Director: Len Wiseman
Length: 1h 58m
Synopsis: At the end of the twenty-first century, due to cataclysmic chemical war, the world’s only habitable landmasses are Western Europe (dubbed the United Federation of Britain) and Australia (dubbed The Colony). Douglas Quaid (Farrell) is a factory worker who on a daily basis travels from the prosperous UFB to the economically oppressed Colony via a shuttle that runs through the Earth’s core called The Fall, and life for him has recently become unbearably stagnant. Though happy with his wife Lori (Beckinsale), he nevertheless feels somehow held back. Enticed by a service called Rekall that claims to be able to implant extravagant memories into the brain, Quaid signs up for a fantasy about being a secret agent. Upon beginning the procedure, however, it’s discovered that Quaid already had this memory locked away in his mind, at which point Lori reveals herself to be part of a cover-up meant to keep Quaid from remembering his true identity as the leader of a resistance movement in The Colony against the politically corrupt UFB. Quaid manages to evade capture thanks to a faithful but only vaguely familiar contact named Melina (Biel), and together they try to restore Quaid’s memory and free The Colony once and for all.
Analysis: “The success of a remake depends either on its providing different pleasures to audiences who have different kinds of knowledge and interest in the original film, or more often in establishing some common ground from which audiences of different interests can assimilate it in the same way” – Thomas Leitch. Len Wiseman’s remake of the 1990 sci-fi classic of the same name would appear to be trying to accomplish both of these feats. The basic (and I do mean basic) narrative structure follows the original’s fairly closely, with sparse little acknowledgments of some of its more memorable and popular details (a prostitute with three breasts, a redheaded woman passing through customs, etc.). Alternatively, Wiseman spreads his gaze widely across the genre as a whole, incorporating elements from a wide-range of films both new and old. The burden of intertextual politics weighs as heavily here as it does for most remakes, even without the film crediting so many sources beyond just its precursor, so don’t expect an entirely original experience. That being said, the experience it does provide has plenty of charms to merit its orchestration.
Total Recall (2012) is not a readaptation of the source it shares with its Schwarzenegger-led counterpart, the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by sci-fi icon Philip K. Dick. This would imply that it was trying to be more faithful to its roots, and this is simply not the case. Not only does the new film’s premise choose to echo other stories, but it foregoes addressing the same intellectual layer of Dick’s story that the original film also neglected: the role of the subconscious. In Dick’s story, the idea of psychological ambivalence – or having two suppressed memories competing for truthfulness – plays a fundamental role, whereas in both films this notion is replaced by an exploration of how memories (i.e. one’s past) are integral (or not) to the formation of one’s sense of self. This shared disregard helps classify this new film as a true remake, intent on acknowledging the authority of its genesis by not imitating it too closely, and establishing its own authority by posturing as the definitive version of an unoriginal story. The triangular relationship between the original short story, the 1990 adaptation, and this new variation of that adaptation rests on a shared foundational goal to prescribe value based on a false claim of autonomy. Wiseman’s iteration respects its ancestry, but likewise looks to replace it.
Wiseman’s aesthetic is where one will notice the most amount of derivation, which largely stems from film adaptations of Dick’s other works. A futuristic Britain resembles uncannily the grungy, overpopulated, arcade-esque Chinatown location of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The speedy dome-shaped hover cars resemble both the flying variety in that film and the sleek wall-hugging type from Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (which Colin Farrell also starred in). Everywhere you look, in fact, there are reminders of either one of these two films (perhaps because they are the best looking of the dozen or so Dick adaptations), but that doesn’t take away from how utterly absorbed you will feel by this environment. The level of detail in the art direction is striking. The color desaturation that has been so prevalent in Wiseman’s films is still present, but unlike with Underworld or Live Free or Die Hard he allows for plenty of brightly lit features to shine in contrast to those mucky undertones, even going so far as to include a couple of lens flares, a la J.J. Abrams. Non-Dick sci-fi nods include the presence of a burgeoning robotic police force, which ostensibly references George Lucas’ THX 1138. But aside from such technological fireworks as these, Wiseman is clearly going for a believable future. Indicative of this aim is an absence of laser guns and teleporters, and a hearty helping of hand-to-hand combat and old fashioned shootouts. To boot, gone are the “mutants” of Verhoeven’s Recall, which keeps the populations readily recognizable. (In the original Recall, the deformed human “mutants” were made an easy target for discrimination by the film’s elitist villains. Here, the helpless victims are identified even less ambiguously as the working class – and a segregated, colonized one at that.)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main themes of the film regards the relationship between a person’s past and identity. Memories here are conveyed to be, as they indeed are, unreliable, but beyond this simple truth the film goes asserts that a person’s past is nearly meaningless insofar as that one should not consider reform to be impossible. In order to reform, however, one must have a past to be conquered, and it is memory which gives that past a sense of reality. So, regardless of how unreliable memories can be, they are nevertheless a vital contrivance in one’s efforts to form an identity of his/her self. With this position in mind, the antagonistic nature of the service provided by Rekall becomes clearer. If real memories are already unreliable, what good can false ones be? The allure of having fulfilled fantasies injected into one’s past aside, false memories by extension make a person’s past false as well. Therefore, false memories create a false sense of self, which if glamorized does not lend itself to appearing to need reform. A past worth reconciling would thus go unaddressed, with that individual robbing him/herself of the opportunity to improve and/or reconstitute his/her personal identity. This is why Quaid’s situation at the beginning of the film is seen as negative, as he is denied the ability to define himself any further than how his secretive superiors have arranged him. In other words, Quaid is denied his free will (a fear which spans many of Dick’s works, including the ones listed above).
Free will is of course tied inexorably to the concept of personal identity, and truthful memories are vital if that identity is to be accurate. Indeed, memories make free will possible. However, many more factors contribute to the formation of one’s sense of self than just a past, and one such factor presents itself in all three parts of the Recall triangle: Desire. Philip K. Dick suggests unambiguously and insightfully in his short story that while memories can come and go, strong desires are irrepressible. Quaid is motivated by several desires, but the most prominent two are those for agency and Melina. Quaid decides to go to Rekall only after being told by his boss that regardless of how hard he tries he’ll never advance at his job. In other words, even the meritocracy of his work has been taken away from him. Later, after finding and recognizing Melina, she becomes a symbol of clarity; initially identified with the identity Quaid wishes to reclaim, but later with the new identity he wishes to attain; first as part of a past that once belonged to him but seemed unfitting, then as part of a future he seeks to create for his new self and the people of The Colony. With his past taken from him, his free will subsists on his desires, which cannot be extracted, erased, or swayed. In having desires that conflict with those of the ones who robbed him of his memory, Quaid effectively severs himself from them and regains his agency. And with his agency he is able to pursue his own future and eventually create a new past. Quaid’s new tale of redefining his self ought to be one that audiences of varying interests can relate to and enjoy, and because it provides “pleasures” markedly different from those in the original film, as well as some that are similar enough, those with differing levels of interest in that original should find their preferences satisfied – more or less.
Just a Thought: One wonders if PKD’s story helped inspire the Bourne series as well.