Returning to the Well

When Total Recall came out in 1990, my movie buddy and I launched ourselves like guided missiles to the nearest theater not because we thought this might be the mythical good Arnold Schwarzenegger movie but because we knew it would be a delicious ball of cheese – just like every other Schwarzenegger movie but only more so.  Years later I used to watch it with my daughters who also loved it for its awfulness. It’s just so Verhoevian!

When the remake came out last year, I didn’t bother going to see it because a) why? and c) it got a C from Critical Mass and a 31% from Rotten Tomatoes.  Also, Colin Farrell… I just don’t get it.  He was great in Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges but most of the time he’s little more than a talking grimace.

But I found myself with a lot of free time this weekend (read: My Lovely Assistant is out of town) and decided to stream this for a laugh.  Now, it always helps to come into a movie with low expectations but I got a solid good* experience from it.  Actually, I started to stream this on one monitor while playing Borderlands 2 on another monitor which is what I do with boring or tedious movies that I somehow feel the need to watch.  That way I can fill the empty time with run & gun only having to look over at the movie when it seems like something is about to happen.  A few minutes into the Total Recall remake, however, I shut down the stream and moved downstairs to watch it on the big screen.  In other words, I liked what I was seeing.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It’s a remake so you’re familiar with the story enough to enjoy Kate Beckinsale’s performance as the loving wife.  That was what caught my eye at first.  Knowing that she is going to quickly turn into an ass kicking terminatrix from Hell, makes the scene tasty to behold.

The look of the film is fantastic if slightly derivative of Blade Runner, but whose fault is that Ridley Scott got it so right that no depiction of an overpopulated future can escape without comparison.  Though it is interesting that in Blade Runner, the problem was actually under-population.  The reason J. F. Sebastian has a whole hotel to himself?  Most of the population has moved to the off-world colonies.  What’s left on Earth are the super rich and the physically incapable, the people who would never chance colonization or who are physically not up to the task.

The Synthetics (the robots) have a great look, as well.  Ever since I, Robot (a truly atrocious misappropriation of a foundational science fiction novel) the design of robots in film has been awesome.

The city appears to be built on a massive suspension rig over the bombed out remains of old London (or maybe Old England, it appears to be truly enormous) so every square inch of sky is filled with structure.  The colors are muted because, as science tells us: in the future no one wears bright colors, but also because when you have too many people, humans turn into mud.  Everything has a vaguely Asian look because as Joss Whedon points out: in the future only two super powers will remain, China and the West, and their cultures will fuse into one.

Note: I’m streaming the movie on the other monitor while I’m writing this and I just noticed that the Red Light District scene is quite disturbing and not just because it’s a little derivative of Spielberg’s AI, but because of the Synthetic prostitutes.  It makes you think that the human prostitutes have to do something to compete, hence the three breasted woman.

One place this movie operates well is on the black hat side of things.  Kate Beckinsale plays the Sharon Stone role like a vengeful wife pursuing a cheating husband, the Lorena Bobbit of Terminators.  This adds some texture to what was a pretty shallow role in the original.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s also playing Michael Ironside’s role from that movie.  By blending the two, they removed two fairly flat characters and replaced them with one scary as hell ex-wife.

Also, Bryan Cranston plays evil well because he does it like a corporate executive.  Real evil in the real world doesn’t look like Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  It doesn’t wear an easy to recognize uniform and sit stroking a white Persian cat.  Evil in the real world wears a suit and tie.  It runs companies like Haliburton, BP and Enron.

The thing the remake gets wrong that the original got right, is that the relationship between Quaid and Melina gets pushed to the side in favor of the many set pieces.  Both movies are essentially one long chase scene but in the original, Quaid’s character starts to come into focus when he encounters Melina on Mars.  In the remake, Melina just sort of shows up to save him and they begin running together.

What makes J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot double plus good and this movie just good?  They both have a great look, lots of eye popping action, and an intense and tricky story line, but Star Trek gives you an emotional investment that ratchets up the value of the action.  While the Total Recall remake is fun (the Wonkavator fight scene is particularly good) and pretty to look at, I don’t really care about anyone in it and that always leads to a sort of Meh feeling when the credits roll.

When you walk out of a really good action movie, what you remember is the stunts, the special effects, the chase scenes and the set pieces, but people have a tendency to forget that the reason you found all that stuff so fascinating was because you were emotionally invested in the story.  Forgetting that essential rule is why movies like this get made and the core relationship of the film gets paid little more than lip service.

* Ratings Examples

Double Plus Good: Star Trek Reboot

Plus Good: Looper

Good: Total Recall, Remake

Un-good: Sucker Punch

Plus Un-good: Troll 2

Double Plus Un-Good: The Room

So Bad It’s Good: Total Recall, Original

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2 thoughts on “Returning to the Well

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