Sunday, 5 August 2012

I Totally Recall Having More Fun The First Time

This should tell you everything you need to know about director Len Wiseman's lugubrious new remake of Total Recall, the brutally funny 1990 Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic: Kate Beckinsale, not an actress I often depend on to keep life seeming worthwhile, is the only performer in sight who shows even a glimmer of liveliness or wit. She's playing the part that put the pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone on the map—Lori, the loving wife who turns into a kick-ass villainess and slugging opponent once the hero catches on that his "real" life is a sham—and believe me, her maddened Posh Spice glares and curled lip when she revs into action are sights as welcomely incongruous amid the gloom that surrounds her as an icy martini wafting toward you in a mine shaft. It's a mystery how her old-fashioned notion that performances in movies like this one should be amusingly over-the-top ever managed to escape her director's (also her husband's) eagle eye for glumness.

As if to cater to our Great Recession doldrums, the plot has been reworked to drab, literally earthbound (no trip to Mars) effect. But the basic gimmick is in place. Taking over Ah-nold's old role, Colin Farrell plays Doug Quaid, an assembly-line worker living in "The Colony"—that is, the former Australia, now packed with mostly Asian refugees after too much chemical warfare has turned it into one of the only two habitable places on the planet. The other and richer one is the "United Federation of Britain," to which drone bees like Doug commute via a sort of supersized Acela named "The Fall"—not after the band, presumably—which zaps them through the earth's core in seventeen minutes flat.
The UFB's top cat is Bryan Cranston as the usual sinister dork with a totalitarian gleam in his eye, named Cohaagen-Dazs or something. (OK, so it's just "Cohaagen," but finding laughs in this movie is a DIY project.) He's got plans to invade the Colony with a robot army of heavily armed "synthetic police" to root out the resistance movement there. If all of this sounds like pretty stale stuff as dystopias go, you're getting the drift. The way the Colony is visualized mostly just tells you how badly Wiseman would rather be remaking Blade Runner.
Troubled by recurring dreams in which he's some sort of secret agent, Doug drops into Rekall—purveyors of implanted fake memories—and asks for their spy package. (The original's set-up was less clumsy: Schwarzenegger wanted to visit a virtual Mars simply because he couldn't afford to go to the real one.) And, well, you know what's coming: It turns out his spy fantasy was the reality, and his former employers up top wiped his brain clean of remembering it. Now he's a turncoat on the run, helped out by a resistance fighter named Melina (Jessica Biel). She needs to take him to her/their leader, Matthias—played by a mightily bored Bill Nighy, who seems to be fighting an impulse to yank out an iPhone between yawns and ask Siri to find him a new agent—to help foil Cohaagen-Dazs's looming invasion.
Understand, in principle, there's no particular reason to lament the idea of remaking Total Recall (which was itself based on Philip K. Dick's story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"). The original is 22 years old, pretty much the Pleistocene era to today's public, and not what you'd call sacred. But as tiresome as it is to say, just about every choice made by the filmmakers ends up reminding you of how much more brash and inventive Verhoeven's original was. Even the reprise of one of the 1990 version's best-remembered gotchas—a mutant prostitute exhibiting her three breasts—is embarrassing, because she's just plunked into a scene at random and nothing else in the movie justifies including her. For Verhoeven, three-breasted hookers were an organic (so to speak) part of the gleeful, salaciously pranksterish tone he brought to the material.
Compared to Verhoeven's relish for tweaking us with perverse gags and bold images—not least, the big post-marital martial-arts brawl between Schwarzenegger and Stone, a cliché now but a genuinely twisted novelty in those pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer days—the way the new movie crawls by feels like sitting through a state funeral for a bunch of gigantic kitchen appliances. The variety and flair of the original's action showpieces have been replaced by scene after scene of people monotonously punching each other in cramped, dim surroundings, and even the one sequence that might have generated some thrill-ride momentum—a chase involving futuristic cars scooting around above ground—is a cluttered mess. The same goes for the CGI renditions of the world everybody lives in; they're so crammed with post-apocalyptic busywork that you can't glean any basic information about each environment, like where anything is in relation to anything else or the intended result of what anybody is trying to do.
The real puzzler, though, is that the whole thing is so joyless. How badly do you have to blow redoing Total Recall to end up with a movie that's no fun at all? Practically the only joke in the whole two hours is whose face is on the future's currency—and it goes by in an unexplained eyeblink, too. Beckinsale aside, nobody in the cast has any spark. Farrell seems to have been directed to play the hero by imagining what Robert Downey, Jr., might be like after a lobotomy. (Answer: awfully down in the dumps.) Cranston—who's so brilliant in Breaking Bad—seems almost painfully out of place; it's like watching Hal Holbrook play Hitler as he tries to stick in little touches of folksiness to humanize him.
Then again, Wiseman may not have blown it at all so far as the big audience is concerned. Joylessness—or humorlessness, anyhow—is what proves a comic-book movie's importance these days. Even admiring The Dark Knight Rises as I mostly do, I can still wish Christopher Nolan hadn't become the exemplar for everybody else, especially filmmakers who can't match either his visual authority or his intimations of depth. If the new Total Recall ends up certifying the vogue, people like me may soon take to looking forward to the next Lars von Trier flick to perk ourselves up with a reminder that life has a larky side.

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