Welcome! Sit yourself in this chair and don’t worry when we strap your limbs down securely and tape electrodes to your head. There’s nothing to be worried about!
In the both of the Total Recalls we’ll be comparing in this review, a visit to such a patient’s seat launches a mind-bending sci-fi espionage adventure for the seemingly ordinary Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990 original, Colin Farrell in the just-released update). Both big-budget movies unspool roughly the same story and feature plenty of slam-bang action, a nightmare vision of a bleak future, and not a little violence. They also play with the idea of implanted memory. Can we really be sure we’re truly experiencing the here and now?
We can’t say for certain whether you’re actually reading this review or simply imagining you once did. Regardless, one of our two competitors will soon rise from that chair and claim the win. Which will it be? No need to read further; just close your eyes and relax. We can imagine it for you wholesale….
Life on planet Earth in the late twenty-first century is depressingly like being in a bleak yet expensive sci-fi movie. Following a devastating war, only two nations exist: the massive United Federation of Britain, controlled by the sinister meth dealer Walter White… er, no, make that the evil politician Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), and the much smaller Colony, home to downtrodden working grunts like Doug Quaid. Our hero leads a life of drudgery, commuting to a dull job in a robot factory and dreaming of a more thrilling life. One day at work he’s encouraged to utilize the services of Rekall, a shadowy company that implants memories into customers. Any fantasy is available, and Quaid chooses to be a globe-trotting super spy.
It’s a clever idea, but there’s a problem. The Rekall techs doing the implanting realize that Quaid’s already got a set of memories based on his experiences as a top secret agent. Frantically they attempt to stop the implant process, but then a squad of police burst into the office, killing the techs and trying to eliminate Quaid. Bad move! Using his long-dormant combat skills he swiftly wipes out the cops.
Nobody likes a cop-killer, particularly in dystopian sci-fi dictatorships, so Quaid goes on the run. It quickly becomes apparent that in his (real? imagined?) recent past, he was a top agent for Cohaagen. As such, he was tasked to hunt down Matthias (Bill Nighy), the leader of a resistance movement fighting Cohaagen’s reign. However, the more he interacted with the Resistance, the more Quaid realized who the true good guys were. Ultimately, he turned on his employer and started working for the other side.
So the chase is on – Cohaagen and his legions of henchmen try to grab the running, flying, driving, shooting Quaid before he can make contact with Matthias and cause all sorts of disruption. Before the movie is halfway through, Cohaagen decides to launch an all-out invasion of the Colony. So in addition to his other problems, guess who’s going to be responsible for saving his homeland.
The 1990 original isn’t content to stay on only one planet, instead vaulting back and forth between our native orb and Mars. Doug, a construction worker in this version, has recurring dreams of a disturbing nature set on the Red Planet. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) tells him the dreams are meaningless and that he should enjoy his life on earth, a delightful paradise full of promise and hope. Quaid’s humdrum life and cruddy job indicate otherwise, and off he goes to Rekall.
Bam! As in the remake, everything goes haywire, the protagonist kills a bunch of people and the spy story kicks in. Only this time, the colony in danger is Mars, lorded over by the ruthless Governor Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Quaid has to find the leader of the Mars resistance, Cuato, and help save the colony before Cohaagen implements an evil plan that will wipe it out entirely.
The two movies treat what’s essentially the same material in different ways. Total Recall (1990) is shaped by its star (who coincidentally was beginning to imagine himself at the time as a powerful political leader), and like many of the films he’s in, it’s got a jokey, half-serious tone. Schwarzenegger’s not much of an actor and he knows it, so his post-Terminator performances tend toward the cheesy, which greatly affects the tenor of his movies. Luckily, in the case of Total Recall, he’s got a director (Paul Verhoeven) and writers (Alien’s Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, plus Gary Goldman) who can deliver a good sci-fi story and balance it with humor and style. This version has a fun, comic-book feel that somehow blends well with the dense espionage story and the over-the-top violence characteristic of Verhoeven’s work.
The remake goes a different route, downing its story in a straight, dramatic swallow. There aren’t any Schwarzenegger-like quippy moments for Doug Quaid, a man on a quest who takes his work very seriously. It’s an interesting take but not an unusual one, and as a result, the movie feels a lot like many other big, studio, sci-fi offerings. The look of the film is dark and sleek and there’s a lot of cool stuff to look at (particularly the armies of cyborg cops), but how many times have we seen dark and sleek and cool in sci-fi epics? Excellent set design only goes so far.
Also, the bad guys are scarier in Total Recall (1990). Cohaagen is painted as a standard-issue corporate evil-doer, but his ability to shut down the oxygen supply of the Mars colony makes him truly fearsome. In the new version, he spends much of his screen time haranguing Quaid and Matthias’ beautiful lieutenant Melina (Jessica Biel). He’s in their faces and he never shuts up; he’s too close and too talky to be much of a fright. Cranston’s a fine actor, but he can’t do much with these limitations. Although Cox hams it up a bit (as does everyone in the original), his puppet-mastering from a distance ramps up the villain factor and makes his defeat in the final confrontation with Quaid all the more satisfying.
One bad guy (or girl) element that misses in the remake is the presence of Lori Quaid (Kate Beckinsale). Like the 1990 version, she’s revealed to be a spy working for the evil side rather than the dutiful wife she presents herself to be. Stone’s Lori is taken care of rather quickly, but Beckinsale’s marches on and on like the Terminator, outlasting even Cohaagen… who’s supposed to be the top villain. Director Len Wiseman can’t seem to decide who represents the bigger threat, and the movie suffers for it. Who are we really rooting for Quaid to defeat? Wiseman is married to Beckinsale, so perhaps that had a little something to do with the amount of screen time she gets in this film.
Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven made plenty of bad movies between them. Somehow, though, the individual personality quirks that crappified their lesser offerings blend well in Total Recall (1990). Its cheesiness and humor provide the right accents for a solid story and make the movie unique and memorable. The update looks nice and has some arresting set pieces (literally), but it doesn’t serve its tale as well as its predecessor. We can categorically state that you’re not imagining this; our champion and winner of an all-expenses-paid round-trip to Mars is the original Total Recall (1990).