The reboot is now well established as Hollywood’s default mode. With box office gold almost guaranteed, fan boys-turned-movie makers have given their beloved heroes new leases of hype and wheeled them out for a ready-made audience. We have seen Batman given his proper due as a conflicted and all-too-human character often fuelled by rage; James Bond returned to his rightful place as the cold-blooded agent of Ian Fleming’s novels; Spider-Man re-webbed (twice); and, coming to a megaplex near you, yet another Superman.
Director Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is, indeed, very true to Philip K Dick’s source material but whether this is a reboot or a plain old remake, it is simply impossible to avoid comparisons with Paul Verhoeven’s camp and ultraviolent version from 1990. This was the blockbuster that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger morph from lunk-headed action hero into a man who had great comedy timing and a gift for one liners.
Colin Farrell is the brave man who does a pretty good job in filling Arnie’s shoes, but this is a very different Total Recall in tone and mood. It is 2084 and the world is a dark and festering place, rendered toxic by chemical warfare. We meet Ordinary Joe factory worker Douglas Quaid as he grinds out a grim existence with wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) in a hellish city that looks like the set of Blade Runner after a visit from the Syrian army.
In this dystopian future (the only kind it seems), only two states remain - The United Federation of Britain and The Colony (Australia). The former is massively overpopulated and run as a near-police state by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), a man with a jealous eye on the rich lebensraum Down Under.
As in the original short story and movie, Quaid is terrified by a recurring nightmare that casts him as some kind of super spy. He visits Rekall, the company that “remembers it for you wholesale", only to find that his night terrors are very real and that everything – his wife, his job, his friends – is an elaborate lie planted in his mind by Cohaagen.
This is where the new Total Recall is at its best - Farrell is very, very good and he transmits his agonised confusion and his existential questions about identity brilliantly. The 20 minutes after his 'real' reality bites him in the ass are compelling - Quaid turns rogue and reunites with his true love, rebel fighter Jessica Biel, and absconds with Cohaagen and Lori in hot and chaotic pursuit.
However, Wiseman’s movie soon comes undone. He has, somewhat understandably, cast Beckinsale (his wife of seven years) as the main badass and while she may be very good at this kind of thing after a recurring role in his Underworld movies, the fight scenes here are drawn out, repetitive and likely to leave you more impressed with the editing than the actual action.
The great Bill Nighy, an actor who brings a cool gravitas to everything he does, is utterly wasted as rebel leader Matthias but the real oversight is the misuse of Bryan Cranston, who seems to spend most of his limited screen time gurning hammily and without menace.
Arnie had to get his ass to Mars to fulfil his destiny but here, Quaid’s mission is strictly earthbound, although it does involve a mode of transport which is easily the movie’s most ingenious slice of futurism. A buffed-up Farrell is great (even if he can’t seem to find any luck with blockbusters) while Biel is just too bland and vanilla to play a rebel fighter.
It gets off to a great start but repetition, endless chase scenes and a botched finale make this Total Recall unlikely to get inside your head.