TOTAL RECALL is a pleasant revisiting of Philip K. Dicks short story, I Can Remember It For You Wholesale that also, and with a whole heart, acknowledges its cinematic predecessor of the same name. While that version was plastic and kitschy, not unlike its star, Arnold Schwartzenegger, this one takes a grimmer view of a 21st-century dystopia where the class system has been geographically defined, and chemical warfare has made living space of any kind the stuff that dreams are made on. For fans of the first film, and even for those who arent, there is plenty here to keep the thrill ride going along with a few wry shout-outs to the previous incarnation, and a few feints designed to delight as they fake-out the cognoscenti.
The premise is the same, though, with factory-worker Doug (Colin Farrell) seeking to escape the disappointment and tedium of his life with a trip to Rekall, where the impish technician (John Cho) promises any fantasy that Doug can imagine, except one that involves anything from Dougs real life. Oops. Suddenly Dougs wife (Kate Beckinsale), heretofore the woman of his dream, becomes his nightmare, and the woman >in< his dreams (Jessica Biel), has stepped outside his R.E.M. cycle to save him from the hordes of people now trying to kill him. Plus the fact that hes not quite sure who him is, or where his political allegiances are, a conundrum involving tantalizing clues, few answers, and a scene where Doug talks to himself via hologram with limited interactive features. Farrell has a well-drawn sense of befuddlement through it all, that is neither craven nor dismissive. Flummoxed when instinctive skills surface, game when the situation requires them.
For all the trappings of an action flick, politics of a nicely contemporary familiarity makes for the subtext here while adding to the thrill ride. For those in The Colony (Australia), dreams are the only access to the good life, or rather, the imprinting of false memories of good times, or at least times that are less dreary than reality has become. A few of the more disgruntled Colony-ites, along with fair-minded residents of the United Federation of Britain (Europe), have started a resistance to the economic exploitation in place and made possible by a nifty bit of engineering called The Fall that transports the proletariats from The Colony to the menial jobs waiting for them in the UFB while avoiding the rest of the planet and its residual chemical poisoning. It also makes for the perfect location for one of the films great action sequences, though not the most exciting one. That would be the game of cat-and-mouse played on a series of elevators that can move in any direction, over, under, within, and around which Doug narrowly escapes being smooshed and/or bisected. As for the glimpse of the future, cell-phones give a new meaning to handset, and there appears to be a continuing market for paperbacks.
The age-old question of what makes us who we are is one that is endlessly fascinating, and endlessly debatable, even if the dialogue is neither sparkling nor thudding, but occupies a disappointing middle ground in a film that has a bad tendency to flirt with lethargy. TOTAL RECALL still manages to make the most of that question while never becoming didactic or pedantic. Rather, it teases the audience the way Doug is teased with wondering what is and isnt real, a conceit that, against all odds, it maintains until almost the very last frame.