Total Recall review: Colin Farrell prompts memories of Arnie

We all remember Arnie's Total Recall, but can Colin Farrell and a fistful of gadgets make the 2012 version stick in your memory?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

It's ironic that the biggest challenge facing Total Recall, a film about a man battling with his memories, is our cherished memories of another film. Out in the UK tomorrow, 22 years after Arnold Schwarzenegger got his ass to Mars, could a hot young cast, relentless action and a fistful of cool sci-fi gadgets be enough to make the 2012 version of Total Recall stick in the memory?

Replacing Arnie, Colin Farrell is Doug Quaid, a factory worker with a vague sense there's more to life than a tiny apartment and a job welding robots. Against the advice of his wife, he visits Rekall, a seedy peddler of false memories -- whereupon his brain, marriage and entire life are turned upside down in a riot of breakneck chase sequences and bullet-strewn shoot-outs.

Is Quaid a working stiff having a mental meltdown, or is he a secret agent locked in a lethal game between a vicious dictator and a beautiful resistance fighter?

The 1990 Paul Verhoeven take on the same source material -- Philip K Dick's short story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale -- is a lurid classic, exploding with as many ideas as blood squibs. But the look and feel of Len Wiseman's 2012 version add up to a much slicker and more stylish package than the over-the-top earlier model.

It's all breathless chases and inventive set pieces, including much pell-mell rooftop hoofing, a wonderfully physical hover car chase, and a zero-gravity throwdown.

Memories are made of this 

Sure, there's some fun to be had when today's model plays with our knowledge of the original -- look out for a rotund woman passing through an airport scanner -- but the 2012 version has no shortage of ideas of its own, with lashings of cool gadgets and thrillingly detailed environments immersing us in a far more believable future.

Comparisons are inevitable not just to the 1990 Total Recall, but also to Blade Runner, Minority Report and even The Bourne Identity. Still, from illuminated tattoos to laser-lassoo guns and phones embedded in your hand, the new film is packed with distinctive design, cool technology and nifty futuristic detail.

The detailed backdrop of the new version is worth a mention, giving us not one but two detailed future worlds. One is a rain-drenched, neon-lit multicultural metropolis as per Blade Runner, while the other is a white-lit high-tech London that's basically Canary Wharf with hover cars. They're on opposite sides of a post-apocalyptic dead Earth -- no trips to Mars this time -- linked by a giant underground lift called the Fall.

The affluent future London and the Blade Runner-esque colony respectively house the future's haves and have-nots. In between the pulse-pounding action sequences, the 2012 Total Recall throws in a fistful of political subtexts: a regime that lies to go to war; government surveillance; suppressed technology; and a critique of colonialism, imperialism and exploitation of the 99 per cent, forced to build the instruments of their own oppression. But -- ironically enough -- it forgets these ideas almost as soon as it raises them.

Thanks for the memory

On the casting front, Farrell is more convincing as an everyday schlub than Arnie -- who, let's face it, is barely convincing as a human being. Sadly Farrell doesn't have much to do in between shooting people, besides look confused. I would have liked to have seen more of the badass secret agent he may or may not be, instead of a soggy Jason Bourne -- or at least a bit more effort put into the is-he-or-isn't-he, what's-real-and-what's-not, mind-bending side of the story.

Meanwhile, as principal villain Cohaagen, Bryan Cranston's main problem is -- as any Breaking Bad fan knows -- he's just not scary when he's got hair.

Speaking of hair, co-stars Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale look oddly alike, which seems like an odd casting decision. The CGI robot baddies show more life than the glassy-eyed Biel -- but Beckinsale more than makes up for that, running off with the whole film as the hero's scorned wife.

Fleeting memories 

I doubt the 2012 Total Recall will be recalled with the same fondness as the 1990 model. Arnie's not in it, it's crushingly bloodless and it runs out of puff and gives up rather than ending properly. But there's less cartoonish gurning, loads of cool kit, and enough efficient action to keep this memory mash-up just the right side of forgettable.

Unburden yourself of troublesome memories in the comments, or on our possibly fictional Facebook page.

  • Check back tomorrow for Rich's verdict on Total Recall's coolest gadgets.