Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Total Recall – Part 2: A Memory Better than the Real Thing?


While many of my suspicions about the new film proved to be correct, there's one very erroneous projection I made: that Total Recall would be disappointing to fans of film adaptations of Dick's work. Rather, Wiseman's creation proves a tribute to just about every film based on Dick from Blade Runner to Minority Report, with elements of A Scanner Darkly to boot. Some are more obvious: Quaid on his balcony in the rain looking over the city is a clear reference to a similar scene in Blade Runner, as is the role of the piano. The section of The Colony where Quaid lives, New Asia, obviously borrows the noir visual style of Blade Runner while the United Federation of Britain borrows the sleeker, brighter style of Minority Report (as does the car chase). Less obvious are the thematic elements: Rekall is no longer presented as a clean, futuristic technology, but rather a seedy-seeming drug-enhanced experience; an added conversation between Quaid and Mathias (2012's Kuato) discusses the relationship between identity and memory more explicitly than Verhoeven's film did, recalling a similar “discussion” between Deckard and Rachael.

What makes it great:

Much to the chagrin of critics, much of the new film's intellectualism rests in subtlety; other than the obligatory Lori/Quaid and Edgemar/Harry/Quaid discussions, the writers didn't force the issues any more often than absolutely necessary, leaving the audience to insert them on their own. For example, here it makes much more sense that Quaid seeks a secret agent fantasy: we see him reading a James Bond novel on his way to work, and his investment in the Cohaagen/rebel conflict stems from his wife's career as an agent of Cohaagen herself. The woman he dreams about isn't so exotic here, either; in fact, she's all but indistinguishable from Lori in physical features and ability (certainly not as contrasting as Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin). While Schwarzenegger's Quaid selects a fantasy that satisfies a childlike curiosity and dissatisfaction with everyday life, Farrel's Quaid picks a fantasy much closer to home. Not only does this lend to the idea that the 'dream' is real, but it raises the question of why we choose the things about which we fantasize. We have fewer lines like: “I just had a terrible thought; what if this is a dream?”, but they aren't missed any more than the narration in Blade Runner.

Considering the reality, Wiseman complements the original Total Recall's nightmarish fantasy violence by grounding his film in more realistic and mature circumstances: rather than insert an unfamiliar face to talk him out of his 'dream', here we have Harry attempting to convince Quaid of his schizophrenia, along with higher stakes than the red pill Edgemar offered. The slip into a dream state is also all but non-existent, which I thought was a nice touch; conveying the sense of falling asleep, particularly where anesthesia is involved, is a difficult thing to pull off in film. In reality it seems to happen in the blink of an eye with only a vague awareness of time having passed on the sleeper's part. The fade-outs in the original film force the audience to acknowledge the passage of time, though in real life it would be perceived very differently. The result of Farrell's more realistic Quaid is of course a less fun, less quotable Total Recall, but also a film that better addresses questioning reality and identity.

The visual style is much sleeker and less gritty, which improves the pacing of the film particularly in the action sequences. Farrell's Quaid can move and is quick to react to new situations, making his performance more visually interesting than Schwarzenegger's brief, grittier fights. It's easier to believe that Farrell's Quaid is at least Lori's equal, if not her better, while Schwarzenegger's Quaid just barely seems to keep up with those around him, meeting most obstacles with brawn, resilience, and the occasional explosive.

All in all, Wiseman's Total Recall is an excellent complement to Verhoeven's over-the-top Schwarzenegger vehicle, and stands pretty well on its own as an entertaining film.

What makes it mediocre (may contain spoilers):

It's a summer blockbuster. That sums up a lot of the film's perceived problems, though I'll explore them in more detail. Total Recall didn't need to be an action film and could have been handled much differently with this cast, but Wiseman and company thought a straight "remake" would attract the biggest audience, and they may have been right. It certainly hasn't impressed critics, on the other hand. Action movies are a dime a dozen, especially in today's cinema, and Quaid isn't quite competition for Batman or Spider-man. With that in mind, Total Recall is most certainly going to be overlooked this summer, though it may enjoy a bigger following once it's on a home format.

While much of the film is beautiful to look at, many of the visual elements are spoiled by the rampant use of CGI. At times, it creates an interesting effect; New Asia has a 'floating world' effect that's beautiful to look at and affects the way action scenes play out. At other times, the storytelling seems to stop to show off some visual effect which doesn't seem worth pausing the film to see. Thankfully, Wiseman seems to work in live action visual effects as well, which makes it a little more difficult to distinguish what's physically there and what's animated at times (the synths are the best example of this).

The plot is about ten years too late: the idea that terrorists could be scapegoated as an excuse to go to war was a common conspiracy theory circling the September 11th tragedy, and might have been more relevant then. Today, it seems cliché (no more cliché than it was in the original, but even so). Given the film's maturity and American sensitivity toward the subject, I would have liked to see the rebels here try to legitimize their terrorist acts as the main characters in Star Wars, V for Vendetta and Final Fantasy VII do. Instead, Wiseman plays it safe here, and I think the film suffers a little for it.

The treatment of women would seem to be better in Wiseman's film. Lori replaces Richter as a more than capable pursuant of Quaid, and Melina is no longer a prostitute. There are fewer catty comments between characters, and Mary (the three-breasted woman given no name in Wiseman's credits) handles Quaid's rejection much better. Unfortunately, this just seems to skirt the Madonna/whore issues Verhoeven faced head-on. Here, Lori fills both roles as she did in the original film, but Melina only fills the Madonna role, leading the audience to push Lori into the whore category and lose the ability to connect with her (made worse by the fact that her motivation to take down Hauser against orders is never stated explicitly, making her seem psychopathic as well; as two-dimensional as Richter was, his motive made a lot more sense).

One can hardly put Harry Gregson-Williams in a category like 'mediocre' and feel good about it, but Total Recall's score just seems to be missing something: perhaps a notable melody to attach to the film. The use of polyrhythms is fantastic and intense, particularly in augmenting the action sequences, but it doesn't leave a memorable theme in the listener's head after having heard it the way that Goldsmith's does. Then again, the same complaint was levied against Goldsmith's score, so perhaps it's just something I missed the first time through.

Conclusion:

I could probably go on, but I feel that Wiseman's homages to Dick's film universe give the film a sense of respect and a unique enough feel that it doesn't come off entirely as a remake of Total Recall, but rather a tribute to it and its creators. It is well executed, well written, and just a little gimmicky at times. For a summer blockbuster, it is worthy of attention. As a science fiction film, it's worthy of including in any discussion, though much of what's explored here has been done in previous works. Wiseman has given us a sci-fi cento that should, at the very least, keep its source materials alive and well.

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