Gotham Noir

The Batman, 2022, 176 mins, 4K UHD


Who knew I needed another Batman? Certainly not me- I was still rueing the ill-luck of Ben Affleck who seemed to me the definitive Batman, wasted in the artistic/commercial carnage of Warner/DC’s ill-fated attempts to duplicate the success of Marvel Studios output. Affleck wasn’t alone, mind; one could well argue that Henry Cavill’s Superman deserved better than he got. Whether we have truly seen the last of them, time will tell, but I believe Affleck has (yet another) cameo playing Batman due in someone else’s movie -next year’s Flash – and there are all sorts of rumours regards Cavill. But hey, I suppose the only certainty in life other than death, taxes and Star Trek’s endless plunge into ruin is that we’ll always have another Batman, Superman, Spider Man in some new movie…

So here we are with Robert Pattinson as a very, very dark, very, very noir, young Batman. I’ll make that distinction re: his age because Affleck is still my favourite, if only because I’m more inclined towards enjoying his older, world-weary Batman. Pattinson’s Batman isn’t yet the proper, genuine article; this is a Batman still in gestation, finding his place and gaining the experience to really be the Batman, an arc that is a central element of the film’s narrative.

Which reminds me, as someone who scoffed at the very idea of Affleck donning the cowl when I first heard news of his casting, that one should never jump to conclusions at initially bizarre casting news, because the truth is… You. Just. Don’t. Know. Because yes, Pattinson is actually very good here in a film that concentrates on the Batman rather than Bruce Wayne, a narrative decision which is a great plus in my book- yes, here’s a film that lives up to its title, this is THE BATMAN.

Batman is likely the most fascinating of all American comicbook characters- created in 1939, he has been reimagined and developed over the decades by generations of comicbook writers and artists, sometimes a dark and haunted soul, sometimes a jolly camp crusader in a colourful world of villainous misfits. Sometimes he is used as a lens to investigate our fractured society, sometimes he’s an escape into a simpler world in which good always triumphs over evil. Curiously these different approaches in comicbooks and graphic novels have been reflected in television and film incarnations, from the Adam West television series to the gothic-noir of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, through the colour-saturated kinetics of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League.

I appreciate that this film has more than its fair share of detractors. Some balk at its lengthy running-time (nigh on three hours, something I thought was a typo when I first read it), some just don’t like the casting, some don’t like the (slow, almost glacial at times) pacing, some don’t like the relentless darkness. I can’t say I’m surprised; its so indebted to films like Seven and Taxi Driver that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a superhero film at all, which is a big plus in my book after so many of them but I appreciate alienates some comicbook fans possibly more used to Marvel’s output. Its a Marmite movie, maybe?

Well, I fell in love with this film right from the start- you know how some films just click with you, and immediately you can tell its right on your wavelength, visually and narratively, and you can just relax and go with it? Well, that’s how The Batman was for me. The darkness, the rain, its absolutely gorgeous cinematography and brilliant score. It was somewhat like my experience watching Blade Runner back in 1982. I was just sold right from the start and it hardly put a foot wrong. I even loved the film’s third act, when you can just tell the film-makers are toeing to superhero film convention by throwing in a big spectacle finish. Probably something dictated by the Studio, while it feels a little incongruous from what has featured before, I think at that point the film had earned it.  Absolutely brilliant film, for me; when it ended I had this buzz I haven’t felt in quite awhile.

As someone who adores Villeneuve’s output, and the slow pace of his films, particularly Blade Runner 2049, I had no problem at all with how The Batman is paced, slowly unfolding its story over those near-three hours. I love films that can take their time and not rush things. I suppose this is actually ironic, considering how much the films noir stylings harken back to those film noir of old which pared down their narratives to sometimes just eighty or ninety minutes despite having more plot-turns and character twists than would fit in a two-hour plus picture today. I have watched so many film noir these past few years and grown to love them so much that it possibly doubt left me more inclined to relish the stylings of this film, but yes, it is a little odd that a film that is such a film noir distillation of the Batman character and Gotham City manages to run twice the length of the films it is so inspired by/indebted to.

