'Total Recall' Review: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

"Grim 'n' gritty" is the roiling cloud that settled over the comics industry after Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns became a runaway success. Like a resolute storm front, it has moved on to menace other media. Miller used grim as satire, and gritty as provocation, but for so many others they're empty buzzwords, dull style guidelines with scant meaning and stunted wit. Total Recall, 2012 edition, is the grim 'n' gritty version of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 movie of the same name, this time from director Len Wiseman (Underworld, Live Free or Die Hard). Wiseman applies the style with little apparent intent or discretion, and in doing so creates little more than a visual exercise.

Verhoeven rendered Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale with a goofy, gooey spirit, and spat out broadly satirical economic jabs as he kept tongue planted firmly in cheek. His film kept our interest by coming back to one question: what is reality, and what only imagined? Is there are difference?

Wiseman's Total Recall has a few rudimentary thoughts in its head: "Economic disparity sucks! So does the abuse of power!" But it would rather make Kate Beckinsale look tough and sexy than do the legwork required to make bigger concepts into more than taglines. That's not the worst intention, and Wiseman's movie is at least energetic and sleek. But as it recites the twists and turns of the '90 version, at times beat for beat, it replaces intriguing ambiguity with straightforward and forgettable action.

Chemical warfare has rendered most of Earth uninhabitable; only the United Federation of Britain and The Colony (aka the UK and Australia) remain as habitats for humanity. The UFB is rich; the Colony is tenement housing for the poor workers who make the UFB tick. Colony residents travel between ends of the Earth each day via one bad bastard of a subway: The Fall, a tunnel through the planetary core, in which overblown elevators travel fast enough to get workers from one continent to another in minutes.

(They can build that, but they can't built housing in hostile lands that are, like, closer to work? Right, we'll come back to that.)

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is an assembly-line worker at a plant that churns out robotic law enforcers. Or is he? Lying next to his wife (Beckinsale) he dreams of a frantic action scene with another woman (Jessica Biel). Intruigued by Rekall, a company peddling technologically implanted memories, Quaid chooses to pump a juicy secret agent scenario into his dome, but... he's already a secret agent. Or is he?

Actually, this time out, there's no reason to ask that question. Total Recall '12 doesn't seem to care about questioning Quaid's lives. That led to a lot of second-guessing on my part. We know what Total Recall is, and we know the crux: is it all a fake memory, or not? What's the difference, anyway? Yet Wiseman tells the story with blithe single-mindedness: action scene, brief dialogue, reveal something about a character, repeat. His refusal to engage the reality question starts to seem like an oblique way of getting to it. The film's super-CGI world goes from movieland unreal to convincing and back again. What better environment for a story about technologically implanted memories than one created solely by computers?

So is The Fall — such a silly, outlandish concept, with such a heavily weighted name — really the elephant in the room? Does this Total Recall think that all other moments of ambiguity and suggestions of subjectivity can be shunted aside, replaced by action scenes and glamour shots of Beckinsale, because The Fall is such a gloriously ridiculous idea that it can't possibly be anything other than the product of fantasy?

I almost think that Wiseman (and/or writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback) think so, but I can't buy it. I can't buy anything in Total Recall '12. Farrell is determined and entertaining, Biel keeps up, and Beckinsale is as "in the moment" as she's ever been. They're all surrounded by a dual set of eye-catching cityscapes that crib from many sources: Blade Runner, the Star Wars prequels, Fallout 3, even Verhoeven's original. (Could the nods to Verhoeven's version also be meant as intentional world-breaking fantasy elements?)

But it's all so stoic, so determined, so seemingly convinced that the presentation of a grossly exaggerated class conflict exists comfortably with the expensively-rendered action scenes. UFB Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, with about five minutes of screen time) has an idea for a political plot to make things even worse, but he's given no time to really blossom as a villain, or even to become more than a talking head. The film's class-consciousness is just set dressing.

Remake or not, I'd rather not make repeated comparisons between this version and Verhoeven's. Yet the 1990 film, over the top and absurd as it often was, could at least claim several signature moments. Quaid choking in the atmosphere of Mars; the opening of a malfunctioning mask; a dual-arm severing; the weirdness of Kuato. Wiseman's signature moments are an action scene in The Fall, and an early car chase, both of which involve a sort of gut-lifting gravity loss that never quite sticks as a visual metaphor. He also trades in some of the moments viewers of Verhoven's version will all remember. When it comes to manipulating memories, that's about as deep as Total Recall is able to go.

/Film rating: 4.5 out of 10