He awoke- and wanted Mars. The Valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them? Great and greater yet: the dream grew as he became fully conscious, the dream and the yearning. He could almost feel the enveloping presence of the other world, which only Government agents and high officials had seen. A Clerk like himself? Not Likely.
-Philip K Dick, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, 1965.
The other night I watched the 1990 Total Recall, and the following night the 2012 remake/reboot. Call it an experiment- and don’t try it at home, kiddies, it’ll possibly fry your mind.
Neither film has much to do with the Philip K Dick original short story. If David Cronenberg had managed to film his version starring Richard Dreyfuss or William Hurt then maybe things would be different. The box-office failure of the high-budget Dune led to the films original producer Dino De Laurentiis, in an effort to save his company, selling the rights to Carolco pictures, who bought the rights at the behest of Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the time in the prime of his movie career.
Schwarzenegger saw the film as a perfect action vehicle for himself and progressed the project himself- it was his decision to hire Paul Verhoeven for instance, being highly impressed by Robocop. The influence of Robocop would dominate the film- casting Ronny Cox as the main villain, and the hiring of many of Robocop‘s backroom staff- cinematographer Jost Vacano, production designer William Sandell, editor Frank Urioste, make-up effect wizard Rob Bottin. Philip K Dick’s original story was increasingly less and less of an issue as the film transformed into a sci-fi pulp successor to the uber-violent Robocop.
Back in the day this was why I had something of a love’hate relationship with the film; on the one hand it was one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life (watching it at a special midnight preview event, to this day I have never seen a film in such a wild atmosphere of rampant testosterone and noisy appreciation of action films), on the other it was a terrible adaptation of the PKD original. It was the second major film to be based on a PKD story (following Blade Runner) but it didn’t feel like a PKD story at all- at least Blade Runner had the mood and some of the subtext (what is human?) of its source material. Total Recall didn’t seem to have anything from the PKD story; there is no bloody violence or muscle-bound heroes, or mutants or alien reactors , not even a trip to Mars, in the PKD story. It was dumbed-down into a spectacularly violent action film featuring at the time incredible WTF violence as Schwarzenegger blew away the bad guys and saved the planet.
I’m being rather unfair to the film there but at the time that was how I felt. On the surface that was all the film was, and viewers could simply watch it as a literal telling of the story of Schwarzenegger saving Mars and be happy with that (even if that drew the ire of PKD fans). But even then there was a sophistication to the film, a subtext regards the nature of reality and what was real (the final fade to white a lovely nod to a rather darker reading of the film) that suggested more of the spirit of PKD than might be initially guessed. Indeed, watching the film over the years its blatantly obvious that everything is just happening in Doug Quaid’s head, it’s a mindtrip either gone horribly wrong (leaving him lobotomised) or perfectly right (leading him waking up at Recall Inc. having had the ‘holiday’ of a lifetime)- it’s up to the viewer which. The idea that what we are watching is really happening anywhere other than in Quaid’s head is just, well, crazy. The story is preposterous, the science nuts (Mars as depicted clearly isn’t the reality, instead it’s a glorious pulp fantasy). The only way it works is if its a Recall package playing out in his head.
The film is over 25 years old now but it plays as well as it ever did- indeed the years have been very kind to the film. Sure some of the optical effects are showing their age (as is some very early CGI) but the film is still superior to so many action films that we have seen since. There is a brutality to it, and a joyful extravagance and glorious inventiveness to the action and the spectacle. Arnie shoving the probe up his nose to extract the tracking bug, the woman’s head splitting apart to reveal Arnie hiding within, the vast landscapes depicting the Red Mars of pulp dreams, the bloody violence… it’s a magnificent ride. It may not be a very good PKD adaptation, but it is a very good sci-fi action film.
So why, why, why did anyone think a remake was a good idea? Of all the misguided projects arising from Hollywood’s current penchant of remakes and reboots, why would a remake of Total Recall be seen as anything good? It was hardly from a desire to make a film more faithful to the PKD original. Okay, we don’t have mutants or a trip to Mars but what we do have is just as confused a mess as Doug Quaids fantasy mindtrip of the first film. The idea that the adventure might be a fantasy, that nothing of it is real, is quickly dropped from the remake and what we are seeing is evidently ‘real’, silly as it is.
This is the biggest difference between the two films- clearly the originals sense of doubt about what is real was felt too highbrow for modern audiences. Likewise the 1990 film had its own definitive ‘look’ whereas like so many modern films, the 2012 Total Recall spent a lot of time looking forward by looking back, particularly to Blade Runner and Minority Report. So much so, indeed, that at times it seems more a remake of those two films than the 1990 Total Recall- we have the rain-drenched, crowded neon streets of Blade Runner, the zooming rail-cars and chase scenes and sterile sets of Minority Report.
There isn’t much of a plot to the 2012 film- it’s more of a long chase/action scene, of elaborate effects sequences that could play out in silence and pretty much tell the story, such as it is. Which is what so many modern Hollywood films do, when you think about it.
Watching the original film, it’s clearly a Schwarzenegger vehicle, a film only he could star in, a film targeted chiefly at his fans. It’s playful and violent but is true to itself- that Verhoeven could manage to layer in some subtext about the reality of what we were watching is a bonus but hardly the chief thrust of the film. And while Schwarzenegger had a worldwide fan-base in 1990, it is clearly film aimed at an American audience; references to ESPN for instance and Mars looking like some mutant Disneyland. The 2012 film on the other hand is just a soulless construct, the actors fairly faceless and devoid of character, the film a series of storyboarded action sequences designed to be globally distributed to an international audience requiring minor dubbing of its perfunctory dialogue. Yes its very pretty but none of it means anything. Even the original’s violence has been diluted to the standard cartoon cgi theatrics of modern action films. It looks spectacular but we feel nothing, the protagonists as inhuman and artificial as the robot police chasing them.
The image above- it could just as easily be a shot from Blade Runner or Minority Report. Colin Farrell is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger and deserves a better film than he has here- this is what is so frustrating about the whole project. My one main contention with the original film is that PKDs stories were always about the Everyman- people like us caught in strange situations and reality-warping moments, and if there was ever any point to another Total Recall it was to return to the original We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and the casting someone of Colin Farrell’s ability was a step towards that. But modern Hollywood action films are more stupid and one-dimensional than I ever thought the 1990 film was. Watching films like this, I wonder why bother with ‘real’ actors at all- the use of CGI virtual actors seems almost inevitable now, perhaps one day even swapping faces to match the ethnicity of the audience watching them.
So anyway, two nights, two very different Total Recalls. I’m sure I would be kinder to the 2012 film had I not been re-watching it the night after watching the original. It certainly looks spectacular and the visual effects are on the whole very photo-realistic, but after watching the 1990 film before it, it is clear that the 2012 film is a soulless digital construct compared to the analogue original. The question ‘What Is Real?’ lingers in the mind during the end-credits of the 1990 film, but during the 2012 film’s end-credits that question isn’t even necessary. None of it is real; it’s all artifice now. Philip K Dick would be proud of that irony at least.