Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Waiting for Kuato: TOTAL RECALL

Len Wiseman’s new Total Recall, like Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, has a twisty, memory-bending plot. It’s about Douglas Quaid, an everyman – this time around, it’s Colin Farrell, a more convincing everyman than Arnold Schwarzenegger – who grows tired of the drudgery of everyday future life. To shake things up, he heads to Total Recall, a shady company that specializes in implanting fake memories for people who wish for a brief escape from a dull life. Unfortunately, that’s where it all goes wrong. The procedure either awakens secret agent skills and memories within Quaid, sends him stumbling into a full psychotic breakdown, or delivers exactly the thrill ride he paid for. That’s the fun mystery underpinning all of the running and shooting to follow.

Verhoeven, one of the smartest, stylish blockbuster filmmakers of the last few decades, made his Total Recall between his Robocop and Starship Troopers, two consistently underrated sci-fi action-heavy satires. Recall has no such potency for me. It has several instantly iconic moments – the triple-breasted woman, the malfunctioning mechanical disguise, the creepy Kuato – and a propulsive puzzle of a plot, but overall it feels hollow and hokey to me. There’s definite room for improvement here but Wiseman, along with writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, have only mixed things up in surface ways. Now, instead of a dichotomy between Earth and Mars, the societal split in the futuristic world is between the only remaining livable land, the topside, an affluent Great Britain, and “the colony,” a rainy, dystopic Australia.

Connected by what is basically a massive elevator that shoots up through the planet core, the northern government, led by a shady, but underutilized Bryan Cranston, wants to quash a revolution led by colonial ringleader Bill Nighy, putting in what’s basically a cameo. Farrell’s Quaid gets his memory scrambled and suddenly his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is trying to kill him. She’s a secret agent too, working for the opposite side. What follows is an identity-crisis chase movie that finds soldiers human and robot alike running one step behind Quaid as he races through both cities trying to piece together who he is and what he has to do to save himself and the world. He gets some help running through high-tech security devices, flying-car chases, topsy-turvy elevator shafts, and massive gun battles (the niftiest is in zero-gravity) when Jessica Biel swoops in out of his fractured former memories and lends him a helping hand.

If that sounds a little like the Total Recall you remember, you’d be correct. I didn’t find the remake significantly better or worse, although it’s certainly a little worse without the strong personality behind the camera. This version is slick and competently put together. The special effects are top-of-the-line and the acting gets the job done. That I was relatively uninvolved in all of the above is not a factor of my memory of the original. If anything, the vague déjà vu memories of the first Recall reverberate thematically within the confines of a memory-puzzle story. No, what surprised me was how the movie draws heavy, obvious inspiration from a variety of sci-fi action films, derivative in unexpected and depressing ways:

1. The two cities in the film are so familiar I was thinking of them as Coruscant from the Star Wars movies and future Los Angeles from Blade Runner.

2. The palate’s all grim green and the screen is cluttered with sleek futurist bric-a-brac. It’s strange to think that after a decade The Matrix and Minority Report, inventive and ambitious science fiction films, are still the go-to inspirations for unambitious sci-fi.

3. The have-nots riding a giant elevator down from a gleaming metropolis had me thinking of, well, Metropolis, yet another inspiration that’s far better than this particular movie.

The point is: thinking about lots of much better films didn’t help involve me in this one. Wiseman has style, but not enough to compensate for a mishmash of borrowed substance. The film sands down the charms of the plot and keeps only the trappings that are supposed to be cool, but are simply derivative concepts. The actors, most of them generally charismatic, are dreadfully non-present here and the expected action, aside from a well-staged chase or two, failed to engage me. I sat around waiting to catch a glimpse of meaning, a reason for the movie to exist, and left with nothing.

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