Total Recall (2012)

This remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger sci-fi movie Total Recall (1990) is flashy but far from amazing. I didn’t buy the sci-fi, I didn’t buy the romance, I didn’t buy the political cause. I heard clear echoes of Paycheck (2003), Upside Down (2013) and The Matrix (1999) but nothing really gripped me. Paycheck and sold the romance better. Upside Down sold the political cause and the romance better. Say what you want about Keanu, The Matrix sold the romance, the cause and the sci-fi better!

The premise of the movie, loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, is that when some average Joe in the future can’t shake the feeling that he isn’t average, and one day goes to try out a recreational technology that can implant memories, and asks to live out a spy fantasy, he discovers that he is, supposedly, already a spy! Things spiral out of control from there. There’s lots of chasing, holograms, hovercars a la Minority Report (2002), sideways elevators, and explosions. In the end he saves the world and gets the girl, as per usual. In many ways, it’s a passable sci-fi/action/romance movie, but I can see why it’s been panned—it’s hard to care what happens to this guy.

Also, the hovercars aren’t the only things in the movie that are lifted (ha ha).

Watching the Total Recall remake proves about as inspiring as a trip to Costco. Every now and then something shiny and new catches your eye, but mostly you’re just eyeballing stuff you’ve seen a hundred times before.

One could also draw parallels with Vanilla Sky (2001) and Inception (2010). Or even the bizarre novel Sophie’s World.

The main actor, Colin Farrell, in this movie looked like a less boyish version of Brett Dalton, the actor who plays Grant Ward in Marvel’s Agents of Shield. (In a later and very, very strange movie I saw recently, The Lobster (2015), Colin Farrell looks more like Ned Flanders than Grant Ward.)

I think it was a nice touch that protagonist and factory worker Douglas Quaid is shown reading an Ian Fleming (James Bond) novel during his commute through the Earth. The internet says it was The Spy Who Loved Me.

The special features on the DVD weren’t so special. There’s a gag reel, which is okay but kind of unexpected since this isn’t a kids’ movie or a comedy. There’s a thing called “Science Fact or Science Fiction”, which is basically an interview with a guy who believes anything and everything will be possible eventually, if it isn’t already—an attitude I find unrealistic and somewhat poisonous. Finally, there’s a bit about how The Fall was designed which doesn’t shed much light on the thing at all, given how unintuitive and in fact highly implausible the technology is.

Lots more thoughts below, including a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My Beat Sheet for Total Recall

Opening Image
Quaid is being chased and gets help from an unfamiliar woman.

Quaid is a factory worker who commutes from The Colony (Australia) to the  United Federation of Britain by means of The Fall (a huge gravitational train/plane/roller-coaster elevator/lift that goes through the Earth in 17 minutes). He lives with his wife in an unremarkable part of town.

Theme Stated
Quaid believes there is more to life than factory work.

Quaid’s repeating dreams of being important enough to be chased contrast with his waking life, in which he is passed over for a promotion.

Quaid tells his wife he wants more from life and can’t shake his nightmares. She tries to reassure him. He tells his friend he is thinking about visiting Rekall, a business that offers to implant happy memories. His friend tries to discourage him. His new coworker, on the other hand, encourages him and gives him the name of someone specific to ask for there.

Break into Two
Quaid goes to Rekall. The operator there tells him that any fantasy can be implanted, as long as it’s not already true. If even part of it is, the implantation can damage or destroy the client’s brain. When Quaid chooses the spy fantasy, the operator runs a check and discovers that Quaid is in fact a spy! He stops the procedure in a panic, and the room is instantly invaded by cops. Quaid defeats them with fighting skills he didn’t know he had. There’s a chase (the second of many) but he escapes.

B Story / Promise of the Premise
At home, Quaid’s wife tells him the deaths at Rekall had nothing to do with him, and gives him a comforting hug. But no, she’s trying to strangle him! She tells him the he’s not a factory worker and she’s not his wife, but that she doesn’t know who he is. He fights his way free and… there’s another chase.

Once alone again, Quaid receives a phone call from a friend via a device implanted in his hand. The friend says he should “find the key”. The device also sends him to a safe deposit box at a bank.

In the safe deposit box, Quaid finds alternative IDs, a hologram necklace that can be used for disguise, and a self-destructing video recorded by himself, telling him to go to his apartment and find the key. He is mystified about this key and really confused about who he is.

His hologram disguise fails at a security checkpoint and… there’s another chase.

Quaid is rescued, predictably, from the highway when the woman from his dreams, who, predictably, seems to be his girlfriend, halts a hovercar and predictably tells him to get in. She promises, predictably, that she can explain everything to him, but, predictably, gets knocked out during the chase and then can’t explain anything.

Quaid reaches “his” apartment and tries to find clues. He finds a secret compartment in the mirror but no “key”. Exhausted, he sits down at the piano and starts playing a melody he didn’t know he knew. One key sticks. He opens it and does something and puts it back. Then when he plays the melody again, up pops an interactive video recorded by his previous self, who in the Extended Director’s Cut is played by Ethan Hawke. (Related changes throughout the movie make the plot slightly more believable.)

The video confirms that he really is a spy. He had been working for the evil dude in charge of the oppressive United Federation of Britain, but then he had a change of heart and joined the rebellion, a group that has been painted as terrorists in the media. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, though, and surely The Colony deserves independence. It’s up to him to stop the coming robot invasion using a kill code that lies buried somewhere in his memory. He needs to find the leader of the rebellion, who can extract the code. His girlfriend wakes up and confirms this story, shows him their matching bullet wounds, and offers to lead him to the rebel hideout. Unfortunately, while Quaid was finding the key, the building has been surrounded by cops sent to capture him. Quaid’s coworker “friend” tries to convince him he’s experiencing a dangerous delusion at the Rekall facility, that he’s still dreaming and not a spy at all. The friend tells him to shoot his girlfriend to end the fantasy. He shoots his friend instead. Then, you guessed it, there’s another chase.

Bad Guys Close In / All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
At the rebel hideout in the polluted No-Zone, everyone including the rebel boss welcomes Quaid back. The rebel boss explains that our selves are who we choose to be in the present, not a result of who we were in the past. Just as the kill code is about to be revealed, the trap springs shut: Quaid has been followed by the bad UFB dude and his fake wife and a bunch of cops. UFB dude says that there is no kill code, and congratulates Quaid on being a terrific, if unknowing, double agent, and starts to plug him in to give him back his old self. (In the Extended Director’s Cut, we learn that Quaid himself hatched the plan to wipe his memory and that the rebel leader is Quaid’s girlfriend’s father.)

Break into Three
Quaid, having sought all along to rediscover who he used to be, now doesn’t want to be his old self. The friend who phoned him helps him escape yet again. Now he has to rescue his girlfriend and stop the UFB from using the rebellion’s secrets to destroy The Colony.

Quaid sneaks onto The Fall, which is loaded with robot cops. He rescues his girlfriend. He plants a lot of explosives. They get chased by bad guys some more. Actiony action happens.

When The Fall reaches The Colony, Quaid has a showdown with the UFB bad dude. Quaid leaves him severely injured. He and his girlfriend jump off and The Fall explodes. UFB dude dies in the resulting fireball. Mission accomplished.

What happened to Quaid’s fake wife, though? She’s been chasing him the whole movie, though it’s not clear why she’s so vehement about it, and she’s not quite done. She tries to kill him one last time by using a hologram necklace to impersonate his girlfriend, but he spots the deception when he sees her hand, which lacks his girlfriend’s bullet hole scar. He kills her.

Final Image
Quaid and his girlfriend face the new world together. Probably this whole secret agent story hasn’t been just a Rekall fantasy… right?

Other Thoughts

Once someone tells you that the Asian (Chinese) market has a huge influence in Hollywood, you start seeing signs of it in every action movie. The Colony seemed more East Asian than it seemed Australian, especially the Rekall suite. I say this having been to several (many?) Asian countries but not Australia. Maybe the real Australia feels more Asian than I imagine… Oh, hey, wait. This article reveals that The Colony was previously called “New Asia” and that The Fall was “China Fall”. That explains it. Another article plausibly claims that style of The Colony is more or less copied from Blade Runner (1982). In fact, now that I think about it, lots of versions of the future are Asian. There’s Joss Wheedon’s Firefly universe, which is half-Chinese. There’s a high-tech Korean future in Cloud Atlas (2012). I hear that in 2017 we’re getting Ghost in the Shell, which will try to seem Japanese. Perhaps because the future is like an exotic place, in American movies, the future is believably exotic when it’s Asian.

The No-Zone didn’t seem particularly bad. No radiation, just bad air that you can avoid using a gas mask that leaves a lot of skin exposed. Seems like maybe the UFB folks should use technology to clean up more living space rather than, you know, declare war on the larger half of what survives of humanity, just to gain territory. Especially since citizens of The Colony are apparently an important part of the workforce. This article interestingly points out that the UFB dude could have found the rebellion leader by simply sending robot cops into the polluted zone. There are plenty of other criticisms of the No-Zone on offer, including the idea that the habitable zones would need domes in order to avoid becoming uninhabitable, too.

Everything about The Fall seemed unrealistic, even for science-fiction. It has windows? How heat-proof would those have to be? As if that weren’t silly enough, it also has escape hatches, which apparently you can open while the thing is moving—moving at a speed great enough to go through the Earth in just 17 minutes! I don’t know how I’m supposed to believe that. The UK isn’t even directly opposite Australia (or China, or any land) on the Earth, which (I think) it would need to be for that prolonged zero-gravity effect halfway through the trip. My inclusion of the following link to someone else’s clever sciency details about why The Fall is bogus should not be taken to mean that I think good science is necessary or sufficient for good science fiction or that the ability to nit-pick somehow makes me special.

