Why is it so fucking hard for movie studios to get Philip K. Dick right? If you’re adapting a Philip K. Dick story to film, you need a solid dose of futurism and glossy technology, but you also need an organic, druggy feel underlying the movie, too. Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly had some flaws, but it nailed the mood: Everything should feel like a bad trip, where every level of reality feels woozy and suspect and plasticized.
The creators of the Total Recall remake simply don’t understand this. To them, a Philip K. Dick story is just a reason to add a science-fictional sheen to your basic brain-dead spy thriller. It’s a mistake many other filmmakers have made (see also: Paycheck, Next, Impostor), and it’s an absolutely baffling choice. Total Recall is at least pretty to look at, in the way that all movies with a unified design sense are pretty to look at: The future world we’re given here is yet another drab dystopia, but it’s a compact, monstrous labyrinth of concrete and rain and human-pacifying screens splayed on every available surface. The premise of this world is stupid—chemical warfare has destroyed all but two urban areas on the planet, and the residents of one urban area, in Australia, must commute through the center of the earth every day to the other urban area in Great Britain to serve their economic betters through drudgework—but at least a design team took the premise seriously and created some beautiful, claustrophobic sets for the characters to run around in.
But those characters aren’t worth your time. With a disappointing drop in quality from last August’s surprising Fright Night remake, Colin Farrell plays a boring, ordinary joe named Douglas Quaid who wastes his life in a factory constructing synthetic policemen for the 1 percent. After a visit to a memory-implant company called Rekall, Quaid finds himself on the run from the police, because suddenly he’s got another set of memories, in which he’s a double (or maybe triple) agent named Hauser. He’s torn between two skinny brunette lady-spies (Kate Beckinsale in the Sharon Stone role of wife/antagonist, Jessica Biel in the predictably Jessica Bielish role), and the whole thing is a conspiracy that involves a Big Successful Guy named Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston in a shamelessly bad performance, considering how he’s dropping everyone’s jaws on a weekly basis as Walter White on Breaking Bad) who may or may not want to take over the world or something.
This remake has less of Schwarzenegger’s cheesy gusto from the 1990 iteration, instead gunning for a Bourne Identity kind of on-the-move vibe. There are a few exciting chases, but more often than not, they end with a cheat—in a close-combat scene, Quaid slips out through a window we never saw before—that indicates lazy filmmaking. All the exciting, druggy sci-fi flourishes from Paul Verhoeven’s original are gone, although there are a couple of perfunctory cameos of some of Verhoeven’s weirder moments in the remake, which serve to remind you how boring and drab the new movie really is. It’s all so painfully normal. Even the instances of Dick-ish philosophy are neutered into lame fortune-cookie philosophy that make The Matrix seem deep. Did you ever stop to think about how all we are is a bunch of chemicals sloshing around in a brain? Now, do you realize that you read that last sentence… with your brain? Did I blow your mind? No? Not even a little bit? Oh, well. Whatever.