‘Total Recall’: The Review

Senior Contributor
08.03.12 17 Comments

Our own Maske had a wonderful article about why everybody already hates Total Recall, but I thought it was worth exploring why remakes have become the source of knee-jerk hate. Especially since, man, do I hate this remake.

I saw Total Recall this week at a preview screening, but if you go, go with an implicit understanding: This isn’t a ‘remake’ of Total Recall. It may share a few elements but this movie doesn’t even go to Mars. The most scathing thing I can say about this movie is that the original screenplay that had some Total Recall stickers slapped on it probably wasn’t very good to begin with, and the callbacks to the movie just remind you constantly you could be watching something better.

This is really the trend that’s made ‘remake’ a dirty word for casual filmgoers and film nerds alike. Remakes have been with us since Hollywood started. But we need a new word for these movies, because there are only going to be more of them and this isn’t really a remake.

The remake actually has some pretty major artistic validity. ’50s Ben-Hur held the record for most Oscars for decades, and it’s a remake. The Maltese Falcon was remade twice before they got that one right.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with somebody telling the same story. It’s like arguing only Dylan or Hendrix can put out All Along The Watchtower. And not all recent remakes suck: Ryan Reynolds, for example, single-handedly turns The Amityville Horror into a vastly better movie than the ’70s version. The Crazies is actually quite a good thriller.

But remaking a movie also invites comparisons, which is the entire problem here.

The original is Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece of bad taste. Verhoeven spent most of his Hollywood career seeing how far he could push the boundaries of decency and common sense, and once he gets a script that could be retitled “Freudian Excuse”, he takes the ball and sprints for the goal line. This is a movie that glories in being as gory, offensive, excessive and grotesque as it can possibly be, and passes it all off as either real or the fantasy of… well… an everyday guy who could be a member of the audience. That constant tension makes the movie work, and the movie, memorably, ends on a note of refusing to answer whether Quaid was dreaming or he really was going through this absurd plot.

This “remake” is carefully calculated not to get an R. The three-boobed hooker keeps her shirt on and frankly, the only thing that makes that joke actually work is the constant tension in the original movie about whether she’s real or whether Quaid (and by extension the audience) is just a pervert. Here, since the movie isn’t shy about insisting on screaming into your face what’s real and what isn’t, the joke just comes off as sleazy.

As for the cast, Farrell is bored, Jessica Biel is hoping this will turn her into Angelina Jolie, and the only actor really trying is Bryan Cranston, who to his credit knows exactly what makes Ronny Cox’s performance as Cohaagen in the original so fun, but can’t get past the script.

That’s really the thing. Len Wiseman is not Paul Verhoeven, in any sense. Every decision made behind the camera is made to offend the fewest number of people. He’s avoiding excess. It’s like trying to make Pink Flamingoes as a Disney movie; maybe you can touch on a few of the high notes, but in the end, you’re just going to have a bland mess.

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