“Total Recall” (2012) Review

Oh, look! Colin Farrell is out remaking our childhoods again. I can understand why they remade Fright Night. The young adult vampire story is a big seller right now and if nothing else, the original Fright Night certainly has a healthy dose of vampires and young adults, so a remake made a lot of sense.

It also stars David Tennant, which automatically makes any movie worth it.

I have a much more difficult time, however, wrapping my head around a Total Recall remake. I know that Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original isn’t a masterpiece per se, but it accomplishes everything it needs to. It’s fun, suspenseful, and accurately captures both the panic and excitement the question “What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was wrong?” lends itself to. Yes, it can be a bit campy and silly (after all, it is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) and some of the special effects, while innovative, have not aged well, but I don’t feel these qualities alone prime the film for a gritty reboot.

The original Total Recall is also a very politically charged film that played an important role at the end of the Cold War. Throughout most of the 1980s and the first year or two of the 90s, Western audiences were treated to an onslaught of films starring “All-American” action stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Susan Jeffords coined the term “hard bodies” to describe these actors for they represented a strong, incorruptible, and unbeatable America that could be showcased in the final years of the Cold War. Some of these films are more blatant in their political agendas such as Rocky IV, which displays physical and moral dominance over the Soviet Union, and Rambo: First Blood Part II, which essentially serves to undo the war in Vietnam, but Total Recall is an interesting film in the bunch. By 1990, the Cold War was all but over and what better way to show this than have the hard-bodied Schwarzenegger travel to the degenerative, near-uninhabitable Mars (its red surface I’m sure is no coincidence) to assist a group of rebels overthrow the corrupt, oppressive governing body and single-handedly transform the planet into a place of beauty and freedom.

No, he does this LITERALLY single-handedly.

The political reading of the film isn’t quite that simple, however. Just like RoboCop’s warnings about the corporatization of policing, Verhoeven makes sure capitalism isn’t overlooked in Total Recall either. The film’s villain Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), while a dictator in many respects, is a businessman at heart. He privatizes Mars’ natural resources, maintaining a dangerous monopoly over oxygen and protection from the planet’s radiation to the point that citizens have to pay in order to survive. On Mars, life is a privilege for the wealthy, while the poor suffer serious mutations as a result of shoddy accommodations. It’s in this critique that I feel a remake of Total Recall could be warranted. Just like vampires, the economy and the implications of its current state are hot issues. The rebel motif has also gained relevance in today’s society with the ongoing political protests in the East and the Occupy Movement still a recent memory in the West. Perhaps it’s time that the political message of Total Recall was updated for this generation so it can accurately reflect back to us our emotions and anxieties in a time of change and unrest as effectively as the original does so with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of global capitalism.

Or it could just be a shallow, mindless action flick.

In spite of Wikipedia’s claims that the remake exhibits stronger political overtones than the original, I certainly didn’t pick up on any. The Mars plot is understandably scrapped this time in favour of a near-desolate Earth where the remaining population is divided into the rich citizens of the “United Federation of Britain” and the working class of “The Colony”. The plot is updated so that Quaid (Schwarzenegger in the original, played in this film by Farrell) is fighting his own brainwashing to uncover a plot to invade The Colony and replace its citizens with synthetic robot workers. While an interesting angle, it’s not explored nearly as deeply as it should be in order to convey any semblance of a politically relevant message. There is something to be said about the working class being phased out for the sake of efficiency and profit maximization, but this has been an ongoing issue to some degree since the dawn of industrialism. Not exactly the most topical issue. You don’t exactly get a 99% vibe from The Colony either. The rebels are virtually stripped of their importance, more or less existing simply because they were in the original movie, and despite being constantly exploited and ostensibly on the brink of extermination, there’s a disturbing contentedness to The Colony’s citizens. There’s a scene early on in the film where Quaid delivers the standard “Do you ever wonder if there’s more to life than this?” speech and is mocked by a coworker over it. As for Cohaagen’s evil scheme, the whole thing feels less like the byproduct of corporate greed and more like a rehash of the Third Reich with his planned invasion of the ghettos to exterminate the population and replace them with his own flawless synthetic workers.

He’s also blond, but I fail to see the relevance.

A lack of deep exploration seems to be Total Recall’s biggest problem across the board. The film often passes up developing and examining the meaning of its own aspects in favour of something that just looks really cool onscreen. The environments of the film are visually very striking and I enjoyed the action sequences, but they’re simply not enough to sustain a story. One of the more notable additions to the remake is the introduction of the synthetic police force: an army of robotic officers intended to more efficiently carry out the law. There are some very chilling implications of an increasingly ubiquitous and inhuman police presence and you think the film would explore this considering how gung-ho Cohaagen seems to be about them, but they’re instead reduced to mere henchmen that are more visually dazzling than real people because they short-circuit and sometimes blow up when you fight them. The same issue comes up with Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, in this film). There’s something very unsettling about the villain in the original Total Recall being a suit. Perhaps it has something to do with the realness of an antagonist who reflects the people running the world at the time, not to mention the fascinating contrast with Quaid. He’s the Lex Luthor to Schwarzenegger’s Superman. But in this film, they decide to “cool him up” by making him younger and highly skilled in martial arts and knife play. The character feels quite contradictory as a result and a lot of focus is taken off of what truly makes him a menacing villain.

“I’m warning you. I know Kung Fu.”

If it stood on its own, I might of been kinder to Total Recall. It still manages to capture to some degree the intensity and suspense of learning your life is a lie, it’s fast-paced and action-packed, and the strong visuals prime the film for an enjoyable IMAX/AVX viewing, but it’s still a remake. We already have a Total Recall movie, so it automatically becomes the job of this film to justify why we now need two of them. It fails in this regard. There’s nothing about the Total Recall remake that doesn’t work better in the original and the changes they do make to the story and characters come off as simply trying to make this movie seem different – an effort that appears trivial at best and undermines the strength of the film at worst.

Just in case there weren’t enough pictures of Bryan Cranston.

I give it 2.5/5.


“The Watch” (2012) Review

For a movie that had apparently been in development since 2008, The Watch certainly feels like something that was thrown together at the last minute. Reading even a little into the film’s background, you would think it had all the elements to be a comedy hit. First and foremost, it was developed with Ghostbusters¬†in mind: the plot revolving around a group of everyday guys (played of course by comedic actors) banding together to take on an alien invasion. Take that tried-and-true premise, put Akiva Schaffer of Lonely Island fame in the director’s chair, and bring aboard Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to rewrite the script and suddenly this movie looks very promising. But as history has proven, a cool concept and dream crew don’t always guarantee a good film. Just ask RoboCop 2, which had everything going for it from Irvin Kershner and Frank Miller at the helm to being a sequel to FREAKIN’ ROBOCOP! Or the more recent cancelled Superman¬†project with Tim Burton as director and Kevin Smith writing the script. With a formulae like these, you’d think “How could they possibly screw it up?”

Believe me, they can … and they will.

Unfortunately, The Watch feels less like the brilliant lovechild of some of the biggest names in comedy and more like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster with various incompatible pieces forced together, resulting in this tragic heap that isn’t quite sure what it’s supposed to be.

I’ve seen enough versions of the movie to know that existential crises never end well.

The main issue of The Watch is that it can’t seem to decide whether it’s a raunchy comedy or a gory sci-fi chiller. The tone and pacing of the film suffers dramatically because of this, resulting in many attempts at building humour or suspense being undermined by jarring switches from one genre to the other. One scene features the neighbourhood watch (comprised of Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, and Richard Ayoade) singing along to BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and hilariously messing up the lyrics and a few scenes later, they’re staring at the bloody, mangled corpse of R. Lee Ermey. One minute, Jonah Hill’s trying to put the moves on Ben Stiller’s wife and the next, a police officer is brutally murdered by an alien shoving its claw through his chest. Then there are the instances where the film tries really hard to seamlessly blend the two genres, but instead we’re treated to some of its more unsettling moments such as when the gang supposedly kills an alien and proceeds to desecrate its body while posing for pictures like they’re in a really twisted Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel.

And for those movies, that’s saying A LOT!

I’m not saying that comedies should be void of gore. Evil Dead 2 plays the gore up to exaggerated levels specifically for laughs. Shaun of the Dead uses it to remind the viewer of the severity of the protagonists’ situation in a type of dramatic juxtaposition. While The Watch presents a similar juxtaposition, it seems like not much thought was put into why it’s there. This is problematic because it leaves audiences unsure about how they should feel about what’s going on in the film. If the audience can’t decide whether they should be amused or afraid, they’ll naturally respond by being neither.

Another contributing factor is that the aliens feel like an afterthought and their scenes play out without much regard for what they do for the film overall. This doesn’t have to do with just the gore, but the entire plot surrounding them. The aliens are void of any motivation, logic, or real personality. They’re malevolent and want to invade Earth, but we’re never given any explanation beyond “They’re aliens. It’s what they do.” Phase One of their master plan (don’t worry, no spoilers) involves them infiltrating the human race by killing random people, stealing their skin, and assuming their identities, but they leave the bodies of people they’ve killed lying around to be discovered by innocent bystanders and the police. You would think their disguises would be rendered useless, but the film seems to ignore this gaping plot hole so we can have all these crazy twists at the end when we discover which characters are actually aliens (hint: it’s the least developed ones). I’m not sure how the alien plot was handled in the original script, but in the rewrite it feels like it exists solely for the purpose of giving the main characters something to do.

The Watch, I suppose, is watchable (hey look, a pun), but just barely. It has some chuckle-worthy moments and a few amusing cameos to keep you engaged plus the alien effects are actually pretty cool, but most of this is ultimately overlooked as a result of disjointed pacing and ever-changing tone as the film clumsily switches back and forth between genres. Do yourself a favour and stick to Ghostbusters.

It gets 2.5/5.