Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Two Worlds of Total Recall

I had seen Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall when it came out in 1990, but I didn’t recall (ha!) how bad it was until I watched it the other night on Comcast. All right, it has a young Sharon Stone in sports bra and exercise tights demonstrating her flexibility in a fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger when it turns out she's a secret operative and not his wife. But the whole film plays like a bad late-70s, early-80s science fiction film using 1950s-quality special effects without any sort of textured atmosphere. In addition, in keeping with the late-70s, early-80s look of the film, most of the actresses have perms, clearly demonstrating what a bad hairstyle that was.

The basic plot of both the 1990 Total Recall and the 2012 “reimagining” is one involving a lot of chases and shootouts as a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger/ Colin Farrell), who starts as average-Joe Douglas Quaid but may in fact be secret agent Carl Hauser, runs from agents trying to kill him and attempts to stop the power-seeking villain, Cohaagen, from wreaking havoc in some way. (In the original film it’s all about controlling Mars and the mining of a precious metal; in the 2012 version it’s all about invading the Colony of Australia in a world in which uncontaminated living space is scarce.) In the 1990 version, the chases and shootouts become boring early on. In the recent version, many of the chases and shootouts are injected with a lot more imagination and some nice surprises.

On top of that, Total Recall (2012) has the distinct advantage of pitting Kate Beckinsale as the villainess, Lori Quaid, against Jessica Biel as the heroine, Melina. Action movie veterans Beckinsale and Biel provide one of the film’s main attractions when they go up against each other. Beckinsale’s thin face becomes frighteningly fierce, and she seems a lot more flexible and agile than Biel, probably due to all her Underworld experience, but Biel exudes convincing strength and determination. It’s up to you as viewer to decide which of them kicks ass the best. Beckinsale or Biel? Sometimes torn between the two is Quaid/Hauser, played with sensitivity and a compelling driving force by Colin Farrell.

As an action film, however, the big plus for Total Recall (2012) is that the action takes place in a world that is always interesting to look at. Most of the sets for the 1990 film are sterile, over-lit hallways . The settings in the environment dome on Mars, obviously shot in sound stages, look as unlived-in as TV sit-com sets.

The 2012 film evokes a darker world in a future in which chemical warfare has restricted the human population to two population centers: The United Federation of Britain (Great Britain and Europe) and The Colony (Australia). The two areas are linked by “the Fall,” a massive subterranean transit system (kind of like sending a skyscraper through a subway tube) that whisks you from area to area in seventeen minutes. Since uncontaminated space is at a premium, The Colony’s cityscape is a mass of structures piled on top of other structures, sometimes extending laterally between skyscrapers. This upper level slum provides a striking setting for one of the chases as an extreme long shot shows Douglas Quaid, pursued by Lori, jumping from dwelling to dwelling.

“The Fall” is an interesting device that fits dramatically into the end of the film, but Total Recall (2012) is not always original. Though its images of over-crowded Oriental districts dripping with rain provide atmosphere, the look of the Colony is straight out of Blade Runner. The metropolis of The United Federation has a different look, however, with famous London landmarks such as Big Ben lost in the megalopolis that has overgrown the original city. In addition, the white robotic soldiers that relentlessly pursue Hauser immediately call to mind the robotic soldiers in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, especially when we see perfectly regimented columns of them forming up for the invasion of “The Colony.”

Total Recall (2012) plays it straight and serious and delivers engrossing action and lots of detail to fill your eyes, but both films include logic flaws glossed over for the sake of the action. In the 1999 version, we get a futuristic world that has robot-driven taxis, and yet Douglas Quaid and his fellow workers still break up rocks with jackhammers. On Mars, the colonists live in domes to protect them from the vacuum outside, but the glass in the domes is easily breached by a bullet, and when precious oxygen along with unlucky colonists get sucked outside, the emergency shields can only be lowered if you a red button. Why aren’t they automatic?

Meanwhile, in the 2012 version, when Lori uses robot soldiers as shields, they seem pretty impervious to bullets, but at other times, they go down after a shot or two. It’s a nifty effect when “The Fall” decelerates and everyone in inside goes weightless (yeah, Inception), especially nifty when Quaid/Hauser and Melina are about to be shot by security guards, but when they ride the top of the contraption into the station, you’d think they wouldn't be able to stand up against the oncoming rush of air. Ah, flaws regarding logic and the laws of physics seem to be something that science fiction films have trouble avoiding.

