Friday, 21 September 2012

Films: Total Recall (1990 and 2012)

I had first seen the original Total Recall so long ago that I had forgotten most of the plot, but in view of the fact that a remake has only just been released I thought it would be useful to refresh my memory of the original. Both films are described as being loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, but since I read that one (if indeed I did) so long ago that I have completely forgotten it, that hasn't affected my view of the film.

First, a brief and general plot summary of the 1990 version, avoiding major spoilers. The year is 2084 when Mars has been colonised and travel throughout the solar system is commonplace. On Earth, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a bored construction worker forever dreaming of life on Mars. He decides to visit Rekall, a company selling "virtual holidays" through memory implants, and elects to play the part of a secret agent on a trip to Mars. However, in the process he discovers that something is badly wrong with his memories and he gradually comes to realise that his current identity is false and has been implanted in his mind. He comes under attack but receives aid from his earlier self, in the form of a recorded message explaining what is happening and encouraging him to go to Mars. Once on Mars he becomes involved in the battle between planetary governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and a resistance group opposing his dictatorial rule, with many twists and turns in the plot before the finale.

This is a fast-paced and exciting film, with the plot twists coming so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to keep up and to be sure what is reality and what are implanted memories. I did have the suspicion that there may be some logical flaws in the plot, but there are so many layers of deceit that I frankly became rather lost in trying to work out who was supposed to know what at which point. On the downside it is filled with cartoonish, slapstick violence of the "hero fires a brief unaimed burst from his machine pistol and a whole row of bad guys falls over" variety: keeping track of the body count would be quite an exercise. The special effects team also had some fun with gross-out elements including the bulging faces of those dying in the near-vacuum of Mars and a head appearing from somebody's chest. On a point of detail, I note that it was apparently considered OK to have a mutant woman exposing her three breasts, even though they looked completely real, and even have a man fondling them - but to show real breasts, oh no! The contortions of our bizarre approach to morality never fail to amaze and amuse. No doubt any alien observers of human mores could produce endless doctoral theses on our weird and hypocritical attitudes to such issues.

To sum up, it's not a bad film but it could have been much better with a more adult approach and the omission of much of the juvenile violence. The plot is certainly clever enough to justify more serious treatment, and I would have liked to see it made by the team who produced the excellent Gattaca.


Since I happened to be staying in a city recently I took the opportunity to see the 2012 version of Total Recall in a cinema rather than waiting for the DVD to be available. This enabled me to enjoy to the full one of the strengths of this film; the dramatic, multi-level, futuristic CGI city-scapes, which are among the best I can recall seeing. Sadly, Mars has disappeared from the plot, being replaced by a rather bizarre Earth which has almost entirely been rendered uninhabitable by chemical or biological warfare, with only (for some unexplained reason) parts of the UK and Australia still supporting human life. The relationship between them is reflected in their names: the United Federation of Britain, and the Colony (bet that goes down well in Australia!).

Strangest of all, the two settlements, on opposite sides of the planet, are joined by “the Fall”, a gravity-powered transport system consisting of shaft bored straight through the centre of the Earth, down which a huge container, able to hold large numbers of people plus freight, drops before re-emerging on the other side of the globe – a system so fast and routine that workers commute daily from Australia to the UK. I have to say that this caused me some credibility problems. For a start there are the vast technical difficulties concerning boring and maintaining such a hole through the colossal heat and pressure existing at the Earth’s core. This is not just impossible now, we could not even see any way in which such a project might be tackled at any time in the future – it makes the task of achieving sub-light-speed interstellar travel look very simple (yet there is no mention in the film of any kind of space travel). Then there is the question of how the container could possibly reach the speeds required to make daily commuting feasible, unless the air in the tube was evacuated ahead of it – but in that case, people wouldn’t be able to survive on the outside of the container, as they do in the film. Oh well, lets move on to the story.

Once more we have Douglas Quaid (this time played by Colin Farrell) in much the same situation as in the original, with the plot following generally similar lines. There are even some direct references to the original film (yep, including the triple-breasted prostitute). Kate Beckinsale makes a suitably mean and nasty opponent, Jessica Biel an appealing good girl. Overall, the acting as well as the special effects is much better. But, but…some of the freshness and appeal of the original have been lost along the way. The overall feel of the new version is darker, more adult, less like a comic strip. Despite this, the plot seems more straightforward than the 1990 version, without so many layers of deception. It comes across as one relentless chase, with lots of the fights, crashes and explosions which contemporary fashion requires, and after a while becomes rather repetitive and tiring.

I strongly suspect that the original version is going to retain its place in viewers’ affections for much longer than the new pretender.


Bill Garthright said...

"Strangest of all, the two settlements, on opposite sides of the planet, are joined by “the Fall”, a gravity-powered transport system consisting of shaft bored straight through the centre of the Earth..."

Heh, heh. Is there anything too dumb for movies, Tony? I'm beginning to think not.

Anthony G Williams said...

It gets even worse, Bill. Logically, anybody in the container would be falling at the same rate as the container, so would be "weightless" relative to the container thoughout the entire journey. But the film had them weightless only for a short time as they passed through the very centre of the planet.

I do "love" those films where they go to great lengths to create scenes which are contrary to the most basic science...