Posted on Monday, August 6th, 2012 by Angie Han
In yet another year brimming with sequels, prequels, remakes, reimaginings, and reboots, it’s all too easy to complain about Hollywood’s lack of creativity. It’s also inaccurate. The Dark Knight Rises may be a threequel based on a comic book, but it’s also an exhilarating, thoughtful realization of one auteur’s vision. 21 Jump Street may very well have started out as a bottom line-obsessed exec’s idea of an quick cash grab, but Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Jonah Hill, Michael Bacall, and Channing Tatum turned it into one of the year’s brightest comedies. Artists have always stood on the shoulders of other visionaries from eras past, and the great ones have always known how to make those old templates their own.
But then there are projects like Len Wiseman‘s Total Recall remake, which deserves all the eye-rolling its very premise inspires and more. It could be the top contender for the title of “summer’s most inessential movie.” Not worst movie, mind you — I wasn’t confused or annoyed or bored to tears. With its handsome leads, slick action, and a relatively coherent storyline, it’s not likely draw any ire. And that’s what’s so goddamn soul-sucking about it.
Certain movies, such as Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked or Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, inspire knee-jerk hatred because they’re so obviously awful. Total Recall isn’t one of those. Instead, it’s a more insidious kind of horrible because it’s just competent enough to inspire complacency. There’s nothing all that thrilling about the movie, but there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, either. It’s a perfectly calibrated for total inoffensiveness, with no rough edges or major mishaps. The scenery is generic Blade Runner-esque high-tech dystopia. The plotline is typical sci-fi hero arc, with just enough half-hearted twists to keep viewers awake. There are some mildly interesting action setpieces, and the explosions look expensive and colorful. Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel are in good shape, and their brows furrow with the appropriate amount of intensity.
True, there are some nominal attempts to introduce heavier themes of inequality, consciousness, and reality, but they seem to just be left over from the original film. Wiseman’s Total Recall doesn’t so much grapple with those issues as it does glance at them from medium distance, shrug, and get back to its predictable path. And to be fair, the new film isn’t entirely devoid of highlights — Kate Beckinsale and Bryan Cranston are clearly having a lot of fun with their villainous roles, though it’s still not enough to cut through all that blandness.
To say Total Recall could’ve been better isn’t mere speculation, it’s fact. We know it to be true because it was better, once, in the original Paul Verhoeven version. However, the problem isn’t that the Total Recall remake doesn’t live up to the standards of its predecessor. It’s that it takes everything that gave Verhoeven’s movie life — really, everything that gives any movie life — and sands them down so we’re left with something pretty, shiny, and bloodless. (Literally bloodless, since it’s PG-13.) Something that looks like it might fit into the oddly tidy slums of Wiseman’s dystopia, come to think of it.
Contrast that to, say, Tim Burton‘s Dark Shadows, which for all its massive flaws was at least an obvious labor of love. Or The Dictator, a maddeningly unfunny comedy that tried to make a point. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is based on a pretty silly premise, but it’s a memorably strange one. Marc Webb‘s The Amazing Spider-Man came too quickly on the heels of Sam Raimi‘s trilogy, but Andrew Garfield made its iconic hero new again. Rock of Ages had A-list celebs shaking things up by shaking their booties. Men in Black 3 was an overdone mess, but charming turns by Will Smith and Josh Brolin made it a lot of fun to watch. Hell, even the Hasbro adaptation Battleship had a jingoistic viewpoint and a dorky sense of humor.
Maybe it’s naive of me to complain about a film feeing too safe. Total Recall certainly isn’t the only picture guilty of this, and the reason I’m picking on it in specifically is simply that it’s the last one I saw. On the other hand, I’m still wasting two of my own hours — and $12 of my own money, if I’m not at a press screening — to sit through this mush. Can you blame me for wanting to get a little something back? I’m not arguing that all movies have to be art, but all movies should have to earn our two hours and $12, whether by moving us, enlightening us, or just entertaining us. At its most ambitious, the new Total Recall aims to meet the bare minimum of that requirement.
The two absolute worst movies I’ve seen so far this year were Chadd Harbold‘s tedious Revenge for Jolly! and Bradley Rust Gray‘s nonsensical Jack & Diane. But those movies felt like a filmmaker’s attempt to do something, even if both failed spectacularly. I slapped my forehead in annoyance, I sighed with impatience, I rolled my eyes so far back I thought they’d get stuck there — but at least I reacted. I complained about the movies to my colleagues for several days afterward. I had nothing whatsoever to say about Total Recall, because it may be the most heartbreakingly safe movie I’ve seen this year. Put another way, I hate Total Recall precisely because there’s nothing to hate about it.