Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“Total Recall”: We Can Remember It With You

As we come upon the release of yet another summer blockbuster that owes its script to another great work of art, I would like to say that I’ll be going to see it with an open mind. Why we’re so resistant to the idea of remakes is a concept I’ll get to, but I can definitely understand why a movie studio would want to remake a film like Total Recall. It was fun, action-packed, and thought-provoking enough to stand out among action films that had been bogged down by repetitive plot points. Yet I can’t help but feel that this summer’s contribution to Dick’s legacy will be at least somewhat disappointing to fans; Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger’s vision of Total Recall created one of my favorite films and a film that deserves more credit than it often receives.

Why it’s a Classic:

Total Recall was part of a great series of films that sought to elevate the action genre above its roots in Westerns and give it a more intellectual feel perfectly complemented by the science fiction genre, creating either an action-science-fiction or science-fiction-action subgenre which confused more than one video store manager. Aliens, Blade Runner, and Escape from New York shine as examples, and Schwarzenegger was no stranger to the format, starring in Predator, The Terminator, and The Running Man. It was Schwarzenegger himself who pushed to have this film made, as he believed in the potential of the script and his ability to sell it to an audience. As such, Schwarzenegger became a champion of the “thinking man’s action movie,” and Total Recall is an indispensable part of that tradition.

By its nature, Total Recall is the kind of movie that can lay out the entire plot for you start to finish and still leave you gripped as to what will happen and, after you’ve seen it, what really happened. As with Blade Runner and the question of whether Deckard is a Replicant, you can’t help but watch it a second time and see if there is something you missed. And perhaps a third time. Total Recall is intentionally and masterfully ambiguous, and to this day I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion about which of the possible theories I believe: there’s enough evidence to argue them all. To be ‘thinking’ movies, a film must present something new to think about, give clear evidence toward multiple conclusions, and give the issue importance in the way the story unfolds. Total Recall has all of that.

Total Recall 2
What Total Recall did to make it totally unique is to pair the idea of memory and identity (explored in Blade Runner) with the notion of prophecy and, more specifically, self-fulfilling prophecy. Quaid believes himself to be the hero, but events around him all but force him on a particular path giving him only the mere illusion of choice (with the preservation of his identity in mind). At several points in the story, Quaid is told what he will do by a salesman, a scientist, and a mystic. While the only one he actively chooses to follow is the mystic, doing so causes him to fulfill the prophecy of Edgemar he’d hoped to avoid. The one discrepancy between prophesies (whether he wakes up, is lobotomized, or is actually on Mars) is left to the audience.

Today, ‘thinking man’s action movies’ are the norm, but in a skewed sense: the thinking is done for us, leaving us to argue with the writers rather than collaborate with them. When the issues presented are ones we’ve already thought about, filmmakers seem to avoid ambiguity and present their own conclusions instead, a commonality evidenced as recently as Inception (and when films attempt ambiguity, they risk the fate of Sucker Punch). Reality versus fantasy from the point of view of an unreliable narrator is a theme that has been done to death, literally in some cases. As such, it doesn’t seem like remaking a film like Total Recall will add much to the discussion.

One of the best things about the writing in Total Recall is, of course, its penchant for one-liners and otherwise lovely quotables. Aside from the usual Arnoldisms, there’s:
Lori: “Beats me. I just work here.”
Richter:  “What was that, sir? I couldn’t hear you; I’ve got sunspots.”
Cohaagen: “All dreams come to an end.”
Benny: [Repeated line] “I got five kids to feed.”
Dr. Edgemar: “She’s real because you dreamed her?”
JohnnyCab: “Hope you enjoyed the ride! Haha!”

