Len Wiseman's overhaul of Total Recall never travels to Mars, a wise choice after the mess John Carter left there. That isn't the only switch from Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, or the original 1990 movie that cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. • Memories of those versions don't matter, which is fine because the story revolves around the unreliability of memory, and its substitution by another. There is enough here to tweak remembrances: the futuristic film noir, scrambled loyalties and a three-breasted prostitute among them. But Wiseman's is a different take on the topic, and a pretty good one at that.
In this incarnation, the world is divided into two nations at opposite ends of the planet. The United Federation of Britain is the affluent part, industrialized on the backs of workers from the Colony, what we call Australia. Laborers commute to work on the Fall, a supersonic subway through the center of the Earth. Class warfare is conducted by rebel followers of Matthias (Bill Nighy) against the android army of Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).
One of the proletariat is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), an assembly line worker producing android soldiers. Douglas has a wife named Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and is haunted by a recurring nightmare, leading to an appointment with Rekall, a mind-altering agency making fantasies come true, cognitively speaking. The session ends abruptly and bloodily when the secret agent identity Douglas chooses to explore winds up being who he really is.
Confused and on the lam, Douglas discovers everything about him is a lie implanted in his brain. Lori isn't his wife but an assassin sent to kill him if he ever snaps back to reality. The woman in his nightmare is Melina (Jessica Biel), a Matthias disciple with a connection to Douglas, or Hauser as she knows him. The fate of the resistance depends upon Douglas piecing together memory fragments, which is tough to do when you're constantly chased.
After a talky first reel setting up the dilemma, Total Recall becomes a series of thrilling set pieces, from a chase over the Blade Runner-ish cityscape, to hover cars careening through streets, to a zero-gravity shootout in the Fall. Wiseman sharpened his eye for calamity with the Underworld franchise, and brought over an even wilder card, his wife Beckinsale. With her Posh Spice pout and fetishistic handling of artillery, Beckinsale would be a lovely last face to see.
Farrell's diction is a noticeable upgrade from Schwarzenegger's but there's also his superior portrayal of sweaty apprehension and killer instinct. He's an easy everyman to wince over and with whom to share the confusion of what's happening. The final reel has an incendiary sameness but Total Recall should create fond new memories for sci-fi fans.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.