Deja vu all over again

Energetic remake of sci-fi classic still misses point of source material

Make me think I’m really a sexy rich movie star.

Make me think I’m really a sexy rich movie star.

Total Recall
Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston. Directed by Len Wiseman. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Like the 1990 picture of the same name, the 2012 Total Recall is drawn from the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Both versions use the Dick story mostly as an excuse for a bizarro action movie, with Dick’s famously paranoid frenzies (psychological, political and cultural) treated variously as mere generic dystopian backdrop.

The R-rated 1990 version may have had more a Dickian “edge,” but the new one (rated a softer PG-13) at least holds its own as a B-movie fandango with high-tech furnishings. Here again, furious pacing and crazed iconography take precedence over narrative coherence and dramatic emotion.

The preview trailers in particular make this new Total Recall look like an empty exercise in video-game imagery, but on the big screen Len Wiseman’s film has an appealing kinetic energy for most of its two-hour running time. There’s plenty of CGI in action and settings alike, but not so much that a certain visceral sense of the characters’ physical reality gets entirely lost.

Wiseman’s cast, headed by Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale, delivers a sort of pulp-fiction vitality, even as the special effects approach a suffocating critical mass. Farrell does yeoman duty as a troubled bloke who is both “ordinary” and possessed of action-hero capabilities. As the women in his puzzlingly multi-layered life, Beckinsale and Jessica Biel are the yin and yang of an action-boy fantasy girl.

The archvillain Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) is an all-purpose evil dictator, mad scientist, technocratic megalomaniac outfitted with both an absurdly Byzantine will to imperial power and a peculiar willingness to take care of (lethal) business up close and personal, if all else fails. Cranston tries to camp up the absurdities of this over-the-top stock character, but to little effect in a movie whose assorted moments of weird humor barely register amid the pseudo-apocalyptic flim-flam.

Early on, the thing works pretty well as sci-fi action fantasy. But Wiseman and company are much better at taking us into the story’s special world—with its dream implants, artificial memories, identity erasures, Rubik’s Cube architecture, and environmental catastrophes—than they are at getting us to some point at which the journey seems genuinely worthwhile.

Neither of the Total Recalls really faces up to the element of Dick’s story that links the memory implant/dream adventure scheme of the future to the motion pictures we already have. And in the case of Wiseman’s film in particular that may leave you feeling that the movie you’ve just watched is just one more example of the sort of thing that Dick was satirizing.