You have to respect the acting chops of Colin Farrell. If Kate Beckinsale were chasing me, it would be very difficult to resist the urge to stop running. Yet, upon realizing that the woman he knows as his wife is out to kill him, Farrell manages to convey a sense of fear and confusion strong enough for us to believe that Beckinsale really is a relentless and ruthless killer. So single-minded is Beckinsale, she’s reminiscent of a certain cyborg in another film from the canon of Arnold Schwarzenegger, from which director Len Wiseman draws for his remake of “Total Recall.”
The actors, specifically Farrell, Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, are the best things about the new “Total Recall.” In the second big-budget adaption of Philip K. Dick’s story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, who lives in one of only two regions on the planet that have been spared the ravages of chemical warfare. Every day, he commutes from the Colony (think Australia) through the earth’s core in a giant shuttle called the Fall, which is reminiscent of the pneumatic air tubes in bank drive-thru lanes. The Colony is dark and wet, like the gritty metropolis of “Blade Runner,” and populated by the blue-collar schlubs who keep the planet running. The other side of the planet, the United Federation of Britain, where Quaid works, is sunny, dry, and clean, filled with white-collar workers and government oppressors who keep the denizens of the Colony in their place.
Quaid works on an assembly line making the UFB’s robotic security force and dreams of escaping his recurring nightmares and creating better memories for himself. For that he visits Rekall, a business that offers virtual experiences beyond what the ordinary person could ever hope to enjoy. Quaid chooses the “secret agent” option, but something goes wrong, and Quaid finds himself the target of federal police who believe him to be a very dangerous man.
Through one chase scene after another, usually with Beckinsale’s Lori Quaid right behind, Farrell brings intensity and sincerity to a character who may be a victim of mistaken identity, or may be a highly trained super-rebel, or who may just be dreaming. He never undermines the drama with a wink of self-awareness so often seen from Schwarzenegger. Beckinsale and Biel are gorgeous and carry an athleticism that telegraphs the unsettling realization that, yes, either one could probably beat me up.
Despite how game these players are, the heart of this movie is missing. Since Quaid doesn’t know who he is, we don’t either, and that makes it difficult to care about the stakes. It falls on Wiseman (Beckinsale’s husband, best known for the “Underworld” movies) and the committee of five writers who worked on the screenplay to inspire an emotional investment, and they haven’t. The writing is lazy; their go-to device when their characters find themselves stunned or cornered is to drop the S-bomb. For a PG-13 movie, “Total Recall” is loaded with S-bombs. Also potentially awkward for parents who take their kids: the three-breasted prostitute, a nod to a similarly blessed lady in the original movie.
Wiseman packs “Total Recall” with enough lens flares for three J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” movies. The foot chase scenes look like “Blade Runner” if staged in a Super Mario Brothers game. The action in that pneumatic tube thingie is confusing because, having never been in a pneumatic tube thingie, it was difficult to tell structurally where all the characters were in relation to each other. And when an actor with the gravitas of Bill Nighy, who plays the leader of the resistance, is called upon to deliver a monologue meant to tell us “what it all means” (think Morpheus in “The Matrix”), all he has to work with is a limp line about dreams versus reality that left me wondering, wait, what? Is that it?
The special effects are big and liberally applied, as is the wig of Bryan Cranston as the scheming world leader. The hover car chase scene is pretty cool. The multi-tiered architecture visualizes how crowded and claustrophobic the two regions have become. But so what? It’s telling that the new “Total Recall” is already fading from memory, while the original Arnold movie, and in particular its three-breasted beauty, are still vividly remembered.