories making robocops (settle down, that remake's not due until next year). That's a bloomin' long commute! you may be thinking. Yes, well, but they've taken a few hours off the trip by drilling through the centre of the Earth and installing an elevator. (More like a theme-park ride, really, but I digress.) Yes, twice a day people travel through the core of the planet to get to work and back. Wouldn't it just make more sense to build the robocop factory closer to where the workers live? Ah, an elementary mistake: applying reason where it has no sway.
Amongst these workers is Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a somewhat dissatisfied robocop welder despite the fact he is married to lovely nurse Lori (Kate Beckinsale), to whom – the movie implies in possibly its most startling moment – he is an intimately attentive husband. Feeling an odd sense of ennui Quaid trundles off to the dodgy Rekall clinic, where memories of wild fantasies can be electronically implanted. But zut alors! No sooner is he wired up than troops are flooding the place, and he finds himself shooting them up like a good 'un. Things get even worse when his wife starts literally trying to kill him! Is this real or has the memory implant gone spectacularly tits-up?
Well, this is a big-budget remake made by a company called Original Film, but that's about as close to irony as the movie gets. I'm tempted to say that the 1990 Schwarzenegger Recall was a big, daft, memorable movie with a big, daft, memorable star, while the 2012 Recall is a bland, good-looking, mindless movie with Colin Farrell, but this would be rather unfair to the lad, as he does the best he can with the material he is issued. The same goes for Jessica Biel as the love-interest, Beckinsale as their well-coiffured nemesis, Bill Nighy as silly-accented plot-device character, and the rest of the cast.
This would be the place to rail against the fact that Philip K Dick, one of my absolute favourite writers, has possibly the worst track record when it comes to adaptations of anyone in history – but after Screamers, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau, to name but three, this surely goes without saying (and all you Blade Runner fanboys can clear off too). Dick's complex, quirky, deeply original and endlessly imaginative stories about the vicissitudes of modern living enter the Hollywood script machine and emerge transformed into formulaic chase movies featuring odd forms of transport and things blowing up.
And so it proves here. For much of the running time watching this movie is like watching someone else playing a video game, as it goes from protracted, complicated chase to plot-installing dialogue scene, then back to another long chase or action sequence, followed by Farrell getting another plot coupon... And the characters are so thin and the actual story so underdeveloped it's all a bit boring. Apart from the most basic rudiments of the plot, very little from previous versions is retained (although, and what this says about the target audience I've no idea, the triple-breasted prostitute has been retained for no reason supported by the plot). Beckinsale's part is considerably beefed up, for no reason I can detect – but this must have been nice for her, and also her husband, the director.
The movie pays lip service to the classic Dick themes of identity and reality being up for grabs, but it's painfully obvious that the movie's always going to opt for the simplest, most straightforward answer, because it's equally obvious these moments are just inserted to try and give the film some kind of intellect heft – the story isn't about them the way it would be if this had been, say, Christopher Nolan's Total Recall. This movie isn't about the nature of identity or reality. It's about Colin Farrell being chased around by Kate Beckinsale.
The intellectual vacuum at the heart of Total Recall extends to the basic set-up. The two main locales are called the United Federation of Britain and the Colony, but they may as well have been called Ning and Nong for all the relevance this has to the script. Everyone still has an American accent. The only effect this has is on the architecture and the basic look of the thing, which is admittedly impressive – both areas look rather more like the comic-book Mega-City One than the city in the new Dredd movie. But it's just about appearances and design and movement rather than any kind of thought-through story.
I'm aware I've sort of gone off on one about a film which no-one surely had high hopes for anyway, but in every department but the art direction and production design this movie is just incredibly pedestrian and uninspired, without even Verhoeven's mad energy and excess to distinguish it (the 1990 film was an 18: this one inhabits the absolute top end of the 12 certificate). No-one seems to have made any effort to produce anything beyond an utterly vapid and mechanical runaround. It may be that things have got to the point where audiences simply don't deserve any better, but I refuse to believe it – and even if we don't deserve better, I'm damned certain Philip K Dick does.