"You can't explain that!"
Other than the writing, what stands out to most who’ve seen Total Recall it is the visual experience. Total Recall was one of the last great films before the CGI era, and it shows for the better in this case. Gorgeous matte paintings, believable prosthetics, and trick photography are all present and executed well. The Martian landscape in the opening dream sequence leaves a lasting impression, as well as the animated X-ray safety zone, the animatronics on Kuato and the sculpture-based effects in the nose-bug scene and Quaid’s mask. One can’t help watching these scenes in awe of how they’re done. Mike Mattei of Cinemassacre describes such traditional effects as “literally magic”[i]. Like any great magic show, even if you know the trick, the execution is still something to behold. While I feel CGI has lent a lot to the artistry of film, particularly in its earliest uses (Tron, The Last Starfighter) it does take the wonder out of how an effect is produced and is often used unnecessarily in place of traditional special effects. Aside from the X-ray scanner, everything you see in Total Recall is filmed, which makes it all the more interesting to watch. One can argue that Verhoeven’s love of blood packs and geysers interrupts the realism of the film, but pairing it with the prevalence of cement and steel architecture (called brutalist architecture for a reason) lends to a blend of fantasy violence and gritty visual interpretation perfect for a believable everyman.

Few things stand out more than one particular scene: Quaid’s introduction to The Last Resort. The clever name adds to an equally clever environment with a more colorful and diverse secondary cast than a Disney musical. Each has only a few spoken lines, but in those few lines we learn everything we need to know to flesh out and care about their characters. Complementing the environment is Bruno Louchouarn’s cheesy but catchy loop of “Mutant Dancing”. This scene is an excellent example of how to establish an alien setting in the shortest amount of screen time.

On the subject of music, Jerry Goldsmith’s score certainly requires mentioning. The opening theme titled “The Dream” is an excellent setup, blending ideas from Holst’s “Mars” with an electronic rhythm and orchestral percussion, building a crescendo that becomes increasingly complex. There’s a very brief B section characterized by an airy melody before a quick return to the unrelenting A section. At about 2:30, the urgency of the theme disappears as a string and winds variation picks up, followed by a very dissonant, uneasy coda. The leitmotifs established in the theme are heard throughout the film, particularly in the climactic “End of a Dream”. The light, airy tones are used often in the more thought-provoking scenes, most prominently through the scene with Dr. Edgemar, giving these moments a particularly otherworldly feel. Though the score is brilliant, one of my favorite scenes involves silence: Quaid’s meeting with Robert Costanzo’s Harry after visiting Rekall. The following fight scene offers no music at all, only gunshots, punches and snapping necks, grounding the film’s grittiness much as the Bane/Batman fight in The Dark Knight Rises.

Why Remake It?

Luhrmann adds a unique style to
Shakespeare's most produced work.
Besides the obvious reason of “established IPs make more money than new ones,” the first question we should ask is why remake anything? To that, I say “Why is it a ‘remake’?” The directors don’t seek to erase or ignore the past by “unmaking” the original film; rather, it is an adaptation of an existing story (as are most "original" works). Both should exist in complement of each other. And if you ask me why adapt an existing film when the original is already good enough, I’d just ask “Why not?” There are over 40 filmed productions of Romeo and Juliet and millions of different stage productions since the time of its writing. The story is the same, the actors and directors differ. So what is it about the nature of film that makes us think an actor and character are inseparable, or that the story shouldn't be retold?

Certainly, one can make the argument that Total Recall needn't be retold. Film, unlike theater, carries a sense of permanence. It can be viewed in exactly the same way over and over, and shared with others as the exact same production you saw. When you say “I really love Gone with the Wind,” you don’t have to specify it as the Fleming version or even the year it was made (though you may be asked to distinguish the film from the novel). In this sense, fans can't help wanting to protect the posterity of their version of the work. When you bring up Star Wars in a conversation, you may feel the need to specify whether you mean the original trilogy only, the six films without the expanded universe, or the expanded universe, but not the new trilogy. New films can damage the reputation of older works, but mostly for those who aren't familiar with the originals. A bad stage production doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the story.

On the other hand, like theater, film remains a product of the era in which it was produced. Technology and cultural significance can make a film less relevant over time, relying on a knowledge of the time it was produced to fully appreciate it. The prevalence of Asian languages and imagery in Blade Runner is one example, as is the sense of Cold War paranoia in Red Dawn and Rocky IV. Citizen Kane is a particularly useful example, as the person upon which it was based and the chutzpah it took to make such a film at that time have long been forgotten by modern audiences.

