Home > Reviews > Recalling TOTAL RECALL, in total

Recalling TOTAL RECALL, in total

Turner Classic Movies recently showed the 1990 Total Recall, which I haven’t seen in many years. I came to find the violence distasteful for a while, but it’s been long enough that I decided to take a fresh look. It actually holds up better than I remembered; gratuitous violence aside, it’s an effective Hitchcockian thriller that gives you some things to think about, and its visual effects were really cutting-edge stuff for the day, just before CGI started taking over everything. They had extensive computer assistance with the motion-control cameras and animatronics, but what we saw onscreen was all real physical models and puppets and conventional animation, except for the CGI “x-ray” skeletons at the subway checkpoint. And the FX really hold up extremely well; they did things with miniatures and animatronics that were on a par with a lot of modern CG. Plus it has a strong Jerry Goldsmith score and a number of notable ’90s actors in the cast.

Although I can’t say the designs hold up as well. It’s hilarious to me how people in the ’90s assumed that telephones would get bigger in the future. In this movie, Back to the Future Part II, and “Lisa’s Wedding” on The Simpsons, futuristic phones were these massive wall- or table-mounted units with screens and elaborate controls. And the playback unit for Hauser’s message to Quaid was this big briefcase. And this is supposed to be 71 years from now, IIRC.

Of course, the big question in this film is, are Quaid’s experiences real or hallucinated? Here are my thoughts (beware full spoilers):

I prefer to think it’s all a delusion. For one thing, the depiction of Mars is completely absurd, as is much of the storyline. The whole ice-core/instant-atmosphere thing is totally insane. A rocky planet with an icy core is like a boulder floating on a lake. It just couldn’t happen. Also, everything is foreshadowed. Not only does everything in the film happen exactly as the Rekall personnel predict, but we see Melina’s face and the alien reactor on Rekall’s screens as they’re programming the simulation.

The main argument against this position is that we see scenes that aren’t from Quaid’s POV, and thus couldn’t be part of a memory-implant illusion. But to me, the key is what Roy Brocksmith’s character tells Quaid in the hotel room: that what he’s experiencing isn’t the programmed vacation package, but a free-form delusion his mind is manufacturing based on that implant. So if he’s suffering a paranoid delusion, then the scenes that take place in Quaid’s absence could represent what his paranoid mind believes is going on behind his back — his wife betraying him, a murderous enemy pursuing him and being given marching orders by the dictator of Mars, etc.

The tricky part there is the scene in Rekall where McClane is alerted to the crisis and is told by his assistant that she hasn’t begun the spy implant yet. If Quaid doesn’t remember this afterward, how can it be part of his implant? It’s possible that it only mostly happened, that what we saw was partly filtered through his psychosis, so the assistant didn’t really say she hadn’t implanted the spy program. Or maybe it was all part of his delusion. Dreams often contradict themselves, so experiencing something and then not remembering it, or acting as though one doesn’t remember it, is something that could happen in a dream or delusion.

The remaining paradox is how he could’ve seen Melina’s face in his dreams before selecting it at Rekall, if she wasn’t real. But our memories of our dreams are imperfect, and we can edit them in retrospect. Maybe the face he saw in his dreams was just similar to the one he selected at Rekall and he convinced himself it was the same. Or maybe she was a live model whose face he’d seen in ads and who’d also licensed her likeness to Rekall.

Now, does the alternative interpretation work? Setting aside the inanity of the science and the absurdity of the action and plotting, is there any way this could all be real? The hangup there is what we saw at Rekall before the implant. How could they have an image of Melina and classified imagery of the Martian reactor? I wondered if maybe that was part of the plan to trigger Hauser’s memories so he’d go after Kuato, but then I remembered Cohaagen saying that Quaid had screwed up the plan by going to Rekall and triggering his memories prematurely. So that doesn’t work. As for the imagery, maybe someone smuggled out images of the reactor but they were discredited and publicly interpreted as a hoax, and Rekall just copied them off the internet. And maybe Melina did some modeling once upon a time?

Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s less of a stretch all around to assume it was imaginary — that this wasn’t a story of a hero saving Mars, but just a tragedy of an ordinary(ish) construction worker suffering a Rekall-induced psychotic break from which he probably never recovered. Which is pretty dark, but it seems more likely to be the truth. Although it does leave the lingering question of why Quaid got so obsessed with Mars and this dream woman. But I guess he could’ve just been tired of his life and experiencing the seven-year itch a year late.

