In the schlocky action-overdrive remake of Total Recall, Colin Farrell, flexing those eyebrows, plays a man who learns that he was once a secret agent, and that his memory has been wiped away. As he fights to get his identity back, at least in bits and pieces, he must outmaneuver the government stooges who reprogrammed him and are now out to hunt him down. Sound familiar? Those who buy a ticket to Total Recall may not go in expecting a generic Bourne sequel, but that’s about what they’ll be getting — just set in a Blade Runner universe made of giant gray Lego blocks.
The movie takes a token stab at toying around with the notions of thought and personality that animated Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story ”We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” on which the screenplay is negligibly based. Farrell’s Douglas Quaid first has his memory jogged when he goes in for a session at Rekall, a company that sells virtual vacations. In the 1990 version of Total Recall (a lively conceptual action ride that came out just as virtual reality was becoming the hot new thing), the whole idea that you could strap on a headset and ”escape” to a different plane of existence just by having your synapses tickled got quite a workout. In the new version, that notion is barely part of the movie. And that’s because the filmmaker, Len Wiseman, who directed two of the Underworld films (and wrote or co-wrote all four of them), isn’t really interested in the story; he’s an action futurist who directs like a videogame junkie. The new Total Recall has chases, gunfights, hand-to-hand combat, one fairly cool car race set on a highway of tomorrow, and many other things that you’ve seen before. As the movie went on, I could feel it recycling my own memories — of sci-fi films I actually care about.
There are a few good bits of business, like a glowing digital phone embedded in Colin Farrell’s hand or a stack of money with a certain president’s picture on the bills, and the Blade Runner visuals, derivative as they may be, are impressive in a grimy-grand way. Less so is the army of government enforcers outfitted in boringly familiar white-and-black Imperial Stormtrooper armor. Every time they show up for another blam! blam! battle sequence, the movie becomes infuriatingly impersonal. Farrell, who can be such a good actor, is reduced here to an arsenal of squints, and the two actresses he’s paired with are turned into good and evil eye candy: Kate Beckinsale, curling her lips with disdain as Quaid’s duplicitous wife, and Jessica Biel, who has an urgent energy (if almost zero dimension) as his fellow agent?turned?amorous action partner. Dick’s short story is just a few pages long, yet it bristles with ideas — of brain manipulation, of identity created by commerce — that are more relevant than ever. Total Recall updates the story into a trite Parable For Our Times about how an action-stud savior must lead the oppressed masses in a revolt against the controlling elite. The 1990 movie was no great shakes, but it was punchy and (moderately) inventive, and even when it got overly thrill-ride schlocky, it stayed fun. This one is somberly kinetic and joyless. C