Just before Colin Farrell consents to letting pseudo-vacation company Rekall implant him with false memories of a life as a super-spy, he has a short conversation with the memory chair operator about the philosophical implications of the procedure. In a few moments, the police will burst in and his identity as an improbably handsome factory worker will be thrown into doubt, but first he needs to sort something out: if none of his new memories actually happened, wouldn’t they feel fake? The operator disagrees, arguing that as far as brain chemistry is concerned, imprinted memories are as real as any others.
Despite being based on (or “inspired by”) a short story by Phillip K. Dick, maybe the most overtly philosophical pulp sci-fi writer of the 20th century, this brief exchange is about as heady as Total Recall gets — which is fine. It’s a big-budget summer blockbuster, not a primer on philosophy of mind. But it echoes a problem with most modern action movies, including this one. The original Total Recall wasn’t perfect, but it was memorable: using practical effects, it inflated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head, shot litres of blood out from countless innocent extras and made for a particularly visceral experience. Remake director Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard, Underworld) instead pilots this Total Recall squarely into the slick, bloodless, CGI-heavy middle of the road that has dominated the last decade’s worth of action movies, for better or (usually) for worse.
Some of it is for better, don’t get me wrong. The new Recall is completely earthbound, meaning the special effects artists don’t have Mars to play around with, but its visuals of a dystopian cityscape is as fully realized as any seen on the big screen. The world of the future, having been ravaged by chemical warfare, has only two livable nations left — basically Britain and Australia — connected by a giant tunnel dug straight through the centre of the Earth. Each of them is beautifully rendered, with the British living in futuristic luxury and “the Colony” covered with grimy, gravity-defying Eurasian slums. It’s a world seemingly designed for action set pieces, and with super-agent Kate Beckinsale leading Farrell on a mag-lev car chase, a foot pursuit that scans like a Mirror’s Edge level set in the world of Blade Runner, and a prolonged fight in a needlessly complex network of elevators, the film definitely delivers on that front. But despite the action, there’s little sense of adventure or even personality — this might as well be the world of Minority Report or I, Robot or pretty much any 21st century sci-fi film.
The original Recall was directed by Paul Verhoeven in between Robocop and Starship Troopers, a trilogy of over-the-top action indulgence that blended R-rated schlock with deeply cynical satire into something loud, fun and not quite as dumb as it seemed. Wiseman’s remake is prettier and more slick, but it’s also far more generic. With its CG world and bloodless battles, it’s like one of Rekall’s packages — a mass-produced memory that seems unlikely to stick.