Oh, but Gotham City- what a place it is, in this film. Previously, my favourite Batman film was possibly Tim Burton’s 1989 film, mostly because it seemed, with its own gothic-noir art direction, to take place in a particular kind of twisted, nightmare metropolis that seemed to be a better fit for the crazy characters that inhabit it .As nutty as Bruce Wayne dressing up as a bat might seem, it makes more sense when its a reflection of the crazy place he’s living in. I know Christopher Nolan’s films will likely always be more popular, but Nolan’s attitude to his film’s setting, picturing Gotham City very much as an ordinary modern metropolis, leaning particularly towards modern Chicago, for me leaves his own trilogy lacking a major character- that of Gotham itself. Not so here; Matt Reeves’ film takes place in a fascinating, breathing, twisted location that’s one of the most memorable settings since, well, LA2019. Indeed, its a big part of the film’s success for me: in just the same way as I spent decades revisiting LA2019 in Blade Runner over the years, soaking up into bewitching ambience as its dystopian view became, rather sneakily, utopian compared to the changing real world I was actually living in, I rather suspect part of The Batman‘s appeal will be just its sense of place, its own sense of reality.

The impression of Pattinson’s Batman not being the fully-formed article helps, too. We don’t really see his Bruce Wayne, certainly not the playboy alter-ego he will (likely) later become. Instead this is the Batman in development, finding out what works, and often painfully, what doesn’t. Maybe some viewers are alienated by this almost unrecognisable Batman but I find it quite exhilarating. Likewise the Bat Gadgets are more basic, the Batmobile not the sleek machine we are used to. This is not a world familiar with superheroes or superpowers, its a gritty film with a more tactile reality.

Indeed, is The Batman really a superhero film? One has to wonder, if one compares it to Marvel’s output, or Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie (a film I consider the definitive superhero film) while neither is it a deconstruction of the comicbook tropes that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film was. The Batman is something rather less, at the same time rather more. Its a film noir, definitely; its a murder mystery, a narrative set in the seedy underbelly of a fragmenting, disintegrating city full of political and judicial corruption. The Batman itself suggests its about the failure of vengeance, and the meaning of hope – a message that feels a little trite, by the end, but narratively it makes perfect sense and earns it. Batman begins as an agent of vengeance, believing that only violent justice might clean the streets and offer redemption for the murder of his parents, but finally learns he has to become some other Batman; this one an agent of hope (which we’ll hopefully (sic) see in the next film). Its so much more sophisticated than Snyder’s “Martha!” was, and possibly suggests that maybe Burton’s film was missing the point with its own origin arc, in which defeating Jack Nicholson’s Joker was literally avenging his parents: life isn’t that neat (thankfully we also aren’t subjected to yet another retelling of Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma witnessing the death of his parents).

penguinDisc extras are surprisingly substantial, although it misses the commentary track/s that the film really deserves. I miss the days of the Matrix films on DVD with multiple commentary tracks: those things are the likes of which we will never see again except from boutique labels but on the whole the extras here are indeed more than we usually get these days. Of particular interest to many will be the deleted scene featuring the Joker in more detail than the dim cameo sneaked into the film’s coda. It was wisely deleted- I’ve seen quite enough of the Joker in previous Batman films and I hope any sequel has similar restraint. On the subject of villains, isn’t Colin Farrell’s Penguin quite brilliant? Some have questioned the wisdom of burying him under all that prosthetic wizardry, but he’s burning prime Robert de Niro under all that stuff: part charming, part terrifying, something de Niro was brilliant at, and I think Farrell channels him well here (maybe he was aiming for Al Pacino, who knows). I thought those prosthetics were great; the design telling us things that the film then no longer has to literally- the scars on his face that suggesting a life of crime that we can only imagine, and that last shot of the Penguin about to seize control of the criminal underworld brilliantly evokes he’s paid his dues and his time has come. That’s storytelling.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

alex1…except that it wasn’t really a Final Cut at all, because Oliver Stone followed up with another cut (‘The Ultimate Cut’) a few years later, which was actually little shorter. In all, I think there are four different cuts of this film and only one of them, the theatrical cut, is currently available on Blu-ray here in the UK (I imported this ‘Final Cut‘ several years ago since when its languished on the Shelf of Shame until now). I think the theatrical version was 175 minutes, the Directors Cut several minutes shorter, the Final Cut is the longest version some 45 minutes longer than the theatrical  and the Ultimate Cut several minutes shorter than that- the biggest difference between all the versions (other than additional violence and gore) seems to be the sequencing of scenes and how Stone juxtaposes those sequences within the internal chronology of the film. 

