Whether this is a good or bad thing depends entirely on your feelings about the original. The 1990 movie has achieved cult status for Arnold’s poker-faced performance, a pervasive sense of weirdness and a lightness that made the film funnier than it probably meant to be. If you loved any of these things, the remake will only be a disappointment.
Anyone looking for a solid, attractive and far more serious sci-fi action flick, however, might want to give the new “Total Recall” a shot. It takes several structural elements from the original – false memories, a rebellion, a secret key – and reshapes them into a plot that tries to make everything far more intense and meaningful. It mostly works, suggesting some thoughtful things about memory and identity before the explosions get in the way. You won’t laugh, but you might think a little.
A lot of the credit for that goes to Colin Farrell, who alters the entire tone of the movie simply by not being Schwarzenegger. He gives the hero a sense of real, human vulnerability, actually struggling with his feelings instead of just punching his way through them.
Though the script ultimately ends up failing him, Farrell’s performance nearly succeeds in saying something profound about whether there’s anything left of us after our memories disappear.
It also leads to a small, lovely moment that serves as one of the movie’s high points. Earlier, Farrell’s character had mentioned always wanting to learn to play the piano, and several chase scenes later he’s at the apartment that supposedly belonged to the old him. Exhausted and completely lost, he sits down at the piano and absently picks out a few notes. When those notes start flowing into Beethoven, the stunned delight on his face is priceless.
Though the rest of the movie doesn’t measure up to that moment, it has its own charms. The on-screen world is beautiful, the CGI so seamless I couldn’t tell where it ended and the real set began, and there was a fun level of detail in the disaster zones. The nods to the original movie are mostly subtle and well thought out.
Kate Beckinsale was surprisingly entertaining as a ruthless, butt-kicking bad guy, and she generally managed to work up more menace than the supposed lead villain. Bill Nighy was wasted as the rebel leader, but John Cho made the most of his few minutes as a slick memory salesman.
The action scenes are satisfying, but the finest touches come when Farrell uses his knowledge as a basic 9-to-5 working stiff to save the day.
The balance starts tipping toward too much explosion vs. plot by the end, and the movie would have been even better if it had been shortened by half an hour.
In the end, though, the new “Total Recall” might have been best served by getting an entirely new title.When you’re trying to be something new, memories of who you were only get in the way.