The more you see remakes of Arnie films, the more you realise what a sense of humour they were made with. Total Recall is a remake with Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel of the 1990 Schwarzenegger vehicle, itself based loosely on Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. This film is visually stunning, has dramatically better action sequences, upgraded actors, and a substantially tighter premise. It's also utterly humourless, and the qualities of he actors show up the flatness of the characters. In trying to lift it from action romp to Blade Runner style dystopian SF, the remakers have done little more than expose the fact that there really isn't enough material in either Dick's short story or the 1990 original to make it worth the investment.
This is an exciting evening's viewing, and will probably be a lot better if you haven't seen the Schwarzenegger original, but it does not have enough in it to live in the imagination afterwards.
First the good points. There's a lot of Philip K Dick references scattered through this film. There are Blade Runner / Do Androids… style police 'synthetics', there is the glimmer suit from A Scanner Darkly, and a nicely Dickian geopolitical settlement, somewhat reminiscent of Radio Free Albemuth. Visually, the film takes in the gloss of Minority Report and also the dystopian underworld of Blade Runner. There is a realistic sheen to it which — with all the best will in the world — there never was in the 1990 version. As well as being faster and more extensive, the action sequences are supported by a real ability to feel pain (Arnie really never does more than wince). Farrell shows genuine dismay when killing, and Kate Beckinsale is a lot more plausible as a secret minder than Sharon Stone ever was.
The visuals really are extraordinary — the most compelling being, perhaps, the fleeting sight of Big Ben dwarfed among the dystopian London of The United British Federation. In a nice gesture to Mad Max, the only other place that has survived chemical apocalypse is Australia, now known as 'The Colony'. There are lots of visual gestures, such as Colin Farrell slumped over a grand piano like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, a tune unlocking a secret, like The Lady Vanishes, the kill code for synthetics, reminiscent of the film I, Robot, a Dark Star-like lift sequence, and a two-person chasm jump like the one in the original Star Wars.
Setting everything on Earth improves the coherence of the adventure, with terrorism impacting Quaid/Hauser right at the beginning.
The film's fundamental problem, though, is that is neither romp nor art-SF. It's not a romp because it lacks the essential humour of any Arnie movie, or, for contrast, The Fifth Element or Star Trek: The Voyage Home. It's not art-SF, though, because it just explains everything far too much. Given that the original film has been on TV hundreds of times, it's a fair bet that most people understand the Recall premise without needing it explained. It's explained anyway. Quaid/Hauser explains himself to himself three times. Once would have been enough. No times at all would have been better. In the stand-off scene, where Quaid/Hauser is confronted with the question of what is real, the explanation of the dilemma goes on far too long. Even people who haven't seen the original will recognise the dilemma from the Matrix. It should be done in about half the time it took in the original film. Instead, the scene is twice as long.
Ultimately, it comes off as Total Recall, with all the fun polished out.