I’m sitting here reconsidering how I started this post and where I’m going with it. Maybe it would be especially apt to revisit this post and post alternate versions, reordering paragraphs, remarshalling my train of thought. Stone himself would possibly appreciate the irony of that. 

It would be especially interesting to sit down with Stone and discuss this film and his experience making it and re-making it. As a movie lover, I think there is something almost endearing about a film-maker’s fascination with a project driving him to rethink himself, and not quite let go of something. I think Oliver Stone didn’t quite succeed in making the Alexander he dreamed of, and his frustrations drove him to return to it, trying to perfect it. It is clearly a passion project, and such films are not always the best films but they can be the most interesting. Sometimes I’d rather watch passion-project failures than formulaic by-the-numbers successes. Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is quite superior to the theatrical version I saw in the cinema- Stone was under immense pressure to trim the film down to a manageable length and he discusses this in the opening section of his commentary on this disc. Its indicative of the friction between the artist and the businessman, and clearly one of the boons of the home-video market of the past few decades on VHS/DVD and Blu-ray was the opportunity for film-makers to release longer cuts of the films, most of which are superior (but not always). Whether such opportunities will continue in the shift towards streaming is questionable.

I will say I really enjoyed this version of the film. How much of a success the film is, is probably a subject of some debate; there is always a sense of Oliver Stone reaching for something and not quite getting there- some sequences are breath-taking and others feel ill-judged, but you always feel an immense passion behind the film, for good or ill. I recall at the time the film came out in 2004, much criticism of Colin Farrell in the title role, but funnily enough, all these years later it doesn’t seem such a problem at all (how incongruous Kirk Douglas as Spartacus or Richard Burton in his own Alexander film? After awhile does it really matter?). I think Farrell does very well here and his Alexander lingers in the mind afterwards, so does Val Kilmer as his father, King Phillip- perhaps it is something to do with additional scenes or their sequencing in this version: its been so many years since I saw the theatrical cut that I cannot really vouch for any differences between the cuts. Maybe its just a case that Revisited works better, that Stone got the edit right. 

There’s some big names in this film (Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins) and while its really a European film rather than an old-style Hollywood epic, it does seem something of a throwback to the big epics of the old days with such big names attached. It results in an odd tension within the film, of the old and the new: the incongruity of all those accents and Western actors of various nationalities appropriating Greek characters and the English language and text in scenes in ‘an enlightened, modern film’  feeling wrong: albeit inevitable, while attempting to visually be as authentic as it possibly can the film flounders on the edge of farce. While opening the film to criticism, I guess the old adage “its only a movie” holds so very true, and certainly, one could not expect someone like Oliver Stone to make some dry historical epic; this is Cinema.

To fully understand and ‘know’ such a complex character as Alexander and his achievements, you really need a time machine. In that sense, the real meaning of the film is in its tensions between West and East, in how Alexanders generals feared that Alexander had ‘gone native’ and forgotten his Greek origins, and how that makes Alexander seem to us, unconsciously in his part or not, a very modern individual. That might well be a Western, twentieth-century interpretation that gets it absolutely wrong, but Stone seems to paint a picture of Alexander of a man out of time. He’s us, in the Ancient World. Trying to bring modern sensibilities to it, trying to assimilate West and East. But there is also the sensation that’s just us appropriating Alexander, and one of the complexities of the film that nettles at Stone. Alexander and the Greeks were Pagans, who absolutely believed in their Gods and believed  that there was a limit to their world, physical as well as intellectual, that was a much smaller world than the world we know. We cannot really get into that mindset. Some things are human and universal, but other things are alien and unique: as I have written before, the distant past is as much science fiction as any story of the far-future.

Perhaps oddly, I think my favourite scenes of the film are those featuring Anthony Hopkins’ aged King Ptolemy that pretty much bookend it; Ptolemy’s reminisces of his old friend Alexander, trying to grasp who/what Alexander was or what his achievements meant, so likely mirror Oliver Stone’s struggles, and indeed those of historians for centuries. In some ways its trying to understand the human condition, our mortality and the impermanence of everything we create. Ptolemy in Alexandria of 285 BC, some forty years after Alexander died, is one of the last people to have lived in Alexander’s time and to have known him, so his thoughts would be the most definitive, but of course Alexandria itself would eventually fail, and the memoirs Ptolemy put down for posterity would themselves be eventually lost. In just the same way as Ptolemy’s effort failed, its impossible for Stone’s film to properly define who Alexander was;  all things fade, except Alexander himself, or certainly the myth of him that remains.

alex3Visually the film is quite amazing- I think the battles are gritty and brutal and give us a sense of what it must have been like, and the landscapes are wonderful: I have always been quite enchanted by the film’s representation of Babylon. What an astonishing place; one can understand how Alexander might have been so intoxicated by the East. Imagine a Greek, or anyone from the West, entering Babylon having conquered it and then himself becoming conquered by its unique beauty, its smells, its colours.

