Sci-Fi Friday: Total Recall (2012).

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m writing about the 2012 reboot of Total Recall just to make fun of it.

You’re only partially right.

The original 1990 Total Recall was based on the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. The short story asked one of those super-intriguing sci-fi questions: in a world where false memories can be implanted, how do we know what’s real? The 1990 film took this theme and threw in a bunch of action and special effects. Of which I don’t disapprove. As I’ve mentioned, I do like it when lots of stuff blow up. And they didn’t entirely bury that great sci-fi theme. Mostly, but not entirely.


The 2012 Total Recall is, quite specifically, a remake of the 1990 film, and not a new adaptation of the original short story. There’s no mention of PKD or his story in the credits, though there are a few clear nods to the short story in the film (the phrase “We can remember it for you” as Rekall’s slogan, for example). And instead of exploring the “what is real?” concept from the story, what we get is a film about a super-spy with amnesia. Seems like there’s been a lot of those since, I don’t know, 2002.

In Total Recall (1990), Doug Quaid (known as Quail in the original short story) dreams about going to Mars. In the 2012 film, Quaid just wants to be important. As we all do. So he visits Rekall to have himself implanted with memories of being a secret agent. Seems to me, if all you want are the memories of being a secret agent, why not just play a video game? Sure, it’s not even close to being real, but neither are the memories, right? Maybe they don’t have video games in the future.

As explained during the wordy exposition, the world’s population is divided between two land masses which correspond to present-day UK and Australia. The land masses are connected by a transportation system called “The Fall,” which goes straight through the center of the Earth and operates on a complex set of engineering principles known as Wonky Physics. I’ve said it before: the best science fictions stories are the ones that are built around real-world scientific concepts. Would it kill the filmmakers to have just one person in the room who understands science?

Much of the look of this film is rendered in rain and neon, more of that Blade Runner aesthetic, a shortcut for lazy filmmakers. Sci-fi means you can do whatever the hell you want with your world. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to create something new and strange and unique? Is imagination expensive?

The film stars Colin Farrell, who has to spend much of his screentime looking confused. Occasionally, he has to run from Kate Beckinsale or battle robotic enforcers who waste bullets and struggle to hit their targets, but then he’s back to being confused. As for the original theme of the short story, the closest the film gets is a single, heavy-handed “you’re losing your mind” scene between gunfights, and a cheap, tacked-on little thing at the very end (apparently only present in the Extended Version, the only version I’ve seen). It’s certainly not one of those thinking-man’s sci-fi films.


But like I said, I didn’t just write about this film to make fun of it. It is entertaining, despite its shortcomings. It’s just an action movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, they can be useful. The loud nonsense of an action movie seems to have the same effect on my brain as a long, monotonous car journey. A few small parts of my mind are engaged in the film, but the rest is working on other things. You know how some people claim to the do their best thinking in the bathroom? Same principle. Movies like Total Recall are like trips to the bathroom. Mildly entertaining, somewhat useful, but ultimately unremarkable.

At least, I hope your trips to the bathroom are unremarkable.

See you next time.

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