Total Recall (1990)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

There’s a new version of Total Recall out in August; I caught the trailer for it at the weekend. The good things I spotted were some cracking digital effects, and what looks to be a great cast, including Colin Farrell in the lead role. I might not always like his film choices, but I find Farrell a riveting actor and hope he can bring some of the tension from his turn in Phone Booth to bear here.

Still, it begs the question – do we really need this? Are remakes of old ‘classics’ ever worth the bother? compiled a list of the ten best reviewed remakes since 2000, the list includes True Grit, the Coens’s update of which was good but so was the 1969 version, and Let Me In, Hammer’s fine English language version of a Swedish original that could hardly be bettered. In fact, from their list, only Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven really stands out as the edition you would definitively choose to see. The rule therefore should be that if you are going to remake something, ensure the original was rubbish. Of the worst incidentally, my mind turns to the horror genre, and all those putrid ‘updates’ from the last decade or so, the likes of The Haunting, The Omen and The Fog that lose all the charm of their originals and ignores everything that made them good in the first place.

Back to Recall and the worry, based on the trailer, that the 2012 version seems to be a wholesale retread of Paul Verhoeven’s 1989 version, which suggests all we’re getting for our buck is state of the art special effects. This aspect of the film screened today is inevitably the one that’s dated the most. I remember going to see Total Recall more than twenty years ago (crikey) and being utterly blown away by its visuals. Watch it now and there’s much that looks obsolete, particularly the famous ‘head split’ scene with its obvious rubber model of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So much of the film’s suspension of disbelief relies on the effects being immersive enough, and too often they just aren’t now.

Another issue is the acting range of its star. Sometimes, it feels as though the American film industry added a little something to the world’s water supply in the early 1980s, a mild hypnotic that convinced us Schwarzenneger wasn’t as bad as he clearly was. James Cameron knew best how to get the most out of his prime Austrian beef, even taking advantage of the iron pumper’s limitations for the inhuman Terminator. By the end of the decade, studios were falling over themselves to offer him work. Arnie was amongst the biggest draws, seeing off his main rival, Sylvester Stallone, to dominate the box office until the mid-1990s. His charisma and sense of fun went a long way, but he was often awful. The scenes in Total Recall where he’s paired with Sharon Stone are excruciating. Verhoeven possessed the good fortune to have the generation’s finest femme fatale actress (Maybe Kathleen Turner..?) on his cast. She wipes Arnie off the screen in each of their moments together.

Still, Ms Stone is amongst the boxes Total Recall ticks, and for all his struggles to out-act the Kuato puppet, Arnie knew how to work on action sequences, which are frequent and never less than exciting. According to IMDb, his role was initially offered to Christopher Reeve, which doesn’t sound half as good. It’s also worth watching for Michael Ironside, an actor who appears to have spent his career playing variations on the world’s most hardcore badass.

Given the way it’s aged, Total Recall remains what it was intended to be – a blast. All the philosophical elements of Philip K Dick’s short story are abandoned in the name of kinetic thrills. Even the question that underpins the show – is any of it really happening? – is addressed only as an afterthought. All that matters is the body count, the action dial turned to 11 and the joie de vivre of its star dispatching the film’s many villains in ever snottier and more improbable ways. Will the remake attempt to do anything more in keeping with the source material? I suspect it won’t.

Total Recall: ***

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