A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 23, 2012.
For the decade from Robocop (1987) to Starship Troopers (1997) the sly Dutch brutalist Paul Verhoeven had a remarkable run in Hollywood, directing a series of violent, sexy, highly profitable blockbusters that doubled as arch highbrow spoofs. Based on a short story by one-man high-concept factory Philip K. Dick, the original Total Recall (1990) exemplified Verhoeven's way of serving up gory pulp fiction with a malicious wink. The everyman hero Douglas Quaid (played by non-everyman Arnold Schwarzenegger) hands his brain over to Rekall, a virtual travel company specialising in implanting customers with fake memories of thrilling adventures. After the procedure goes wrong, Quaid rediscovers his true, hidden self and saves the planet for real. Or is he simply getting what he paid for, a standard wish-fulfilment dream?
The sarcasm is less firmly underlined in this remake starring Colin Farrell and directed by Len Wiseman, best-known for the Underworld series and for updating another popular classic in Live Free or Die Hard. Where Verhoeven's clean, hyperreal style takes its cues from comic books and advertising imagery, Wiseman adopts a superficially grittier approach, relying on desaturated colours, whip pans and lens flare. Yet the dystopian setting is blatantly derivative of sci-fi classics from Metropolis to Blade Runner, and even by B-movie standards the details are absurd. With most of the planet rendered uninhabitable, Quaid (Colin Farrell) is trapped in an over-populated, perpetually rainy megalopolis known as the Colony, which has its epicentre somewhere in South Australia; daily he travels by “gravity elevator” through the centre of the earth to work on a production line in Britain, which has apparently regained its superpower status by default in the aftermath of the Third World War.
Wiseman's lack of interest in what an imaginable future might look like is exemplified by the peculiar touch of having Quaid occupy himself during his commute with a dog-eared, vintage copy of The Spy Who Loved Me, rather than any more up-to-date entertainment device. There's a hint of topical satire in making the villain (Bryan Cranston) a tyrant who will go to any lengths to justify an upcoming military campaign – but this notion is hardly developed and too close to genre convention to have any real sting.
In a sense, Wiseman is more cynical even than Verhoeven, and far less concerned with the metaphysical meaning of a story about the quest to separate reality from illusion. Despite the dramatic possibilities of having a hero torn between two opposed identities, Farrell hardly plays a character at all, and from the film's point of view doesn't need to – he's simply a moving locus of audience identification, defined by his working-man stubble, up-turned collar and alarmed, cartoonish eyes. If anything holds Wiseman's attention, it's the running battle between his two leading ladies – Jessica Biel as a resistance fighter and Kate Beckinsale as Quaid's supposed wife. Biel is the “good” woman, but Beckinsale has sharper cheekbones, so we know who really wins.