MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Total Recall

TOTAL RECALL (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Len Wiseman, 2010


Another Philip K. Dick movie. Another terrific opportunity wasted.

It bewilders me. Why are so many of the current makers of the  super-action-movies so seemingly uninterested in writing good or clever dialogue or in devising original plots or in creating interesting characters? Or in leaving them intact, if they pick a good writer to adapt, like Dick? You’d think a hit movie like the first Jon FavreauRobert Downey Iron Man,  with its smart story and witty lines and Downey’s crafty characterization would have pointed the way, would have show how much assets like those can improve even the most wildly implausible action/sci-fi plot. But the new Total Recall, an okay movie from a very good source, which could have been much better,  suggests the opposite.

Total Recall is a remake, or recycling, or rehash, of the 1990 Paul VerhoevenArnold SchwarzeneggerSharon Stone sci-fi actioner  of the same title about a company that creates false memories, which in turn was based (not that faithfully) on one of Dick’s stories, the impudently titled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (a riff on the title of a Jerome Weidman novel).  It’s  a typical Dick idea. On a future Earth, a company called Rekall implants false memories in the mind of the central character, Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger), who discovers that the world he knows and the life he leads may be a phonies and illusions. An intriguing set-up. But good Dick ideas have been wasted or buried under shtick and gloss before, and that’s often the case here.

When Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger made the first Total Recall back in 1990, scripters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (who were also the scribes of the first Alien) added to Dick’s story an interplanetary war with Mars.  The new movie, directed at full throttle by Len Wiseman and designed fairly smashingly by Patrick Tatopoulos, junks Mars and replaces it with a revolution on Earth. (Or is it?)

But (unhappily) it doesn’t return more of the inventive story and rivetingly loony plot twists of Dick‘s bad-dreamy original. Instead, Wiseman and scenarists Kurt Wimmer (of the preposterous Law Abiding Citizen) and Mark Bomback (the exciting Unstoppable) dream up a future Earth divided into a domain of the Haves (The United Federation of Britain, on the isle of the old Great Britain) and of the Workers (The Colony, where Australia used to be). These two areas are connected by an immense elevator tunneling through the earth, called The Fall, which, naturally becomes an arena for frequent fights and chases and all-out mayhem.

In fact, fights and chases and all-out mayhem — beginning with a bad Quaid dream in which he and heroine Melina are pursued by obvious bad guys, are what this movie is all about. It‘s basically a slam-banger, with minimal characterization and so-so dialogue, but with almost non-stop action and carnage. It also has a good cast all somewhat underused: Colin Farrell in the Schwarzenegger role of Doug Quaid, Kate Beckinsale in the Sharon Stone role of Doug‘s suddenly mean wife Lori — plus Jessica Biel as rebel gal Melina, Bryan Cranston as charlatan tyrant Cohaagen, Bill Nighy as rebel leader Matthias, and Bokeem Woodbine as Harry, Doug’s affable co-worker. Or are they, really?

Now, I know the automatic answer to my objections about the mediocre writing here: People don’t go to movies like Total Recall for dialogue and character; they go for the action. Only nerds who read books care about good writing. The mass audience wants kicks and carnage and sizzle and smash, even from an adaptation of a writer (like Dick) who made it into the prestigious Library of America. Right?

Well no. I don’t think that’s true, and it shouldn’t be true. In the great action and adventure and science fiction movies (like for example the Dick-derived Blade Runner), as much as any other kind of movies (except silent ones), audiences want, or should want, and should have, all or most of those elements, and they deserve all of them. (In a better movie year, like 1962, they’d have them all, in many of the best movies.) It seems ridiculous to spend mega-million s on a show, and not try to make it as good as possible in every area. Why cast actors this talented in a production this elaborate and expensive, and in a story with concepts and themes as provocative as Dick’s,  and then give those actors almost nothing to do but fights and chases, and an occasional breather? (At one startling moment in the new Total Recall, Farrell’s Doug tinkles a little Beethoven on a piano, and, by that time, I wish he‘d played the whole damned sonata.)

Wiseman, who directed the first two Underworld movies (with his now-wife Beckinsale), as well as Live Free and Die Hard, is a  devotee of the first Die Hard, the first Lethal Weapon and the Indiana Jones movies, so it’s easy to see why he emphasizes action so much, and why he‘s so good at it. But ff, in fact well-staged action and bloodshed is all that audiences really want, then our movies have been sadly depleted, robbed of their full power (the power of people and emotions as well as of action and machinery) and so has our whole popular culture.

Maybe it’s true; maybe audiences have become so relatively narrow in their tastes. Maybe they’ve been debauched by years of lazy formula scripts — which this one certainly didn’t have to be. But the movies, with all the wondrous story-telling tools at their disposal, should try harder to make us all see and feel and reflect, and the should teach us also to want and demand more from them.

In Total Recall, Wiseman and his visual people give us a lot to see — a terrific magnetic hover-car chase, those thrilling battles on the Fall, and one cliffhanger after another — and they deserve full credit for that. But there’s not that much to think about, even though it’s the ideas in Dick‘s books that make him a  great writer and a great story-source for the movies. These moviemakers don’t seem  his kindred spirits. (See below.) This movie would have been much, much better, more  entertaining, and far more satisfying, with a lot more attention paid to characters and dialogue and the writing.

You can tell part of what’s wrong here by watching the cast try to shove some meaning and emotion into their roles.  Nighy, often a splendid actor, wanders in and out here, as if he’s stumbled onto the wrong set and was trying to find his way out without too much embarrassment. Cranston seems to be rehearsing for a Saturday Night Live parody of sci-fi epics. Bokeem Woodbine may have a sitcom in mind. (He redeems himself with his final unmasking scene.)

Farrell takes his job seriously, and he’s certainly a better actor than Schwarzenegger was. But unfortunately he doesn’t have lines as good — an unusual kudo for a Schwarzenegger movie. (Then again, Total Recall was an unusual Schwarzenegger movie.) As for Beckinsale and Biel — which sounds a bit like a fine soap and bath oil company —  they’re a seductive pair, even though, in this movie, they have a little too much fighting and chasing, and not enough seducing or femme-fataling. It’s also sometimes hard to tell them apart — except that Lori snarls a lot.



Anyway, to repeat myself again, I still don’t understand why American moviemakers keep adapting and re-adapting Dick‘s short stories, which often have great ideas, but are usually more suitable in shape and structure for “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” length — instead of adapting more of his novels. (What about, instead, using the short stories for a Philip Dick cable TV anthology show, Brit-style, which could also include adaptations of stories by Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree, Jr. and other Dick contemporaries and kindred spirits?)

Maybe  the problem is that producers find Dick’s short stories and novelettes easier reads. The novels have adapted well: Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner (a.k.a. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”),  and Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. I hear they’re working on Ubik. And it’s precisely those longer novels that could make the other great Dick movies — marvelous books like “The Man in the High Castle,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” “Time Out of Joint,” or even a nifty little early potboiler like “Eye in the Sky.”

Total Recall might have had that kind of potential too — instead of becoming another fight and chase marathon. Would dedicated carnage gourmets have objected and stayed away? I doubt it. But hey, you have to be willing to risk failure, if you want to implant some great memories. Philip Kindred Dick certainly did.





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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon