Friday, August 3, 2012

Total Recall (Movie Review)

Total Recall is the futuristic story of Douglas Quaid, a man tired with the monotony of his life, longing for adventure and significance. Although it involves some risk, he visits the Rekall company, who specialize in giving people memories of whatever fantasy they may desire.

Quaid chooses the "secret double-agent" package, but just before the procedure begins, a pre-existing set of memories are discovered in his subconscious, in which Quaid really is a double agent. Suddenly, Quaid is being hunted by those he thought loved him most, and is meeting others who know who he was before being brainwashed into a mundane life.

The story twists and turns as what even the audience thinks they know about Quaid is turned around. And amidst the sci-fi action and adventure, we wonder what is real right alongside Douglas Quaid.

Although comparisons will naturally be made to the early 90's Schwarzenegger film, it's really apples and oranges we're talking about. (Similar to the 1980's "Dune" movie and the 2000 TV miniseries on the Sci-fi Channel.) This movie is more a "re-imagining" than a remake. It only shares the barest skeleton of the original movie's plot and uses some of the same character names and beats. No Mars, no mutants, no Johnny Cab and no Austrian body-builders.

Although the bar isn't set very high in the action/sci-fi genre, the performances by all are very good. And a few nice touches by star Colin Farrel make sure that Quaid is easier to sympathize with and relate to this time around.

Although the difference isn't strong, this film doesn't allow for as much second-guessing about what is real and what is not, compared to the original movie. Although it had a couple of scenes that were designed to cast doubt on the reality of what was happening to Quaid, I felt much more confident that the movie was not all a dream Quaid was experiencing. By contrast, the first film had enough loose ends remaining (including an ending that raises eyebrows even more) that it was nearly equally viable to assume the movie was all a dream .

The visual effects and action sequences were great. Scores of robots, flying cars and crazy elevator platform jumping that would make any classic gamer sweat. Weapons and gadgets are also conceptually interesting and fun to see in action.

There are a few moments that don't make sense. A "three-breasted woman" makes a cameo, an obvious reference to the original movie but strange to include here given the absence of any mutants in this film. There are also a few bits of dialogue that are difficult to make out, and a victory achieved by the good guys near the end that I'm not sure I understand logistically.

The main themes of relevance in this movie are the nature of reality, memories and personal identity. And though I don't think this movie is as likely to trigger contemplation as the original movie, it still has some points worth pondering.

When Quaid enters Rekall, the doctor there emphasizes how real the memories will be. Quaid answers that "any illusion, no matter how convincing, is still an illusion". The doctor says that, objectively, Quaid is correct, but that subjectively the opposite is true. This stance is different from the one taken by The Matrix, which seems to conclude that reality is defined by subjective perception.

However, later in Total Recall, a character clearly meant to be expressing truth says that the past is only a construct of our minds, and that only who we are in the present matters. There may be some truth to this idea, in a sense, but I'm inclined to agree with Quaid when he says "the past tells us who we've become". There is value to "living in the moment", but past thoughts and actions still influence who we are today. Even if we were suddenly unable to remember them, we are no less responsible for past actions than a drunk driver who doesn't remember killing four people in an accident. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the belief that we are nothing more than the sum of our memories, in which case someone who forgets his past actions is no longer responsible for them.

This movie sometimes seems to want to say that we are more than the sum of our memories, but never really commits to the idea consistently, and hurries back to explosions and flying cars before getting into the topic too deeply. From a biblical perspective, we are more than just biology and chemically recorded memories. We are spirit as well. And even though we will one day leave our bodies behind, we will still be held responsible for our lives. (Having said that, there are still many factors to consider and places you can still go with this topic, and the movie can serve as an easy starting point for that discussion.)

For sci-fi fans, this one shouldn't be missed. It's a great sci-fi action ride that could have been improved by being a little more cerebral, but you'll probably be glad if you don't wait to rent it. It's also got some real potential for contemplation about the nature of personhood. An easy way to start a potentially valuable conversation with a geek buddy.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language.

Quality: 9.0/10

Relevance: 8.5/10

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