The 2012 Total Recall inserts tributes to a couple of iconic images from the 1990 version without making a big deal out of them: the buxom lady with overcoat and handbag (Quaid's disguise in the 1990 version) going through security, and the famous triple-breasted prostitute, but the film successfully turns itself into a serious story with some great acting by Farrell and Beckinsale and some memorable action that takes place in a world I’d like to see again.


Sam Juliano said...

Ya know Hokahey, while I was sitting in the Film Forum this afternoon with my wife and oldest son watching CHARADE and PILLOW TALK, we were all "regaled" beforehand by a trailer to Verhoeven's film, which begins a one-week run at the Manhattan institution on Friday. Naturally my son, who is developing good taste, but still has some ties with this kind of commercial junk, asked that we take him during the run. Of course I agreed, so Verhoeven it will be again. In any case it's great to hear the the world we see in the newer film is more appealing and that in general the re-boot is stronger, in good measure because of Ferrell and Beckinsale.

Excellent review! I will see what I will see.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Sam, and glad that your influence as a movie critic has developed your son's taste. All those movies I took my son to have made him a harsh critic and he easily identifies the junk, which is not usually the case for younger viewers. I wonder what he thinks of the 1990 version.

FilmDr said...

Nice comparison and contrast.

I liked the look of the film too, the sense of an overgrown slum city, but the slim characterization and attention deficit pace kept me from fully enjoying the visuals. I kept thinking that the 2012 version could have been so much better, given many of the elements of the film. Did you have any problem with the lack of ambiguity at the end? I kept hoping that the Rekall corporation would have a larger role in the storyline.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr. - Thanks. Glad you liked the visuals.

I agree, I kind of expected an ambiguous ending and was a little disappointed with the pat happy ending. Any thoughts on the ideology of the film - an aspect of your posts that I enjoy? Or was it too vapid to include any sort of pointed ideology? The higher-ups here are certainly ruthless. They don't mind setting up Hauser to lead them to the head of the terrorists at the expense of a staggering body count.

I enjoyed this movie but I'm feeling kind of low that the summer is nearly over and the summer movies were kind of disappointing. I'm looking ahead to the fall and holiday seasons and I'm kind of predicting that this will be the worst movie year in a while - unless Spielberg refrains from schmaltz in Lincoln and Tarantino scores with Inglourious Basterd Unchained

FilmDr said...

I mentioned in my review that screenwriter Kurt Wimmer makes half-hearted jabs at the fascist tendencies of the Bush administration for using color codes to ratchet up the populace's fears of "terrorists." Also Cranston's Cohaagen seems like an ironic version of a Republican president, so I sensed a liberal slant underneath all of Total Recall's action with hints of Metropolis massive class divisions between the two inhabitable parts of the planet. The Fall sure seemed like an expensive way to commute.

You mention the disappointment of recent movies--have you seen Margaret on Blu-ray? I've been enjoying old Jarmusch films as a kind of antidote to the cineplex. This summer did produce Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite of the year this far.

Hokahey said...

Yeah, FilmDr, I got the anti-fascist bent of the film. I was behind that, and I liked its simple Metropolis paradigm with UFB as the upper-worlders and the Colony as the downunders.

Have not seen Margaret but I will check that out. And, yes, Moonrise Kingdom is up there on my list too.

Anonymous said...

I like the new film but I disagree with such strong criticism of the original film. I still find it enjoyable to watch. Perhaps if you just 'accept' it's an older movie without the benefits of modern technology then you would enjoy it more. To me, it's a classic and will stand the test of time longer than the new one. I adore Kate Beckinsale but I prefer Paul Verhoeven's version.
Unfair to judge the original which is near 30 years older.

Hokahey said...

Anonymous - Thank you for posting a comment expressing your appreciation for the original film. I'm not sure it's a classic, but I hear your defense of its qualities. But don't get me wrong. I'm not one who is wowed by CGI over analog effects. There are many older science fiction classics that I love. As for the original Total Recall, I saw it at the movies when it first came out, and I wasn't much impressed by it back then when there was no way to compare it with the look of films today.

Thomas Watson said...

Farrell is good enough as a reformed Quaid - a normal to gentle soul who shies away from the killer instinct buried in his core.