Total enjoyment depends upon how you recall Arnold.
The original Total Recall (1990) was made in the middle of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 20-year reign as box office action king… or “governor”, if you will. I realize a lot of people love it, but it has never been one of my favorites. Yes, the story places Ah-nold in impossible, action-packed situations requiring brains and brawn, but it also requires a little acting before all hell breaks loose.
Does anyone really believe that’s his strong point?
For this reason, I really enjoyed Colin Ferrell in the remake, Total Recall (2012). Even though he’s impossibly good-looking and sports a great body, he’s still more of an everyman than Schwarzenegger, able to express regret, longing and confusion in a more believable way. In other words, while you know Arnold is going to destroy anything that gets in his way, you’re not so sure that Colin can do the same.
That said, I wasn’t originally thrilled by the idea of a remake. No matter how corny or dated it feels now, there’s no denying that Total Recall (1990) offers some groundbreaking science fiction moments that still look amazing today. For example, the scene where a disguised Arnold attempts to pass through a security checkpoint remains incredibly charming with its non-antiquated practical effects. You know the remake will re-do it with CGI, but it won’t be nearly as special. (It does and it isn’t, by the way.)
Where Total Recall (2012) surpasses the original in special effects, though, is in its futuristic environment. I must admit I was surprised by how good the remake looks. I’m sure it’s all green screens and computers, but it doesn’t look it. Nothing seems like a set; great detail has been given to every pixel. It’s especially convincing during the many foot chases through the city, a variation of an M.C. Escher architecture where, due to lack of space, the city has grown on top of itself at impossible angles.
The only time I detected a separation between the action and the background was during a non-typical highway chase scene where the vehicles are hover cars. It is easy to suspend disbelief, though, because it’s so incredibly fun watching hover cars crash and flip just like their four-wheeled ancestors. (On the negative side, there are no Johnny Cabs.)
The story of Total Recall (2012) is nearly the same, sometimes shot-by-shot, word-for-word, as Total Recall (1990); however, there is one major difference. In the original, the rebel uprising takes place in a mining colony on Mars. The remake remains firmly grounded on Earth where chemical warfare has left all but two geographic areas a barren wasteland. The United Federation of Britain and The Colony are on opposite sides of the globe, but, in the most imaginative concept of the movie, citizens are able to travel between the two in a matter of minutes via a massive “elevator” that runs through the center of the Earth. (The shortest distance between two points really is a straight line.)
The bad guy in Total Recall (1990) is played by Ronny Cox. His motives stem from greed. The bad guy in Total Recall (2012) is played by Brian Cranston. His motives stem from survival. His UFB has reached capacity, so he wants to flatten The Colony and rebuild. Both men orchestrate a rebel uprising and manipulate our hero through the complex science of implanting memories into him. As hinted earlier, I think the remake does a better job of emphasizing the “who am I” confusion that our hero faces.
Something the original does differently is to push the visual details over the top. While both movies do feature a three-breasted woman, she appears only once in the remake, but repeatedly in the original. And the remake does not have a little person standing on a bar firing a machine gun into a room full of mutants. Total Recall (1990) is also far bloodier. I expect all this from director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers). The director of Total Recall (2012), Len Wiseman (Underworld) avoids as much bloodshed by having his army made of androids rather than humans. Not surprisingly, the original is rated R and the remake, PG-13.
Of course, the original boasts some classic Schwarzenegger one-liners (“Consider that a divorce.”). The remake gives a half-ass effort to replicate the phenomenon, but spreads the one-liners among the cast. More times than not, they simply fall flat. You cannot beat Arnold in this area.
There are other things I like and dislike about both versions of Total Recall. Since the plots are so similar, part of the fun while watching the remake is noticing the little tweaks that either pay homage to the original or try to update it. Overall, I say that Total Recall (1990) remains a historical reflection of the time it was made, emerging from the excess of the 80s, while Total Recall (2012) is a more serious reflection of the doom and gloom of the early 2010s. Both have relevance today.
Considering I’m not really a fan of the original Total Recall, I’m equally lukewarm about the remake. Watching both today, though, I’m going to give a slight edge to the remake for sheer filmmaking, entertainment purposes. It’s a fast and, at times, thrilling summer movie. I’m not completely sure why it’s getting such horrible reviews (32% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I encourage you to ignore them. And, if by some slim chance you’re never seen the original, I’ll also tell you, “Get your ass to Mars.” Regardless of my feelings about it, it is arguably a classic.