It doesn’t feel quite right calling a film Total Recall when it doesn’t feature Mars, a stomach-sprouted man-baby, or a terrible Austrian actor yelling that people “need aye-ar!” Take those things away and we’re left with Len Wiseman’s remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger hit, where along with polish we also get pedestrianism: The acting’s better, the effects and dialogue less cheesy—but now it’s a standard sci-fi snoozer, passable if you numb yourself to its multitudinous chases and remember not to focus on the plot.
Both films are loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, this time interpreted by scripters Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen) and Mark Bomback (Unstoppable). We’re in the future, and a company called Rekall claims it can implant any memory in your brain, so it’s as though you really had the experience. (Saves vacation expenses, marriages, etc.) In the original film, Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid wants to visit Mars. Here, Colin Farrell’s Quaid merely wants to escape his drab factory job and the shack where he lives with—naturally—his gorgeous wife, Lori (Wiseman’s actual wife, Kate Beckinsale). Each day, Quaid and his friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) travel back and forth in an Earth-plunging Metro system while Quaid wonders if that’s all there is. On a lonely, beer-fueled night, he decides to check out Rekall, where he decides he wants the memories of a secret agent. The staff warns that if he’s lied about his life—specifically any actual past as a secret agent—things will go horribly wrong.
Sure enough, things do. Soon a gaggle of Stormtrooper-like soldiers infiltrate the place, and Quaid takes them out with ease. Enter the film’s WTF phase, as Quaid unravels his past, his marriage, and whether he’s really a spy known as Hauser who’s involved with a woman (Jessica Biel) he’s seen in his dreams.
In Wiseman and director of photography Paul Cameron’s hands, Total Recall’s world is crowded, stacked, and murky brown—like the dystopian first half and the utopian second half of WALL*E, but at the same time. Phones are implanted in palms and vehicles operate via magnetic force, a detail that yields one of the film’s coolest action sequences, in which a car disables the feature in order to freefall and re-enables it right before hitting one that’s parked, crushing it even though they never touch. Chase scenes and firepower are abundant; everyone has access to assault weapons and is adept at using them. And as anyone who’s seen Wiseman’s Underworld and Underworld: Evolution can attest, the director excels at making his spouse look good. Even when she’s fighting—which, after what feels like a mere minute, is always—Beckinsale’s Lori moves like Spider-Man with flowing hair and perfect makeup. Biel, at least, gets a sensible ponytail.
Farrell, meanwhile, drifts in and out of a vaguely English/Irish accent, but otherwise he’s a natural as the perpetually baffled Quaid. The character eventually gets schooled in the film’s warring-superpower politics, featuring a resistance leader (Bill Nighy) fighting the Man (Bryan Cranston), with both actors wasted in too-small roles. We also get more psychological mumbo jumbo, including something called a “paranoid dissociative break.” Whatever that is, fully enjoying this film probably requires that your mind take one.