Review: Total Recall (1990) vs Total Recall (2012)

A few months back I had a weird hankering to revisit Total Recall. Shortly after, posters appeared for the remake. Thus, inevitably, we get a head to head review.


Total Recall (1990)

I liked this at the time, but suspect some of its reality-questioning nuance went over my early teenage head. Having since read a heckuva lot of Philip K Dick, I now appreciate how true it is to the mentality of his world-view, even while departing from what is an excellent short story. It plays as sort of a combination of the gist of lots of PKD’s message about the unreliability of our reality and the inhumanity of our technology. Mostly it makes sense, and does effectively pose the question what if any of what occurs is real.

The most bizarre thing is Schwarzenegger. The guy can almost act, but not really. (Though one can see how he can act just enough to be a politician – he can do dumb, genuine, and asshole.) Mostly he is a giant muscle-bound guy, and the story is written for him. Key moments only work because he is giant muscle-bound guy, and can do things a normal guy can’t. This brings a cartoonish veneer to proceedings, which suits Paul Verhoeven’s lurid and absurdist tendencies; oddly makes me want to revisit his unstinting oeuvre.

Really fun. Late 80’s punk apocalypse mutants. Those same corridors that are the future in every sci-fi movie. Whatever happened to Rachel Ticotin? Amazing how much of the visual side of things stayed with me across the decades. Ridiculous deus ex machina ending.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore.


Total Recall (2012)

Short version: watch the original.

There will probably be spoilers in what follows. So it goes. Watch the original instead.

That was weird to watch close to back to back, and the remake suffers for it. The basic framework is there, but the veneer of ideas has worn away.

The remake is not about the ideas. The main thing added is lots of action sequences that are tolerable if uninspired. The nature of the world is… unconvincing. Some nice tech design amidst lots of very busy and incoherent CGI. (This in contrast to the dirt and tactility of Verhoeven’s Mars.)

The absence of feel for the material is evident. The palette and tone of the film is inhuman. We never get a feel for the stakes; there is no human face to the Colony. Farrell is oddly charmless.

None of the characters are characters. This is startling, given how closely it follows the original in many ways, and how the characters from the original stick with us (particularly the mutants). But it is true. Here they are just roles. No one is memorable. No one is worth caring about. Kate Beckinsdale’s role compresses Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside’s roles into one, yet has less character than either. There is no supporting cast; just a series of poorly fleshed out main roles.

The extent to which it is a straight remake is interesting, given how they changed it. However, many of those changes meant they should have kept changing things, and the bits that are kept make less sense in their new context. Probably the best moment in the film is a riff on a thing they have done differently – the fat woman at the scanner, who reminds us of the fat woman Schwarzenegger was disguised as.

Cohaagen’s motives are uninspiring. Matthias/Quato doesn’t exist long enough for us to care about him. He is reduced a cypher to deliver a key piece of thematic information, which while acted on is never given any significance by the acting or direction. Sub-Matrix-sequel philosophizing.

The overall difference in tone is striking. Verhoeven’s film is definitely fun; the remake is never fun. Verhoeven’s is openly surreal and human; the remake is neither.

Ach. On some level it saddens me that it is easier to criticise its failings than praise the original. I also think it is weird that it is easy to talk about pop culture when it doesn’t matter. Or at least I realise that this doesn’t matter, yet it is easy to blog about.




2 Responses to “Review: Total Recall (1990) vs Total Recall (2012)”

  1.   Bruce
    October 3rd, 2012 | 1:23 pm

    >The guy can almost act, but not really. (Though one can see how he can act just enough to be a politician – he can do dumb, genuine, and asshole.


    Yeah it doesn’t take much acting chops to make a good politician. In fact it may be better to be a mediocre actor. Witness Bob Parker in Chch…

    Speaking of Verhoeven, yeah! Starship Troopers is one of my all time favorites, just re-watched it. Really brilliant how he (and the screenwriter) took the premise of the book, which is half action sequence half high-school classroom philosophy on why only veterans should be allowed to vote, and the military-run society that results. The filmakers took it and showed us this pro-military future with a straight face. Brilliant ending with the crowd reaction to Doogie Howsers translation of the bug thoughts…

    and this time around I realized how much of it is really a movie about high school kids in the above context, just being high school kids. The classroom and prom, juvenile rebellion and romance, and of course that age group is the one that goes to war. Really good work if you want to go meta on it.

  2.   billy
    October 3rd, 2012 | 2:30 pm

    I had a bizarre experience with Starship Troopers, in that I had read the book (only Heinlein I’ve read), which seemed to be this far right wing pro militaristic diatribe, and then watched the film, which seemed to be a straight version of the novel. Later someone told me it was a satire, and now I can see that, but I totally missed that level at the time, as did everyone in the audience I saw it with, as far as I can tell.

    As I have said many times, satire is increasingly difficult these days. (I had a moment way back while reading the Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman, large chunks of which I would have been proud to pen as satire, but which he meant genuinely.)