How seriously can you take a sci-fi movie that casts Harold (Jon Cho from the Harold and Kumar movies) in a pivotal role? Actually, he’s pretty good (and doesn’t look at all like Sulu, either). However, since familiarity—and not the déjà vu-mind-bending kind that’s required by any movie calling itself Total Recall—permeates this 2012 go-round (“inspired by” the Philip K. Dick story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” which was adapted into a much better movie in 1990), Cho is just another joke livening the film’s been-there, done-that brand of familiarity.
Len Wiseman, auteur of the Underworld franchise, has a nifty new concept for the film’s near-future dystopia, a globe-chunneling elevator called the Fall. But too many other elements have been recalled from other movies, especially Blade Runner (set design), and of course, the none-too-original urban cesspools of the Underworlds, along with Underworld stars Kate Beckinsale and Bill Nighy. Nothing wrong with a director having favorites, but since Beckinsale is also Mrs. Wiseman, you don’t have to be clairvoyant to intuit that her character is not going to get killed off in the first 15 minutes (though you may wish she had been by the halfway point).
Now that chemical warfare has poisoned most of the planet, only two habitable areas remain: the United Federation of Britain, and the Colony, which is located where Australia used to be. Colonists are exploited for cheap labor, and live in a concrete labyrinth where it rains all the time.
Beckinsale plays Lori (the role that made Sharon Stone a star), who is married to Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role), a factory worker who is having nightmares about things he almost remembers. When Doug is tempted into buying a virtual vacation at Rekall, his implantation goes awry, the office is besieged by a SWAT team, and Doug discovers to his great surprise that he has skills he was unaware of, such as being able to fight off more than a dozen “synthetics” (AI law enforcers) and later, being able to make phone calls from a sub-dermal device in his palm.
About that palm call: Apparently there is a conspiracy regarding the manufacture and deployment of the synthetics, which Doug has stumbled right into. Or maybe he was always in it, and just doesn’t remember, because his memory banks have already been manipulated. What he does find out is that he has friends he’s never met in places he didn’t know existed, including the brunette (Jessica Biel) from his dreams. While Doug is navigating his way to the truth about his real (or imagined) identity, his predicament is interesting. And then it becomes less so as one chase after another leads not to a meta-reality crux, but to yet another chase.
Not surprisingly, Wiseman is most effective with the film’s style, at least until CGI burn-out sets in. What he doesn’t get is that a movie that requires a total suspension of disbelief to facilitate its most improbable plot twists must be played deadly serious. So all of this film’s clever references to the original are not only amusing, but a constant reminder that compared to Wiseman, the original’s Paul Verhoeven is a mad genius of action choreography. And once again in the sci-fi genre, Schwarzenegger fans get the last laugh: For an actor who can’t act, his action-hero persona is apparently an impossible act to follow.