Coping With Pop Culture Memory Loss
What do you remember most about the original Total Recall? The woman with three boobs? Check. Arnold pulling a tracking device out of his nose? Check. Disguising himself as a woman to bypass security? Check. Shooting Sharon Stone in the head, then saying “consider that a divorce“? Double check! All of these scenarios manifest in some way, shape or form in the new Total Recall… well, except for the “consider that a divorce” line. Pity, because if this movie were a flesh-and-blood person, I’d totally shoot it in the head and follow it up with a lighthearted quip. The location has changed from Mars back to Earth and the main conflict from terraforming to colonial subjugation, but the basic premise is still in place. And, well, are you beginning to see the problem with this?
If not, let me remind you that the charm of Total Recall was in the way the story unfolded. Paul Verhoeven’s penchant for bombastic absurdity really shined in this one as he toyed with the reality of the narrative, keeping the truth at bay just long enough to create a total mind-fuck of a movie. The problem is that at some point the reality of the film is revealed, and all the twists and turns eventually lead to a pretty spectacular conclusion, a fact that apparently the makers of this film let slip by (more on that later). The film also, of course, benefited from the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gave it a zaniness that it probably had no right exhibiting. But it was that levity that ultimately made the film more enjoyable. What could have been a crushing existential nightmare instead became a comically-stylized action movie, and — I can’t stress this enough — that’s why the film was so fucking good.
So when it came time to remake the film (which in this day and age has become obligatory for any moderately successful film from our past) it probably would have been a good idea to take all this into account. Simply put, if we look at the original film as a complex puzzle that must be painstakingly assembled, imagine that you and Arnold just spent hours putting it together, during which Arnold would occasionally interject with a one-liner. Ok, so you finish and now some big studio executive comes by and messes it all up then tells you to put it back together again only this time Colin Farrell’s going to help and instead of making the occasional joke now and then to lighten the mood he just sits there and broods the whole time, just trying to run out the clock. What once was fun is now a tedious experience because you already know where it’s going. Sure, every now and then you forget where a piece goes, but the big picture is always clear and it’s this knowledge that torpedoes what little chance this movie had.
When you think about it Total Recall really wasn’t even that much of an action movie and I promise you that when people think about that movie, they rarely remember the action scenes. This new film essentially devotes the first 50 minutes or so to an endless chase scene, and while on occasion it does contain some really slick choreography, it might as well just be colors and objects moving randomly through space because we’re never really properly introduced to the characters or even the plight of this civilization.
The business of bringing us up to speed on this futuristic wasteland is accomplished during some boring opening text narration. Apparently most of the globe is uninhabitable for some reason (poison gas? nuclear war? a bit of both?) and the only two regions left unaffected are Great Britain (renamed The United Federation of Britain so they can shorten it to UFB because bad guys love acronyms) and Australia (renamed the Colony so that you don’t miss the message they’re trying to hammer you with). I guess we’re supposed to care about the Colony because they’re being oppressed by the UFB, but we’re never shown any examples of this oppression. There are robot sentries all over the place, but they only ever seem to chase Colin Farrell’s character. The citizens of the Colony actually seem to live a pretty decent life. They watch the news on big screen TVs hanging from the sides of building, drink at bars, and have the income to go to their little Rekall mind fuck dens and forget whatever apparent oppression is weighing them down, so — really — what exactly are the stakes here? An invasion from the UFB? But aren’t they already colonized by them? So, what difference would that really make?
See in the original film the revolutionary subplot was really just a way to up the stakes for Hauser. The real focus was about him figuring out who he was, and us along with him. But we’re already aware of this in the new film. In fact, it opens with a scene from Hauser’s former life before his false memories were implanted, so the reality of his existence is never in doubt and all the twists and turns were already spoiled with the first film. So there’s nothing new for us to discover here. Which leads me to the only conclusion I can possibly draw from this film — what’s the point? Really? There’s no mystery to uncover, no tension to draw us in, it’s just a series of events updated from the previous film. It’s like going to a karaoke bar and having your favorite song ruined by some asshole who can’t sing in key.
So what chance did this film ever stand? From the perspective of someone who isn’t batshit crazy — none. But, hey, how about this idea? Hire a couple of thugs to wait at the door in each theater across America that’s screening Total Recall and whenever a patron enters immediately pummel the ever-living shit out of them until it causes irreversible brain damage to the point where they no longer recall seeing the original film. Then it will all seem so damn fresh to them! But I guess logistically speaking, that would be too much of an undertaking. Also, I bet people would probably end up filing a bunch of lawsuits or something.