There’s an unintentional joke at the very beginning of the new version of Total Recall: one of the production companies is titled “Original Film,” and their marquee rolls past us right after Columbia. Considering the film’s status as a remake – and a pretty crummy one at that – the irony is hard to ignore. Total Recall seems unaware of its status: adopting a crushingly earnest tone while routinely rehashing the key moments and plot points from the over-the-top Paul Verhoeven original. It feels like a sad carbon copy, devoid of any flair and existing mainly to get people to see the first one again.
The trouble begins almost immediately, with a lengthy bit of exposition setting up this new world. After chemical warfare renders much of the planet uninhabitable, humanity divides into two large nation-states. The United Federation of Britain gets all the cool toys, hot jobs and sexy technology, while The Colony (located in Australia) labors for long hours in sweaty pits to support their decadent overlords. You may immediately spot a small logistical problem with this, since that Melbourne-to-London commute is a bit of a bear. A high-speed train called The Fall connects them through the Earth’s molten core, zipping lowly wage slaves to their appointed stations for the day, then cruising them home to their filthy squalor until the morn.
Total Recall spends an inordinate amount of time setting all this up before spackling the basic plot from the Verhoeven version on top of it. Right away this causes some serious problems. For instance, the rebels now seek freedom and equality for The Colony rather than Mars… and can, with a few tiny bags of explosives, make that happen simply by collapsing The Fall. Their oppressors would then have to travel through thousands of miles of toxic sludge to continue beating on them. Naturally, no one thinks of this because then there would be no movie. Total Recall blithely ignores a staggering number of similar questions while frantically gesturing towards the overwrought production design in an effort to distract us.
The plot arrives almost as an afterthought, laid out with glum efficiency between a series of stunningly dull gunfights. Unremarkable factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) signs up for a supercool memory implant at the Rekall company, only to learn that he’s a top rebel spy imbued with hidden knowledge. His former wife (Kate Beckinsale) – actually a counteragent trained to monitor him – aims to cut his brain out before he can use the information, while his former lover (Jessica Biel) shows up to give him a hand.
Some vital part of the equation never comes online. Verhoeven treated it all as a ridiculous lark: taking every element to 11 while playing high-minded head games that were never quite as smart as they thought they were. We see none of that here. Instead, we get a glum, dour and painfully self-important future devoid of introspection or imagination. It drains every retasked scene of interest or energy — even the three-breasted hooker arrives with the tedium of a postal inspector — and the cast quickly follows suit. Only Beckinsale appears to be enjoying herself, relishing every minute of her rare bad-girl turn; everyone else might as well be sleepwalking.
The PG-13 rating only compounds the dullness. Besides his ex, Quaid mostly faces down sentry robots during his various gun battles, elevator chases and back-alley brawls. That allows him to mangle his mechanical foes without invoking the dreaded "R," but it also robs the fights of their energy. It becomes a video game played by someone else, all sound and noise with no proper context or accompanying excitement.
It didn’t have to be this way. Director Len Wiseman never made the action A-list, but he does command a strong sense of three-dimensional space. His best films make exquisite use of the vertical plane, lending them a unique visual signature that other directors struggle to match. Here, unfortunately, it all gets out of hand. The endless battery of elevator switches, Rubik's-Cube buildings and flying cars that drop precipitously towards the earth lose their novelty value very quickly, while competing for our attention with the jumbled skylines that transform every scene into a visual assault. Without any invention or flair, the story can't find its footing… even if it didn't ignore the subtler questions of identity and existentialism that the earlier version embraced with such glee.
With such a vacuum yawning before us, the film’s painful issues grow more and more insistent. Why does the villain (Bryan Cranston) stick his neck out for one instant? How do they keep all that poison air from seeping into civilization? It this actually dumber than a freaking Schwarzenegger movie? We circle around the most obvious and important question; namely, why the hell should we care? Total Recall, unfortunately, never provides an answer… just more reheated leftovers in a cinematic landscape stuffed to the gills with them.