Granted, the whole point is that there is no obvious right answer to whether it’s real or imagined, and either interpretation has its problems. But I have my preference, so there it is.

Now, yesterday I came across the DVD of the 2012 remake of the film (directed by Len Wiseman, starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale) at the library, so I decided, what the heck, it’s free, so I’ll watch and compare. I tried to assess the film on its own merits, but it’s hard to avoid comparing it to the original. There are some things about it that were good. There was some nice dialogue writing here and there, mainly in the first act. They did make a respectable effort to create their own distinct world rather than just copying the original. There were some good performances; Farrell was better than in other films of his I’d seen, Beckinsale was pretty effective with what she was given, and John Cho was great and almost unrecognizable as a reimagined McClane. And there was some nifty technological futurism, like the hand-implant phones and the display glass they interfaced with.

But a lot about the film falls short, both as a self-contained film and in comparison to the original. The ’90 film had plenty of action, but it always felt like it was advancing the story. Here, it often felt like the story was just connective tissue between action set pieces. They were impressive at first, but after a while all the chasing and fighting and fighting and chasing got a bit tiresome. The point where the film lost me was the sequence running through the elevator shafts with elevator cars zooming by in all directions at ridiculous speeds, in this bizarrely overcomplicated network of tunnels and huge open spaces. What building were they in? Why did they need all these elevators zooming around? The scene reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in Galaxy Quest where they had to go through the corridor with all the gratuitous deathtraps and Gwen screamed, “This episode was badly written!”

I’d like to say more about the film’s merits or flaws in its own right, but it’s hard to do that without comparing it to its predecessor and talking about where the remake falls short. A major difference is that, in contrast to the pervasive ambiguity of the original, here there’s very little doubt that what Quaid is experiencing is entirely real. Quaid’s initial dream is too detailed and much less surreal than the opening scene of the original; if you came into the story without having seen the original, I think it would be clear right off the bat that it was a memory this man had somehow lost. Also, Beckinsale’s Lori kind of gives herself away when she asks unprompted if Quaid was alone in his “dream.” Many of the key plot points and characters, notably Hauser himself, are set up in news reports before Quaid goes to Rekall, so it’s less plausible that they could be parts of an implant (although I guess they could be integrated into a paranoid delusion). Most significantly, there’s no break between Quaid going to Rekall and Quaid turning into superspy. There’s no scene break and no loss of consciousness, no moment that could be seen as a transition between reality and fantasy, so there’s no reason to doubt that it’s real.

Later on, they do a version of the scene where someone tries to convince Quaid he’s dreaming, and in principle I like the idea of putting Quaid’s friend Harry into this role. But it doesn’t quite work, and the reasons it doesn’t work expose the problems with how the remake was done. The film pays homage to the iconic moments of the original, but changes them around in a way that doesn’t make much sense. In the original scene, what tipped Quaid off that the doctor was lying was the fact that he was sweating. The logic there is self-evident to the viewer: if none of this were real, he’d have no reason to be frightened about being at gunpoint. Here, though, what makes Quaid’s decision is a single tear running down Melina’s cheek. Why does this clarify the situation for him? Why would it prove she’s real and not a delusion? If she’s a delusion, she’d do whatever he imagined and there’d be no self-contradiction. (It doesn’t help that Jessica Biel’s Melina is a complete cipher. We never get a sense of who she is or what she and Quaid shared; she’s just a plot device and a token romantic interest. I don’t think her name is even spoken more than once, and it’s mumbled then. If I hadn’t seen the original and hadn’t read the credits online, I think I would’ve come out of this movie with no idea what her character was called.) Moreover, even if he concluded this were real, would that lead him to shoot his best friend in the head? How would he have known his friend was really a spy, rather than a dupe who’d been convinced or coerced to play along? It seems like an overreaction.

Not to mention that there’s one part where Harry moves in an impossibly fast blur to take Melina’s gun. How can that be reconciled with the conclusion that this was real? It’s the one and only thing in this version of the story that ever calls the reality of events into question, but it’s isolated and at odds with the very scene it’s in, so it doesn’t work. It’s just a random bit of weirdness.

Basically, things happen in this scene not because they make sense within the scene, but because they’re the way things played out in the original. The changes make those outcomes less coherent, but the outcomes remain. When you remake a story, you should make changes that bring out something new in it, but these changes were too superficial, and there was too much slavish adherence to the beats of the original at times when there shouldn’t be.