The White Yojimbo
Adapting old stories into new settings is a common art and, when done well, increases the meaning of both texts. West Side Story took Romeo and Juliet and made its point of contention not about parentage, but about race at a time when civil rights were taking center stage. Eddie Murphy vehicle The Nutty Professor took Jerry Lewis’s 1963 film and updated it, as weight discrimination became more culturally relevant than whether or not one was shy and awkward. Adaptations can also bring films from one culture to another, as we see with A Fistful of Dollars, The Ring and Insomnia. To call these films remakes is to do their originals a bit of injustice.

Dick's stories are excellent examples of adaptation done right: while his novels and short stories have made some incredible films, the best of them share little in common with the original work. Total Recall and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale are unique visions of the same story and excel because they're aware of the limitations and benefits of the media for which they were produced. While not terribly successful, even the Showtime original series Total Recall 2070 didn't seek to replicate the stories on which it is based, but instead created a world based on Dick's work and found stories to be told inside of it. Adaptation is necessary to retelling familiar stories, especially between media. Peter Jackson and his writers were aware that The Lord of the Rings required some changes for an adequate screen adaptation (and The Lord of the Rings is itself a fantasy retelling of The Nibelungenlied).

Having said that, I feel that for my generation and those older, very little of 80s culture has completely left us. Existentialist notions about reality, tragedy and identity are certainly there. Consumerism, sensationalism and corporate tyranny as well. There isn't much to Total Recall that falls by the wayside of time. However, one prevalent theme, post-colonialism and apartheid, is not so much a part of common thought. Terrorism, reaching back to Cold War paranoia, is much closer to our hearts and informs a lot more of today’s action and science fiction films than it did in the 80s. A Mars colony isn't necessary to the telling of Total Recall, but if you take it out, will the audience of the original still recognize the story?

Total Recall suffers just a little from the ‘everyone in the future is white’ problem as a lot of science fiction does. While Rachel Ticotin provides a main character of mixed race, Mel Johnson Jr.’s Benny comes off a bit, well, racist. A poor, black cab driver with five kids squandering his money at a brothel, and eager to tend to Quaid’s needs, following him loyally into the resistance? That can come off poorly. His character is redeemed momentarily when he confesses to deceiving Quaid, motivated only by profit (that’s better, right?) but not long after he’s chasing down Quaid in mining equipment yelling “I’m gonna drill you, sucka!” There’s a fair bit of scholarship on whether or not this character is regressively racist, but I have my doubts that such a character would even be around in 2084.

Then there’s Schwarzenegger. I’ll always be a die-hard Schwarzenegger fan, but Arnold himself is a bit of a relic of the 1980s and early 90s. His characters are always larger than life, which works in some cases like The Running Man, The Terminator, and Last Action Hero, but missteps in others. With Total Recall, I liked the character of Quaid, but since the story depends a little upon Quaid being a believable everyman, Arnold’s presence here is slightly distracting to one’s suspension of disbelief and all but forces the second and third acts to be comically over the top. Envisioning the character as a construction worker helps to explain his musculature, but doesn’t really make him seem more ordinary, especially when he’s spouting one-liners and ripping bolts out of JohnnyCabs.

Then there’s the fact that it’s an action film. Though Quail is an assassin in the original story, it needn’t be adapted into a big summer blockbuster with a fight scene between every few minutes of dialogue (consider other assassin films like Collateral and In Bruges). The perpetual chase works as well here as it does in The Terminator, keeping the story suspenseful throughout, but it also compromises the intelligence of the story to a point: Quaid’s pushed by Richter and Cohaagen to do exactly what the program wants him to do, thus his choice to listen to Kuato and resist Cohaagen isn't much choice at all. The Edgemar scene is the only spot where we feel Quaid could be in control of his fate, but it doesn't take him long to decide and the film wastes no time picking up the action bar again. A more subtle, dialogue-driven film could certainly work for this character and his world.

Could the story use a more modern adaptation effectively? Sure. Will it be effective? I’ll leave judgment of that until I've seen Wiseman's vision. I have no doubt that if it tries to do anything unique, there will be fans screaming about it (the same fans already complaining about the PG-13 rating, I'm sure). But with any adaptation, pissing off fans is a potential risk and a necessary one if your film wishes to add anything that wasn't already there.

[i] The Dungeonmaster (1985). Mike Mattei. April 16, 2012.

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