The economic disparity between the UFB and The Colony was not depicted convincingly. The living quarters of the factory worker, intended to be somewhat lamentable, seemed really quite nice. The set designer apparently never heard of the legendary Kowloon Walled City, though I would think anyone trying to invoke “crowded” and “Asia” would quickly run across it if he did any research whatsoever. A case wasn’t really made for how crowded the UFB was, either. The fancy floating apartment building had this weird sideways elevator grid, which seemed to take up quite a lot of space all by itself. And if they can float all that, why can’t they just keep expanding up? Or heck, if the commute is just 17 minutes, why don’t UFB citizens just live in The Colony and commute to work, too? They could extract land concessions in The Colony in exchange for jobs in the UFB or something. Or, as has been suggested, they could clean up the No-Zone with their fancy technology. They could surely do that much more easily than they could dig a tunnel through the Earth’s core.

The Colony isn’t obviously better off independent. There is no case made that the citizens of the colony do not in fact need the UFB. Or indeed, that the average citizen even dislikes it. At the end of the movie, we’re supposed to be happy that it’s no longer possible to reach the UFB in 17 minutes, but what about the people who were on the “wrong” end of the tunnel when it exploded? They’ve just lost their homes, families and friends. What about those factory jobs? All those people are now out of work. And the dwindling remains of humanity are now cut in half in terms of talent, expertise, genes, you name it. Remind me why this is a good thing. Oh, right, “freedom”. And yet, couldn’t we have overcome the robot cops and overthrown the evil government without ripping the planet in half? You know, like the admittedly non-existent kill code was supposed to do? Arguably they’ll just rebuild The Fall, and I think they should, but no hint of that intention is given, nor any reason why it would be “too difficult”.

Who’s the main antagonist, the UFB dude or the fake wife? The UFB dude is certainly more powerful and more informed, and even if he’s not the one that stole Quaid’s memory, he masterminded the attack on the rebels and The Colony. The backstory requires the political boss to be the worst of the villains. On the other hand, the fake wife seems like more of an immediate personal threat (since she wants Quaid dead, not just captured, and follows right on his heels the whole time). Actually, I thought the fake wife was going to switch sides. The big bad guy scolded her for trying to kill Quaid when her orders were to capture him. Evil minions tend to resent that kind of thing. I thought that maybe she’d have second thoughts about being on the big bad guy’s side, and later help Quaid because she liked the nice version of him that she’d been living with. But no. She’s just an angry, powerful, and loyal evil minion the whole time, and has only contempt for both versions of Quaid. Since she didn’t become a resentful minion and switch sides, and since she was the last bad guy who died, she seems like the primary antagonist, even though she’s not the evil mastermind. That feels wrong. Oh, I get it. Probably this is an attempt to insert a Strong Female Character! Someone really wanted a female primary antagonist and almost got one. (Better luck next time.)

My feelings on the theme are mixed. I’m not sure I really want to buy into the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I definitely do not believe that reality is indistinguishable from dreams, virtual reality, and implanted memories, though I am fully willing to suspend that disbelief for the sake of a good piece of fiction. I do, however, like the theme of choice, the idea that we are who we choose to become, not who we used to be. It’s true that you can start over any day you want to, several days in a row if necessary. This is the “change” mindset, which stands opposed to the “fixed” mindset, as explained by Carol S. Dwek in her book Mindset.

Paycheck (also based on a Philip K. Dick short story) was a better movie. Not only is the romance more touching, and the science-fiction more believable, the protagonist and his cause are more deserving. In Paycheck, you see a guy struggle to piece his life back together with a bit help from his past self, as in Total Recall, but in Paycheck you understand why the protagonist’s memory was taken from him and why he wants his life back, and so you really root for him. You enjoy watching him figure stuff out for himself and you’re overjoyed when he succeeds. In contrast, the backstory filled with obvious injustice and the protagonist with admirable critical thinking skills are totally lacking in Total Recall. Stuff just happens to Quaid, and he kinda just acts confused and lets it. It’s hard to care about the personal stakes (because Quaid is basically clueless) or the broader stakes (because the political conflict is basically nonsense). There is no real emotional participation; the movie’s not even funny. It’s just a lot of nice action sequences. The time and money must have gone into the special effects, not the script.

Not sure if ambiguous, or… According to the Wikipedia article at the time of writing, the movie insists that the whole thing is a fantasy. At Rekall, Quaid gets a tattoo on his arm which we suppose is to identify his real self. In the Extended Director’s Cut, after The Fall is destroyed, he notices that the tattoo missing. Thus, it is claimed, he’s still in the fantasy he never thought he entered. However, this interpretation is not very nice, or very subtle. I think the movie’s ending is more ambiguous than that wiki writer implies. As various others have pointed out, the Rekall “tattoo” could have been just a stamp that washed away in the course of Quaid’s real-world adventures. The truth is, the movie should make us wonder whether Quaid’s adventure was real. And I say it does.

In Conclusion

I have to say, writing up a beat sheet for a movie and reading reviews and analyses of it sure does make the whole thing a lot clearer. That’s not always good for one’s opinion of a movie, though. It’s like that variously attributed quote:

Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies.

For me, Total Recall (2012) is now as explained, and understood, and dead as it can ever be.