Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Total Recall: From Short Story to Movie to Movie Remake

August 21, 2012

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was an American writer who rose to prominence in the 1960s with his body of work which dealt with alternate historical fiction, melding this with science fiction.  He had 44 published novels, including the award-winning "The Man in the High Castle."  He also wrote about 120 short stories, several of which had been adapted into famous big budget movies, like "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "The Adjustment Bureau," "A Scanner Darkly" and "Total Recall."  It was unfortunate that he was not able to gain financially from his written work in spite of their renown.

In April 1966, Dick wrote a short story entitled "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale," which was first published in the The Magazine for Fantasy and Science Fiction.  The story is about Douglas Quail, an ordinary guy who constantly dreamed of going to Mars, but was financially unable to.  So he decided the next best thing was to go to REKAL, a memory-implanting service, to get his fill of Mars experiences, as a secret Interplan agent to boot.  However, the staff at Rekal discover that these Martian memories already existed in Quail's brain!  After the procedure, Quail is pursued by Interplan agents to be killed as he now recalls a secret mission he did for that agency.  Quail bargains for his life by suggesting that those Mars memories be replaced by a more incredible memory of him preventing an alien take-over of Earth when he was only 9 years old.  However during the procedure, Rekal were in for another big surprise.

In 1990, a big sci-fi blockbuster film came out entitled "Total Recall" starring the biggest action star of that time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with one of the more controversial directors, Paul Verhoeven. In the hands of Verhoeven, "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" was imaginatively transformed into a very complex inter-planetary screenplay. Arnold played a construction worker named Douglas Quaid (not the original name Quail), blissfully married to beautiful Lori (Sharon Stone). Bothered by dreams of Mars, he goes to Rekall, Inc., an establishment where they sell memories, so he can take a virtual trip to the Red Planet. After a snafu during the memory implantation procedure, Quaid suddenly becomes the "shoot-to-kill" target of government agents who seem to believe that he is Hauser, a secret agent working for the Martian resistance. So what is real and what is not? We the audience were taken for an exciting trip, that was as much an action as well as a mind game. Now that was one interesting, eye-popping and entertaining sci-fi film.

Fast forward to 2012, "Total Recall" gets remade. Colin Farrell takes on Schwarzenegger's Douglas Quaid/Hauser role. The sexy and sleek Kate Beckinsale becomes a Lori Quaid that meshed the characters of BOTH Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside (Quaid's relentless pursuer) in the first film. Jessica Biel completes the triangle, as Melina, the girl in Quaid's "previous" life (played by Rachel Ticotin in the first movie). 

Honestly, this remake felt more like a Kate Beckinsale movie. If this is because the director Len Wiseman is her husband, I do not know. But to be fair though, Kate really excels in these action roles, as she did in her "Underworld" films, very believable that she can really kick serious ass. In contrast, Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel had very wan, even forgettable, screen presence here. I did not really care about them at all, which was ironic since they were supposed to be the heroes. For all the flack that Arnold Schwarzenegger got about being a lousy actor, Arnie's undeniable larger-than-life big screen charisma and unintended tongue-in-cheek sense of humor was really missed in this pale and leaden remake.

I do not know if it is because we already know how the basic story would go, but there was not really much improvement to be seen in this redux. Of course, the computer-generated special effects were expected to exceed the original, which still had obviously fake blood and creature effects with actual puppets. The first "Total Recall" had the distinction of being one of the last major Hollywood film to use large-scale use of miniature effects, and one of the first to use computer-generated imagery.   However, it is really unfortunate that the director concentrated too much on making this remake merely an overly-computerized, generic-looking action movie.  

The basic mental conundrum of Quaid's real existence ("Is it Real, or is it Recall?"), which made the first film interesting, is lost in all of these computer-generated slam-bang action sequences. It seemed only a vague backgrounder or a mere afterthought. For some odd reason, the current makers even decided to take the whole Mars scenario out of the remake! The conflict in this remake centered around a "United Federation of Britain" and "The Colony." The very heart of the first movie about the mutants and the precious commodity of air were not here. Therefore essentially this remake just becomes another one of those un-memorable soul-less futuristic chase movies, like we have seen so many many times before.  

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