I love the Vangelis soundtrack. Like many of his scores, it lives differently within the film, his soundtrack album following his method of being a listening experience alternate to that music heard in the film. I think his music works better in the film; there is a romanticism brought to the film by Vangelis’ customary style that lifts the film up, and indeed makes some moments of the film quite transcendent. Its possibly why I enjoy the film so much, that I’m a huge fan of Vangelis for so many decades now that I cannot seperate my enjoyment of his music from the film itself, but certainly he brings a great deal to Alexander and it would be a much lesser film without this score. Being electronic it works against the pre-conceived notions of what a period film should sound like, in just the same way as his scores for Chariots of Fire and The Bounty do. Vangelis has a gift for keying into the ‘soul’ of a film- in Blade Runner it was the bluesy, electronic jazz of a future seen through the old, mirroring the films future noir sense of being caught in between two worlds . Here in Alexander he seems to capture the lyrical, almost classical romanticism of the story, the myth beneath the reality that has allowed the story of Alexander the Great to be so… ageless. Stone seems to have been frustrated by the episodic nature of film, trying to evoke some meaning or message in the sequencing of the it, feeling it lacking in a conventional chronological telling, hence all these different cuts, but Vangelis seems to have it at hand in his keyboard. Its the meshing of Western and Eastern and the ethnic music of each, while each transformed by his mostly electronic orchestration. I think the story of Alexander is too big for one film, or one film-maker (or classical historian for that matter) to really encompass but I think perhaps Vangelis comes closest to nailing it. Maybe Stone and Vangelis should have made Alexander as some great opera; in some ways, its almost there.

In Bruges

in bruges.jpgColin Farrell, whatever happened to him? Was it his choice of movie projects? I have to wonder, because he was so good in this, it’s like one of those roles when you see someone new and think, he’s destined for bigger, better things, only you realise it’s Farrell, and all those bigger, better things are in the past. Well, maybe. In Bruges is, shockingly, over ten years old, released back in 2008, and I’ve only just come to around to it. So while it follows stuff like Minority Report, Phone Booth, Alexander and The New World, it also predates that Total Recall reboot and his turn in True Detective (which I thought was pretty damn great) so you never know. Maybe bigger and better things still lie ahead.

But In Bruges is great, and a big part of that is due to Farrell. He’s really good in this, ably supported by Brendan Gleeson in one of his own better turns (which is saying a lot). Maybe Farrell needs help filtering out the crap projects, or maybe he’s happy enough with the pay cheques.

I (eventually) came to this film by way of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which I saw awhile ago now but which I really enjoyed- and everyone was telling me at the time to see director Martin McDonagh’s previous film (In Bruges), so here we are, yeah, eventually.

In Bruges is one of those weird, small, quirky projects that are just so neat you can’t help but fall in love with it. Hit men Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) are ordered by their paymaster Harry Walters to lay low in Bruges, Belgium, after their latest hit went sour with the death of an innocent child bystander. Ken falls for the old-fashioned, romantically historical charm of the city instantly, but Ray isn’t interested, to him it’s an old and boring place, enlivened only by his chance encounter with a local girl, Chloe (Clémence Poésy), who is working with a film crew shooting an American movie in the city. Both men find a new appreciation for life- Ken through the fairytale beauty of the city, Ray through the romantic possibilities with Chloe. But Ray is constantly ridden by guilt for the child’s death, and Ken’s friendship is challenged when he receives instructions from Harry to ‘deal with’ his partner…

In Bruges is a funny, sometimes dark, sometimes enchanting, dark comedy, an oddly gentle character piece with all sorts of interesting and diverting characters and twists. It isn’t the kind of film we see very often- indeed, it really feels like something out of the early 1970s. Something like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, or Charley Varrick. It really feels out of time, and I suppose, on reflection, the same was true of Three Billboards. It occurs to me that this is exactly the kind of project that Netflix should invest in- if they could produce Netflix Originals of this calibre, well, we really wouldn’t need the cineplex at all, would we? Who needs Disney blockbuster bubblegum when you can be entertained by films like this?