I like the idea of combining Lori with Richter, basically combining Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside’s characters into Beckinsale’s. It makes Lori a stronger presence in the film. But the downside is that her motivation for issuing the shoot-on-sight order in defiance of Cohaagen’s command that he be taken alive is unclear. Again, they’re keeping the original’s beats but changing things in a way that diminishes their story and character logic.

Now, let’s talk about The Fall. This tunnel through the Earth is the main thing that’s been criticized for its absurdity, but in theory it’s not that implausible an idea. The engineering problems are insurmountable — no way to keep a tunnel open through molten magma under such pressures — but the physics are pretty straightforward. Martin Gardner did a nice analysis of the idea in an essay called “Tube Through the Earth” that appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in Dec. ’80 and was reprinted in the 1981 book Science Fiction Puzzle Tales (reprinted in 2001 as Mathematical Puzzle Tales). Essentially it’s got the physics of a pendulum — it gains momentum as it falls under the influence of gravity, and that momentum lets it rise against gravity by an equal distance, minus any loss due to friction. The travel time from one end to the other will always be 42 minutes (ignoring friction, air resistance, Coriolis effect, etc.), regardless of whether the elevator connects antipodes through the center of the Earth or simply cuts a chord between two random locations — in the same way that the period of a given pendulum is the same regardless of the width of its swing. (Interestingly, the orbital period of a satellite orbiting just above the surface of a perfectly spherical, airless Earth would be 84 minutes. Again, basically the same physics — orbiting is driven by gravity just as the Fall or a pendulum would be.)

Unfortunately, the movie’s portrayal of this idea is totally ridiculous. The Fall takes only 17 minutes to get through the Earth, and the behavior of thrust and gravity within it is total nonsense. Even though they’d have to be accelerating far faster than free fall to make it in that time, they’re right-side-up during the descent rather than pressed against the ceiling. They’re in full gravity until they cross into “the core,” when they’re suddenly in zero gravity like a switch was flipped. And inexplicably, the chambers within the capsule seem to be facing the same way up after the freefall passage as they did before. If we’re talking a tube going straight through a tunnel piercing the Earth, then the bottom end when it was dropped from the UK would be the top end when it emerged in Australia. So the capsule would have to rotate a full 180 degrees within the tunnel, but this is never depicted as happening. (EDIT: Actually we do see the passenger compartment rotate midway through the journey, so that’s explained. But other parts of the capsule, the interior corridors and the big open space where the heroes fight the robots, don’t seem to rotate or to be symmetrical top-to-bottom, so it’s unclear whether they invert.) So this was just gotten totally wrong in every possible way.

Now, sure, as I said, the “icy core of Mars” and instant atmosphere of the original were just as scientifically ridiculous, but at least you could believe it was a dream — and it was epic enough that you wanted to buy into it at least for the duration of the story. Fantasy or no, the original Quaid’s adventure ended with him transforming an entire world for the better, turning a barely habitable wasteland into an unspoiled paradise. Not to mention that we got to know the people whose lives were in danger in the climax, so we had an emotional investment in the outcome. Here, Quaid only manages to keep things from getting worse — perhaps only temporarily at that. The Colony is spared from conquest, but it’s still an impoverished mega-favela in the middle of a toxic wasteland, and there’s no guarantee the UFB is going to respond very well to the fact that its agents killed their leader. And none of the Colony characters we get acquainted with in the first act is present to react to events in the third, so that emotional investment is missing. So the ending just doesn’t have as much of an impact. The emotion is “Whew, our life still sucks but at least we’re not dead.” Not very triumphant.

So yeah, it’s good to bring something new to a story when you remake it, but ideally the new stuff should work as well in its own way as the old stuff. Here it just seems underwhelming in comparison. They were trying to tell basically the same plot as the original but with a lot cut out and moved around and replaced, but what they were left with was somewhat incomplete and skeletal. Maybe what they should’ve done instead was make a cleaner break from the previous film — gone back to the original Philip K. Dick story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” and just spun an entirely new narrative from that without referencing the Schwarzenegger film at all. You could say — if you felt obligated to finish with a pithy quip, which apparently I do — that the problem with the new Total Recall is that it recalls too much.

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  1. November 4, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Must read the the book. Philip K. Dick was great at blurring the line between what’s real in a story and what isn’t.

  1. February 25, 2014 at 8:40 pm

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