It’s kind of surprising that Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall is over twenty years old, especially given how familiar it is to current audiences. It certainly doesn’t seem like it would be near the top of the list for a remake, but I was surprised to find that it’s not as bad as it could have been.
In this version of the story, the world has been largely destroyed by chemical warfare and is mostly uninhabitable. Only two populated areas remain: The United Federation of Britain (UFB), and The Colony. They’re on opposite sides of the world and are connected by a tunnel that passes through the earth’s core. The government is located in UFB, but many in The Colony would like their own leadership, and some protests have started to get violent. As a result, the UFB has started to amass a large police force, consisting largely of androids they call synthetic cops, or often just “synthetics”.
Doug (Colin Farrell) works in a factory where they manufacture these synthetics, but he’s kind of bored with his work, and with his home life with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale). He’s intrigued by advertisements from a company called Rekall that claims they can make you feel like you’ve just been on a vacation or some kind of adventure by implanting memories into your brain. When he stops in and they give him a menu of choices, he chooses a secret agent package. But he had no idea that he actually used to be a spy, and the attempt to implant new memories triggered latent abilities he didn’t know he had. When he creates a bit of a disturbance that makes him a prime target for the police, his old partner Melina (Jessica Biel) is able to get to him first with the hope of helping him figure out what’s happened with his life.
As should be fairly obvious from the above description, the new Total Recall borrows ideas from the original but also has some pretty major differences. Although there’s a passing reference to Mars, no one gets his ass there in this version of the story. There are plenty of nods to the first version, but they often seem like they’re awkwardly put in just to satisfy some kind of checklist that some executives put together. The appearance of a three-boobed woman is the most obvious example of this, but several others aren’t all that difficult to spot, either.
But even if a lot of the similarities seem forced, I was actually pleasantly surprised by some of the elements contained in the film. I’m glad they didn’t go for a pure remake, and the new version isn’t quite as “out there” in so many ways. There were interesting ideas I’d never seen before, like a gun capable of deploying lots of cameras into a room, but a lot of the other content was clearly borrowed from other sources.
The biggest problem with the remake was its relatively weak ending. They eschewed a number of interesting alternatives in an apparent attempt to rip off elements from Escape from New York, and there are several points at which they could have ended the film but instead chose to keep going. I think that this “when will it end” syndrome, especially combined with the ham-handed way it tried to shove things in from the original, is responsible for much of the backlash the movie has received. It’s not bad, but it is frustrating that it could have been much better with some fairly simple changes.