Crazy new gadgets, vigorous action sequences and a thorough production-design makeover aren’t enough to keep “Total Recall” from feeling like a near-total redundancy. Scrapping the mayhem-on-Mars angle from Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi shoot-’em-up, director Len Wiseman’s Earthbound, workmanlike remake sticks Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role of a government-trained killing machine dealing with one bad case of selective amnesia. The persistence of memory is a funny theme for a picture that seems likely to fade almost immediately from the public consciousness, even if it cranks out a decent opening and respectable ancillary.
Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback’s screenplay arrives bearing the weight of multiple story credits, citing the first pic’s scribes as well as Philip K. Dick, whose short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” initially inspired this futuristic tale of a brainwashed secret agent trying to figure out who he is and which side he’s fighting on. That would be Douglas Quaid (Farrell), introduced awakening from an all-too-vivid nightmare, a remnant from a past he’s been forced to forget.
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Chemical warfare has left the Earth uninhabitable except for the Colony (formerly known as Australia), where Quaid lives, and a cluster of European nations called the United Federation of Britain. The relationship between these two continents is fraught with tension (probably stemming from a debate over which one is more architecturally indebted to “Blade Runner”) and the UFB’s chancellor, Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), is hellbent on squashing an uprising Down Under by a mysterious revolutionary known as Matthias (Bill Nighy).
Quaid realizes he’s somehow connected to all this sociopolitical turmoil after an ill-fated trip to Rekall, a corporation whose artificial memory-implant services bring about several unpleasant revelations. Among these is the fact that his heretofore loving wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is actually a cold-blooded killer with catlike reflexes and Energizer Bunny-like stamina, turning business into a personal grudge as she ruthlessly hunts down Quaid and Melina (Jessica Biel), the great love of his past life.
Gone is the first “Total Recall’s” concept of interplanetary travel; in this version, the hottest form of transit is a massive vessel that moves through the Earth’s core in minutes, toggling from one end to the other in one pleasurably gravity-defying sequence. Similarly, the pic’s other highlights are almost exclusively visual: The midsection is largely devoted to extended, elevated chase sequences involving first the Colony’s magnet-powered highway system, then a labyrinthine network of criss-crossing elevators that takes Patrick Tatopoulos’ production design to a mind-bendingly cubist extreme. The future, as rendered here, is crammed with all kinds of nifty technological wonders, from hand-embedded cell phones to identity-concealing neck rings.
Wiseman, who showed off his action chops to fine effect in 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard,” takes advantage of the myriad staging possibilities offered up by this elaborate, neon-tinged dystopia, and he directs the film’s numerous fight scenes with speed and energy, even if those qualities never translate into sustained tension or exhilaration. Strangely, there’s no psychological underpinning to the violence; the crucial moment when Quaid realizes his superhuman fighting abilities is lensed in show-offy, videogame-like fashion, with the camera whooshing about the room like a hummingbird having a seizure.
Pic is considerably slicker than its predecessor but hardly sleeker, at an overlong 117 minutes, a fairly dubious accomplishment considering how little it brings to the story in terms of fresh twists and ideas. Above all, it lacks the overblown violence and grotesque vulgarity that made Verhoeven’s vision at once so incorrigible and so vital, though Wiseman does tip his hat to the original by throwing in a three-breasted prostitute.
Perfs are functional but fine. Absent Schwarzenegger’s imposing physicality, Farrell plays the role closer to that of a Jason Bourne 5.0, although the actor’s soft-eyed vulnerability makes sense for a character who finds the rug pulled out from him at every turn. Stepping into a role played in the 1990 pic by Sharon Stone, Beckinsale (Wiseman’s wife, whom he directed in the first two “Underworld” pics) is pure, one-note malevolence, though she and Biel make for a nicely matched pair of fierce femmes. Diverse supporting cast boasts an unusual number of Asian faces, from John Cho’s Rekall employee to various extras, perhaps as a speculative nod to a rapidly changing global order.