True Detective Season 2 (2015)

true12016.5: True Detective Season Two (Blu ray)

Season Two makes the unforgivable (in some eyes) sin of not being True Detective Season One. I think it’s a shame people were so intent on getting more of the same and were so appalled when faced with something else. Me, I’ve no problem with it being different- that’s the genius of these anthology-format shows, each season offers something different, a fresh take on the basic format. It worked for the second season of Fargo and had mixed results with American Horror Story, but I think it worked very well for True Detective.

Season Two is a great piece of work. Its a hard-boiled, pulp-paperback film noir crime drama. Its an urban nightmare of characters trapped in a concrete, neon-drenched world they cannot fully understand and certainly cannot control. Its confusing, its contradictory, its fascinating, its full of incredible performances.

I seem to be in the minority though- a lot of people really REALLY disliked this season. I find that interesting.

Maybe people were made uncomfortable by this season because it wasn’t easy to disseminate; the plot was confusing, yes, but so is real life, and yes, by the series finale some of the good guys died and some of the bad guys prospered, but that’s like real life too. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending- in fact I think it could be argued that by series end, there isn’t a happy ending for anybody but the bad/corrupt people. That frustrates, I know. And yes it is rather labyrinthine over the eight episodes- even though I loved it, I can’t say I fully understood the complicated web of plot and subplot- but that’s such perfect noir, or maybe Hollywood Noir in this case and I’m fine with that.

It would be argued by some that, on the basis of expectations from the first series, the show should simply be a mystery, about a murder to solve. In season two, the murder and the establishment of the task force to solve it is almost incidental, it’s not really what the series is ultimately about. That may have been a step too far for many and evidently upset plenty of fans from season one. While it was certainly a brave move by HBO and the programme makers to make a show that distanced itself so much from the first series, unfortunately the negativity can’t help but impact on an eventual third season. I guess a return to something more akin to the first season is inevitable next time around.

I think the way I watched it may well helped, but that’s the beauty of binge-watching tv boxsets- in this case, two episodes per night over four consecutive nights, the series unfolding like the chapters of a novel. Perhaps weekly airings would have frustrated, weakened its impact; it calls into question how such programmes are aired and consumed by its audience these days. That said, I think this series was so different to season one that part of that audience would never like it however they watched it.

true3The acting is universally excellent- even Vince Vaughn delivers. But Colin Farrell is amazing in this show. Strange to think I was only watching him in the dismal Total Recall remake last week and here he is in such incredible form. I guess its all in the material. There is a scene late in the series -I hesitate to go into detail so as to not spoil anything- when the camera dwells on his face in silence as he reacts to a revelation about something from his past; in his changing expression you can see his mind racing, disintegrating as he feels his world unravelling about him. Its a great performance throughout the season but this moment is a highlight.

Rachel McAdams, too, is pretty amazing. Her character, like the others, is haunted by an event in her past which she cannot escape from without self-destructive action. It puts her in awful danger in one incredibly gripping scene, when she gets herself into a depraved sex party where the rich and powerful use and abuse women, and she has to try escape it and rescue someone (in a final irony typical of this show, that someone didn’t even want saving). Like  the event from her past, the experience is something that will haunt her,  another stone to carry, another weight on her forever. All of the leading characters seem to have seen things or done things that they cannot escape from. Again, that’s just perfect noir.

true2The cinematography is great- its a beautiful show to look at. Crushed blacks, hot reds, deep greens, it’s all those gaudy pulp-paperback covers brought to vivid life. The music is just as dark, reminding me of Twin Peaks at times. Indeed, I wouldn’t be too surprised if next year’s Twin Peaks revival looks and sounds a lot like True Detective Season Two. As a fan of Twin Peaks, maybe that’s why I enjoyed this season so much.

I love Film Noir and I think as an homage to that genre, True Detective Season Two absolutely nailed it.  It’s a modern day Chinatown, a story in which the place and the events within it dwarf the characters, a place full of bent politicians and corrupt cops, and pasts that return to haunt and destroy the protagonists. I think it’s great, remarkable television. I think this was a great series, and I look forward to watching it again.

A Tale of Two Recalls


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. 

tr11The 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.

tor12Back 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.

tor13So 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.

tor14The 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.