Thursday, July 26, 2012

Nearing The End Of Summer Blockbuster Season, Total Recall Is A Fun Popcorn Thriller.

The Good: Decent effects, Good action feel, Decent acting, Initially engaging plot
The Bad: So many reversals!, Lighter on character than I generally like.
The Basics: The new version of Total Recall is appropriately action-packed, clever and fun to round out Summer Blockbuster Season in a satisfying way.

Summer Blockbuster Season follows a few very well-established patterns. After the big budget, much-anticipated special effects-driven movies have dominated the summer, August hits. August, traditionally, is where comedies and the pre-back to school romances try to lure teenage boys and women raised on fairy tales back to the theaters one more time for the summer. There is also, usually, one last big action-adventure film. A few years ago, for example, Summer Blockbuster Season was pretty much pronounced dead by G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra (reviewed here!). The last big hurrah for 2012’s Summer Blockbuster Season is Total Recall.

It behooves me to mention, up front, that I had not seen the 1990 version of Total Recall, nor have I read the Philip K. Dick short story upon which both movies are based. As a result, I offer no comparison and any references between the two films were lost on me. This is a very pure review of only the 2012 film Total Recall. (I have since seen the 1990 Total Recall, but that is reviewed here independent of this version!)

Doug Quaid works in a dismal, filthy factory in 2084 where he is frequently tired and miserable. He decides to escape for a time within his own mind through a treatment from Rekall. Rekall allows him to have false memories implanted within him in order to feel like he is living a more meaningful and enjoyable life. But when the Rekall agents discover that Quaid’s mind has already been tampered with, they become alarmed and when the building is stormed, a bloodbath ensues . . . at the hands of Quaid. Surprised at his sudden abilities, he is told that he is a spy by his wife, Lori, who tries to kill him.

Suddenly on the run, Quaid, who may or may not really be Hauser, finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that he has no memory of. Sought by government agents and aided by a rebel underground who he hopes will be able to restore his true memories, Quaid teams with Melina to try to stay alive long enough to learn the truth.

To dispense with my usual complaints about such movies, Total Recall is light on character development because that is the nature of the beast. Because the film deals so much with identity issues and what is real and what is not, Doug does not have a huge amount of character development. He’s running for his life and trying to figure out what is going on and the nature of the conspiracy means that other characters know more about him and what is going on than he (or the viewer) does. Doug is, as a result, more often than not confused and afraid, as opposed to enlightening or even particularly interesting.

The character element, then, is mostly handled by Lori and Melina. Lori is ruthless and efficient, but as a result, she is somewhat monolithic. From the moment she turns on Doug, she is single-minded, focused and ruthless in her pursuit of Doug. Lori is played by Kate Beckinsale and the level of action the role requires is not a surprise for the star of the Underworld films. Even so, despite the similarities in levels of action, Beckinsale makes the role distinctive by infusing strange humanity in the role. Beckinsale makes Lori seem like a character with a strange sense of principles; Lori seems to actually believe in the organization she serves and Beckinsale sells the viewer on her character’s loyalty in frequently unsettling ways.

Jessica Biel’s Melinda is not at the other end of the spectrum, though Melinda and Lori are framed as opposites in how they treat Doug. Melinda comes to Doug’s rescue and wants to get him to safety, ostensibly for how he might help the resistance. Biel has done action films before and in Total Recall she is convincingly cool; while she does physical work, her character strategizes and shoots more than she smacks around the obstacles she encounters.

Total Recall benefits from having a stellar supporting cast, in addition to having great special effects. In a film filled with flying cars, robotic assailants and the obligatory three-breasted woman, what stands out the most is how the minor roles are fleshed out with actors who shine for the entire time they are on film. John Cho’s appearance is brief, as is Bill Nighy’s, but Nighy especially dominates the screen while he is on it. The most significant performance out of the main three is from Bryan Cranston. As the Chancellor, Cranston is smart, authoritative and ruthless. While at moments the Chancellor seems like a hyperbole of a capitalist, he seems like a credible leader who would inspire the violence and loyalty that he does.

But, at the end of it all, Total Recall is largely a chase/conspiracy movie and it succeeds at that. Anyone hoping for more than an action-adventure film that is hinging on near-constant twists and fast gun battles will be disappointed, but for the last popcorn effects film of Summer Blockbuster Season it fits the bill.

For other works with Bryan Cranston, please check out my reviews of:
John Carter
Little Miss Sunshine
Clerks: The Animated Series


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. You haven't seen Total Recall? Next to Terminator 2 pretty much the best action movie of all time. If nothing else it makes the trailers for this remake hilariously bad. Maybe if Verhoeven was involved it would have had a shot at decent campiness.

  2. Not the original one! I am, however, getting the classic "Total Recall" in from the local library! I should have a review of that up (hopefully) by next week!