People complain about Hollywood's penchant for remakes as if it were some horrible new trend, evil simply by virtue of lacking originality. While I certainly enjoy new ideas more, I sort of like remakes too. Or I would if they didn't so often turn out to be horrible. It wouldn't bother me at all to have movies like Rio Bravo or The Seven Samurai or Battle Royal remade annually. Would the cinematic universe really be so awful if we got a new version of The Raid each Christmas?
Take the original Total Recall. I, along with many others, absolutely love this movie, but unlike other popular Verhoeven genre films like RoboCop or Starship Troopers, Total Recall doesn't have a hard satirical pillow to cushion it from its own trashy silliness. Yes, there's some class warfare stuff going on, but Verhoeven soft peddles it in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger's face and all the funny ways he can stretch it.
And that's fine because Total Recall never deviates from this chosen path. You got the "2 Weeks" lady, the Johnny Cab, Kuato's entrance, "I Got 5 Kids to Feed," and a million other great moments of hilarious gore and camp. It's a stupid but fun masterpiece. There's a chick with three boobs.
But as the story of a double agent dealing with implanted memories while killing the shit out of everyone, a great chase plot pulses beneath Total Recall as well. The film grounds itself pop-intellectually with the question of whether memory loss indicates complete identity loss, dipping into pleasing notions of fate and second chances as well as the always fun rebellion convention. The main character, Hauser, is kind of an evil bastard but only before the film begins. Wiped of that personality, a hero emerges whose greatest enemy is his former self. On top of that, maybe the whole thing was a dream to begin with.
So why not remake Total Recall? The story provides a great skeleton for all kinds of fun stuff to layer on top of it. You could have a Total Recall that goes more into what Hauser was like and perhaps looks into his relationship with Cohaagen. You could have a Total Recall where Quaid starts out as a wimpy office worker. You could have a Total Recall where Kuato and Cohaagan's armies have full on battles. You could go a million interesting, different directions.
Like many remakes, this weekend's particular Total Recall chooses to half do its own thing and half pander to fans of the original, an uninspired path that pleases few and pleases them marginally at best (its defenders can muster little more than "I had fun"). The main problem is that instead of just remaking Total Recall's great story, Len Wiseman also tried to remake the very surface level of its aesthetic. You can remake a story all you want. But you should never attempt to remake an aesthetic. And if you insist, then at least commit to it.
Wiseman's Total Recall has the three-breasted lady, the two week's lady and a bunch of other crap that doesn't belong at all. Scenes and lines copy the original with surprising proximity. Wiseman fills the rest with his own style, or let's just say Today's style since he doesn't hold the patent on flashy blandness. It didn't have to be this way. Wiseman raised a lot of ire when it was announced that his Total Recall would not take place on Mars. That didn't bother me much. Mars is vital to Verhoeven's Recall but not the core story. This bold direction indicated something interesting and new. And to an extent that is the case. The future of this Total Recall is an interesting place, filled with a class system, flying cars and a shitload of highly cinematic floating slums (at least I think they were floating). I also liked the concept behind "The Fall," an elevator linking Australia and England through the Earth's core. It sucks that so little potential was mined from a world killed by chemical warfare, but not taking place on Mars is a point in this remake's favor. There are some fun, albeit strongly underdeveloped ideas on display.
The film also throws out Verhoeven's icky bits, keeping things far more metallic than fleshy thanks to the inclusion of a robot army and a generally tech-heavy look (instead of ripping off Michael Ironside's arms with an elevator, Farrell does it to a robot, which is, what, 1% as cool?). Furthermore, Colin Farrell plays Quaid as a constantly surprised everyman in over his head, while Arnold played the character like a mildly confused superman.
Unfortunately, Wiseman doesn't come to the film with any real enthusiasm beyond just making things look cool. And I'd agree that some of it does look cool. This leads to an overlong film that wears out its welcome around the beginning of the third act. Actors lack chemistry and deliver lazy character-less dialog. Most damning, Bill Nighy appears and instantly limits his remarkable acting potential with an unnecessary American accent.
So let's call this one a failure. But that's no reason to stop remaking Total Recall. If Hollywood made one every couple years, I bet someone would eventually get it right. I'm being mildly facetious, but if they're going to remake everything, we might as well search out some silver lining. Besides, the point -- in the idealistic fantasy world I've constructed for myself -- is not really to make a superior film, but to get another shot at the core story. I genuinely think it'd be cool if remakes were as common as cover songs.
For instance, there's a RoboCop remake looming. RoboCop might be my all time favorite film, but I'm open to this new version. Maybe it will be special in its own way. Some of the released promotional material indicates a closer examination of OCP, which could be interesting. Who knows? I'm okay with seeing probably any film about a half robot cop because I like action films and robots. If I can get a good one, even better. The problem isn't the remake angle, but the "today's mainstream action films lack character" angle which would apply if it were a remake or not.
In any event, I can't imagine anyone will miss anything important if they skip Total Recall this weekend. But that doesn't mean the story isn't worth telling once more. In twenty years when they remake it again in 4-D with lubed adjustable vibro-plugs maybe it'll be the one that truly lasts ages and eventually knocks Vertigo off that Sight & Sound poll. Probably not, but being dumb is more fun than being right, and the stakes are so low in this case that you might as well go for it.