Doug Quaid trips the light fantastic in Total Recall 1992/2012

Having just seen the “new” Total Recall movie, I really have to wonder what the motivation is for the studios to make these “remakes” (not reboots, resets, etc) other than the almighty $$$. The new movie retreads basically the same material as the original, only not as well. I felt it had no soul and like much of popular culture these days is only a trashy vampire sucking the blood out of a twenty year old husk. Scene for scene, line by line, its essentially the same thing, despite being totally different.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a serviceable movie with great production design, reasonably well written and acted; if you haven’t seen the original, then it might spur you to excitement, even challenge you. If you have, then, well, why not just watch the old one? At least it has character.

SPOILERS for the new version are  coming. You’ve been warned.

The irony started as soon as the movie began to roll. My friend and colleague chuckled as the production film’s logo came on screen: Original Films, followed by two hours of movie cribbed from the 90s with minor changes. Oh sure, Mars is something different (but essentially the same), the bead of sweat is a tear, two weeks becomes three days (but really isn’t), the script writers have been clever trying to be clever and its kinda neat on some levels, just not very exciting.

But the thing that rubs me the wrong way most is they stripped the movie of its character. Verhoeven’s movie didn’t take itself too seriously, being the product of the 90’s action genre, where one-liner quips punctuate the action precisely when they need to. Not so much with this one. The dialog is functional and flat, even when reprising the classic lines. There’s no soul behind it.

The film really has very few organs that haven’t come from the dissected corpse of the original. And I mean this, the filmmakers are like gross anatomy students, opening up a cadaver, spreading its ribs wide, and pulling out organs, trying to see how it all went together. They’re bad students, though: they went through the intestines and kidneys and left the heart and soul behind, untouched and unused.

The similarities are numerous, but the way the material is used has little reason or purpose. Some examples:

  • The dialog: “How should I know? I just work here.”, “You’re going to wish you had three hands” and many more. In the 90s movie these lines evolved naturally in the script, supported and explained without being forced. In the 2012 versions, they are outliers, merely said and listened to, without any real impact. Some lines like “That was your wife? What a bitch!” was rewritten to be  less offensive “That was your wife? You sure can pick ’em”, but in doing so became lifeless, like it was from a 1950s sitcom, plastic and unreal. If you’re going to reprise a line, keep it the same. At least you’ll get the “I see what you did there” brownie points.
  • Triple breasted hooker? Why? Is she an abnormality? Was the extra one grafted one through surgery? There are no mutants in the “No-go” zones. This made sense in the original, where mutations were common on the Mars colonies. This could have been a clue as to the world we’re looking at, instead it was just done for mild thrills. And I do mean mild.
  • Robot gets its arms cut off with moving elevator. Just a minor part in an action sequence. Not even a punchline.  In the original: “See you at the party, Richter!” and it helped being at a dramatic apex of the movie.
  • Discovery of the implanted memories at the Rekall clinic. In the Verhoeven movie, the viewer has no clue whats going on and the film even explains what’s going on “Its just the new memories, its normal” and then “Yeah, it could be, only WE HAVEN’T IMPLANTED THEM YET…”  The new version apes the old one without any of the impact. The clinic technician is great on sales pitch, not on bedside manner. The dialog does its job, collects its pay check and gets  out of the building.  What felt weird to me, is that it felt as though the scriptwriters assumed you had seen the Verhoeven movie and thought they really didn’t need this to be an important or exciting scene. Cue mooks in combat armour at the door.
  • Bead of Sweat vs. Sorrowful Tear.  So they retread this scene almost completely. They amped up the urgency, tried to push the bluff a bit and it worked mostly. But I was waiting for the cue, the one that signalled it all a fake. I’m not really sure what to make of it. I suppose they deserve some kudos for making it a three-way standoff and the redirect to Jessica Biel as the breaking point should be different enough, but… why put this detail in at all? Was it a salient point in the Verhoeven movie? Or in any and every western gunfight movie?
  • Removal of tracking Foreign Body inside own body. The nose-pulling scene in the original, this time its a sub-dermal implant. This sort of this is a standard trapping in SF, so I’m not going to rant on this much, but at the same time, why include it? The authorities didn’t appear to have too much trouble tracking Quaid when he didn’t have it, and he even went to his original identities’ home, which would have been known to the villains, soo… yeah… I know, because it was in the original, but they had to make it different…

The production design itself is amazing and awesome, detailed, busy and ultimately very boring. The movie is a melange of all which came before it. It has no voice of its own. There used to be a time, not too long ago, I recall (wink), where you would go to see a movie to be wowed by its effects, or in my case, the visual design. Not so much these days. I’m not expecting every movie to be a unique voice in the sea of cinema, but the studios could at least try.

Total Recall recalls… sigh… brings to mind Blade Runner, Minority Report, Fifth Element, District 9… You’ve seen them all, which makes it even more painful to look at it and realize that yeah, you have. Nothing new here… Even more painful is to realize that all of those are the same kind of movie as this one is. I wouldn’t mind a Blade Runner visual style being used for something that wasn’t a dystopian SF movie, say for a Shakespeare play, or a rom-com, or anything. Does every (well, nearly every) Phil K. Dick inspired movie have to be a derivative of the Bladerunner formula? Studio Guys, its been done, again and again. A whole genre – cyberpunk – grew strong because of it and even that is a thing of the past. Come up with something new. Try a different author, a different production aesthetic. Neill Blomkamp did with District 9 and a beautiful movie was made.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they had taken the Bladerunner aesthetic and run with it to create something new (perhaps as Masamune Shirow and Mamoru Oshii did with the Ghost in the Shell movie), but no, its the same rules: neon, rain, umbrellas, asian writing/slogans (this time Korean, rather than Japanese, IIRC), transparent raincoats…  Minority Report: hover cars on rails/maglev track, same design aesthetic… The Robots and troop armour look like the products of the MNU in District 9…

I’ve long held the theory that the 80s and early 90s were the crucible of awesome ideas in SF and Fantasy movie making. We got classics like Bladerunner, Robocop, Aliens, the Thing, and so on, which essentially formed the templates for the next few decades of SF movies. Since then, there have been very few SF movies that have been revered enough to have the movies that followed compared to them. Most SF movies from the late 90s to today can be easily summed up as “basically Robocop” and so on.  Total Recall 2012 essentially proves my point.

One of the things that gnaws at me is the fact that out there are a whole whack of talented people who could revolutionize the movie industry; everything from scriptwriters and directors, to concept artists and visionaries. People who DO give us something new to see and dreams to wonder about – all over the web, or gracing the covers of SF/Fantasy magazines, or inside amazing books. Ironically, or sadly, these peeps work their asses off to get hired and probably will be, only to have their visions and dreams conformed to the kind of stuff in Total Recall… Looks great, less filling. Perhaps that is their definition of success, I don’t know.

So, back to the reasons this movie was made. There’s no overt artistic, political or otherwise interesting statement being made here that I can see. It hasn’t been adjusted to meet the eccentricities of a modern audience. There isn’t even a technical gimmick like bullet time or anything else being exploited. It wasn’t even in 3D!

In my industry (video games) every project that I’ve worked on has had to be judged worthy of the budget being thrown at it. What made it special? How will the money be made back? Could we be trusted with the production and technical matters.Why SHOULD this movie be made? I’d like to know the reasons Total Recall was green-lit. Obviously, I don’t care that much: its not my money, nor do I have an interest in it being successful, other than that it was filmed in Toronto and brought some $$$ to our lovely lakeside shores. But I would like to know why it was inflicted on us.

Yeah, you’re right, I didn’t have to go see it. I guess I perpetuated its kind by supporting it in its opening weekend. But let me put this out there, I’m only ranting on it simply because the more movies like this that get made, the less $$$ is going toward a movie that could be different, could be ground breaking and stir up wonder in us all for the years to come.

Please, Hollywood studios, listen to Kuato from the original Total Recall: “Open your mind! Open your mind!”

PS: The phones were cool.


Photocredit: Left side, © Tristar Pictures/Carolco. Right Side: © Columbia Pictures/Original Film