Is This Real Life?

The easy joke about Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is that it gives you so little to remember. You might recall the Blade Runner-esque neon-and-concrete vision of its future, or the look on Kate Beckinsale’s face as she tries to squeeze the life out of Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid. But Wiseman, who cut his teeth as a director on two Underworld flicks, has plenty of experience directing Beckinsale at ass-kicking. Two hours of her and Jessica Biel fighting in an inexplicably complex bank of elevators would be considerably more memorable.

Total Recall just doesn’t have anything to say. Doug, a factory worker in a future where living space is at a premium (yet there are still three-story buildings), has a lovely wife and a recurring dream about being chased by the authorities. Trying to shake the feeling that something is missing, he goes to Rekall, a sort of mental opium den where technicians slide manufactured memories into your head. He and McClane (John Cho) trade stoner-grade cracks about reality versus illusion, and before you can say Whoa, dude, deep stuff, something in Doug’s mind trips Rekall’s oh-shit detectors. All hell breaks colorfully loose, and Wiseman and his cinematographer, Paul Cameron, shoot Doug’s awakening like a video game, veering around poles, chasing the end of his gun. 

It’s one of the film’s livelier sequences, but the subsequent absurd rooftop chase (did we learn nothing from the Bourne films?) is a disappointment. The action picks up again when Jessica Biel, sporting some covetable resistance-fighter togs, shows up in a flying car to spirit Doug away from the cops. She calls him Hauser, glancing longingly in his general direction; he maintains the same slightly confused expression. Farrell’s not a bad actor, and his boyish face is developing some attractive gravitas, but his character is a blank: He doesn’t know who he is, and he’s too busy staying alive to think about it much. 

Despite the “Is it real/is it Rekall” tagline, Total Recall doesn’t spend much time on the question of whether Doug/Hauser’s newfound double-agent past is real or just happening in his head; there are a lot of explosions to get to, and more running and jumping to squeeze in. The film’s plot involves haves and have-nots, government and colonists, resistance fighters (Hey, look, it’s Bill Nighy for 5 minutes!) and robot soldiers, but none of it gels; all that really matters is that Bryan Cranston maintain a sufficient creep factor and the future cityscapes be appropriately dark and curiously imagined. Total Recall has moments of delicious escapism, but they’re snack-sized. As a whole, it’s neither entertaining enough nor intelligent enough to leave you with more than a vaguely sci-fi taste in your mouth — and maybe a faint interest in watching the 1990 Schwarzenegger/Verhoeven Recall again.

TOTAL RECALL: Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; screen story by Wimmer, Jon Povill, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; inspired by the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Cinematography, Paul Cameron. Editor, Christian Wagner. Music, Harry Gregson-Williams. Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy. Columbia Pictures, 2012. PG-13. 118 minutes. Two and a half stars.

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