If humankind ever develops the technology to erase our memories, the way it does in Total Recall, I’ll happily pay to wipe out any number of errors in past judgment, including that Rush concert I went to and all the blue eye shadow I wore back in the ’80s. The technicians should also feel free to root through my hippocampus to eliminate any recollection of the last decade or so of Miami Dolphins drafts, and, while they’re at it, they can remove all traces of the reboot of Total Recall. Because there’s absolutely no reason to remember it.
The first Total Recall was not exactly Blade Runner, though both films are based on the work of Philip K. Dick (in this case the story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale). Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the original movie is chiefly remembered for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s goofy trademark one-liners (“Consider that a divorce.”), a now-hilariously cheesy special effect of a disguise going awry at a security checkpoint and a brief yet intriguing appearance of a mutant woman with three breasts about whom middle-aged guys are still talking on Facebook. You know who you are.
Still, any thriller about hidden realities and secret spies and three-breasted mutants is fair game for a remake, especially considering the advances in CGI since the original movie was made (it was released in 1990). Marc Webb updated The Amazing Spider-Man in refreshing ways, after all. But the new Total Recall fails on the most basic levels: Its characters are dull, and its action is duller. Directed by Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard, Underworld), the movie creates a futuristic world full of intriguing possibilities — and then forgets to populate it with anyone interesting. Nor do the writers ever come up with anything unique for these painfully flat characters to do. In this version, they don’t even get to go to Mars.
Of all its crimes, then, this is the worst: making Colin Farrell boring. Doesn’t seem possible, and yet. Farrell stars as Douglas Quade, a drone of a worker trudging through a dank dystopian landscape. Through a tired parade of TV newscasts, we learn there is some sort of turmoil afoot and that it involves a rebel named Matthias (Bill Nighy) squaring off with the powerful leader Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). None of this bothers Quade, though. Instead, he’s plagued by odd nightmares that involve a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel) and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with his job building robots on an assembly line. Not even his hot wife (Kate Beckinsale) can pull him out of his funk.
Then Quade spots an escape, albeit a temporary one: He sees ads from a company named Rekall that promise to implant thrilling memories into its clients. He ventures into the business, gets himself strapped to a chair and, one lengthy shootout later, learns he’s not who he thinks he is — and neither is anyone else he knows.
After that discovery, there is a lot of running and chasing and fighting in Total Recall, but differentiating one action scene from another is hard work. Transformers boasts more memorable setpieces (also, Bumblebee may have had a more fleshed-out character arc). The postapocalyptic landscape presents some potential, but the filmmakers rarely seem to take advantage of it, preferring to go the familiar car chase route in one instance (the fact that the cars are flying barely registers). The hand-to-hand combat scenes share a dismal sameness, too, whether Quade is getting beat up by his traitorous wife or battling the evil Cohaagen. The Emmy-winning Cranston, by the way, emerges from this mess in the best shape; he’s still got another half season left playing a truly treacherous villain in Breaking Bad, so he can afford this folly.
The film features a few nice technical updates, in particular the transmitter that turns characters’ hands into a phone, and a zero-gravity fight scene is briefly arresting. But it comes too late in the film to make much of an impact. A movie like Total Recall should above all else be fun. Instead, it’s just one more thing to forget.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bokeem Woodbine, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy.
Director: Len Wiseman.
Screenwriters: Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill. Based on the story by Philip K. Dick.
Producers: Toby Jaffe, Neal H. Moritz.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. Intense sequences of sci fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, language. Opens Friday Aug. 3 at area theaters.