Like the 1990 version of Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 2012 update is based on the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While I heard that this remake was more specifically rooted in the source material than the original was, that is not the case. The 2012 Total Recall is different than its predecessor in some significant ways, but it has much more to do with that film than Dick’s story. Because of the similarities, and intentional winks and nods at the earlier film, it’s impossible not to compare to two films. The update pales in comparison. While it gets off to a strong and exciting start, Total Recall 2012 drops it’s sci-fi concepts in favor of a conventional kill-or-be-killed action ending that leaves you feeling empty.
Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker dissatisfied with his life. He lives with his attractive wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) in a shabby apartment in The Colony. It is some time after World War 3 has taken place and there are only two habitable areas left on Earth. The Colony appears to be Australia, and the UFB (United Federation of Britain) comprises most of Europe. Workers from The Colony take a transport each day through the center of the Earth to work in UFB factories that produce synthetic police robots. Quaid has recurring dreams of a more exciting life, full of intrigue and shootouts, with a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel). Feeling like his life is in a rut, and confused by his strange dreams, Quaid decides to visit Rekall. Rekall promises to give people the life they wish they were living by implanting memories in their brains. Quaid wants to be a secret agent.
What’s missing from the 2012 Total Recall is a reason to care about it all. We know very little about the world Quaid lives in. We know it’s crowded, we know people are struggling to get by, and we know the powers that be are corrupt. What we don’t know is anything personal. We don’t get to know any of the citizens who live in The Colony or the UFB. Other than it being a conceptually bad thing, there is no real reason to care about the impending threat to society. What’s also missing from this remake is the fun of the original. I’m not saying this film should have tried to copy Verhoeven’s satirical style, but this film is so deadly serious it loses its fun by the end.
And there’s no Mars. In the ’90 version, Cohaagen was cheating the citizens of the Martian colony out of clean air to breath, resulting in disfiguring mutations. Removing the interplanetary aspect wasn’t necessarily a bad idea in and of itself, but it wasn’t replaced with anything nearly as interesting. If the filmmakers wanted to distinguish the remake by omitting one of the key elements of the original’s story, they should have made sure the new ideas were equally (or more) compelling. Cohaagen leading a colonial invasion using robot warriors straight out of The Phantom Menaceleaves this Total Recall feeling pedestrian.