There is a stunning premise behind Total Recall. Too busy, time-poor or just plain poor to go on the holiday of your dreams? No problem. Visit Total Recall (slogan We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) and they’ll implant the memories of the holiday of your choice into your mind. After all, how can you tell a real memory apart from an implanted one?
It’s such a great premise, and the play between memory and reality such a fruitful area to play with, that it’s come up a lot over the years: the first Total Recall film, Bladerunner, Inception, Paycheck, Next, Minority Report, The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and more have explored it with greater or less degrees of success. And that might be one of the key things to remember about these films: they’re looking at a complex, slippery, troublesome and interesting idea . . . and that’s difficult.
One of the wonderful things about Philip K. Dick’s work is the way he succeeds in engaging with memory and reality. His world is often uncertain and shifting, his characters never quite sure what is true and what is not as they make their way through the plot tangles. In addition, PKD seems to have been aware that when you play with reality and memory it’s important that you keep the story simple. It is hard enough to work out who you are without having to struggle through too many additional surprises.
This leaves film-makers with something of a problem, though. If your character doesn’t know what memories are true and what aren’t, how deeply can or should you delve into that? How do you signal their confusion to the viewer? Inception does an extraordinary job of managing a plot and many, many different layers of reality – but the main characters aren’t confused about who they are, where they are, or what they are doing. In Paycheck our hero has amnesia and has to rediscover his lost past in order to survive, but he knows more-or-less who he is. In Next our hero is able to see the future, remember it and the branching paths it will take, and plot his path accordingly . . . but he never loses his footing on the present day, or himself.
Total Recall (or We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), by PKD, is a little bit different. We may start out knowing who our construction-worker hero is but by the time he leaves Rekall (as it’s called in the most recent film adaptation) all certainty has gone. Is this experience simply the dream spy holiday he has paid for? Is he really a super-agent whose memories have been wiped? Could he, as a super-agent, have really also been a double-agent with unknown loyalties? And if he was, what does that mean for his loyalties now? Which cause does he really support? For that matter, is our bemused and reluctant hero entitled to a character at all or, as (potentially – this could all be a Rekall-induced dream, after all) a six-week-old collection of fake memories and cobbled-together personality traits, is our ‘hero’ actually unreal and irrelevant? Perhaps it depends how much faith you place in memory and experience in the creation of identity.
. . . but trying to convey all this in a film is far from easy. Even when you replace the (extraordinary, extravagant) Schwarzenegger with the more nuanced Colin Farrell, the ins and outs of memory, identity, confusion, twisting realities and loyalties are a lot to convey. If the film-makers chose to focus on action rather than complexity, and to encourage us to believe Douglas Quaid really is a spy, not a holiday maker, perhaps they are not to be too heavily criticised for that. In a fun, explosion- and fight-laden film there isn’t too much space – or need – for introspection, and there are plenty of other things going on.
This latest incarnation of Total Recall is far, far prettier and visually more interesting than its predecessor, with a heavy influence from Bladerunner (I approve) and a bleak reimagining of the future which puts the UK at the head of an empire with Australia as the plucky underdog (for originality, again, I approve). Both Beckinsale and Farrell shine in places, with impressive fight scenes, flight scenes, and some neatly handled plot twists. There are also some fun nods to the original film, and to the original text, for those alert to them.
To me, this was a popcorn blockbuster. It didn’t explore the areas I found most interesting, and focused too much attention on the fight and explosion scenes . . . But it was nonetheless enjoyable, competently done and fun to watch – and arguably no shallower than the original. It may lack the humour of The Fifth Element or the depth of Inception, but it still stands head and shoulders above many an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work and, for a summer blockbuster, does what it says on the tin.
If you’re looking for more, I heartily recommend picking up a copy of the book . . .