It is often easier to write about something we don’t like, rather than something we do. When I’ve tried to write about my favourite movies I find myself hesitant and halting, anxious I won’t do justice to these films, won’t be able to properly express why I love them so. With that in mind, I come to the new Total Recall, a film about which I have no such inhibitions.
Total Recall is a failure on almost every level. The film suffers a myriad of plot and setting inconsistencies, which we will come to later. But even more pervasive than these inconsistencies is the artificial feel of the movie. It took me about twenty minutes to nail down why the visuals are somehow not convincing, until I realised midway through one of Colin Farrell’s endless series of acrobatic leaps that none of it was real. The dazzling, riotously busy cityscape is merely the work of a team of computer graphics technicians, and our erstwhile hero Colin is leaping not from the balcony of an upside-down cyberpunk apartment building but from a green-painted box in a studio in California. For the rest of the movie I couldn’t take any of it seriously. The hover-car chases, massive explosions, and death-defying leaps become meaningless when you can’t believe they’re happening. Special effects can be an invaluable tool for modern movie-making but once the brain realises it is being tricked it is very hard to suspend disbelief again.
The structure of the movie is tedious. Once Colin flips out at Recall and then his wife turns on him, the movie becomes one long chase sequence, covering rooftop slums, hover-car freeways, futuristic elevator shafts and various other CG settings. The heroes are never given a moment’s rest but constantly hounded by faceless robotic soldiers. It’s stuck in high gear, and that is boring, especially when the action is so devoid of life. Shooting or punching a robot is boring, because the robot has nothing invested in the conflict. A robot as represented in this movie doesn’t care if it lives or dies, and it cares about its mission only because it is programmed to. It doesn’t suffer pain or injury so we don’t care when its arm gets smashed off or whatever, and there is never a suspicion that things might ultimately go badly for Colin or Jessica. They are impervious to explosions, huge falls and automatic weapons fire from ten metres away. The chief problem of the movie is that there’s no reason to care about any of it.
The casting is not perfect, either – while Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel are fine as the leading couple, Kate Beckinsale seems out of place and her accent switches from scene to scene, seemingly at random. Bryan Cranston is bizarrely cast as the villain Coehagen, who moves from cunning politician to wannabe-general to final-boss pugilist, and he’s not really believable as any of them. Bill Nighy is criminally underused in a very brief appearance as the rebel leader and made to put on an unconvincing American accent – if you need your character to have an American accent, why not get an American actor? These two fine comic actors are also denied any chance of injecting some humour into this utterly humourless movie. Even the call-back appearance of the three-breasted prostitute is dealt with clinically, without raising a smile either on screen or in the audience.
So now on to the many inconsistencies and things that just plain don’t make any sense. The setting of the movie is Earth, sometime in the future after a massive war has rendered most of the world uninhabitable. The remaining outposts of civilisation are the “United Federation of Britain”, which appears to cover the British Isles and the fringes of continental Europe; and the “Colony”, which is Australia. All other areas are filled with some kind of poisonous gas. The two are linked by a tunnel called “The Fall”, which runs directly through the Earth and has a large vehicle which can transport people between the two ends in seventeen minutes. The Federation forces people from the Colony to work cheaply in Federation factories, setting up the primary conflict of the film, the supposed unrest in the Colony and Coehagen’s efforts to crack down on Colonial terrorists and eventual plan to attack and conquer the Colony with robots.
Leaving aside the obvious difficulty involved in building a stable tunnel through thousands of kilometres of liquid metal heated to thousands of degrees and under crushing pressure, this journey seems impossible and no effort is made to explain how it happens. Without going into the math, travelling the diameter of the Earth in seventeen minutes means you have to travel at an average speed of over 45,000 km/h. Assuming it takes some time to speed up and slow down, the peak speed achieved must be many times higher than this. All sorts of questions regarding thrust and aerodynamic heating suggest themselves, especially given that the vehicle is essentially a cube that can apparently hold fifty thousand people, though I may have misheard that part. Beyond that there are for some reason emergency exits on this craft, which at one point Colin and Jessica climb out of while it’s moving and are not immediately disintegrated.
The biggest problem with ‘The Fall’, however, is revealed by the film’s own ending. Colin blows up the top of the tunnel and the vehicle, isolating the Colony and giving them “a chance at independence” from the tyrannical federation. Colin is hailed as a liberator. But if all the Colony had to do to free itself from the Federation was destroy the Fall, and this would be roundly acclaimed as a good thing… why didn’t they just destroy it? Matthias’ rebels have automatic weapons and between them and the government of the Colony it is not a stretch to suggest they could acquire or manufacture explosives. Blow up the tunnel, cut off the Federation, movie over before it starts. It is hard to understand the relationship between the two civilised areas, probably because it is never explicitly discussed and there is not enough work done establishing the setting before the interminable chase begins.
There are several minor nonsenses that add to the feeling of incoherence. When Colin unwittingly leads the bad-guys to the rebel base, they arrive within ten seconds of the computer virus or whatever being triggered. If they came from the city, shouldn’t it have taken them like at least half an hour? If they were right outside the whole time, why have the virus at all? In this scene they burst through the windows into the base – windows ostensibly keeping out the poison gas – and proceed to wander about chatting with no masks for ten-ish minutes. If, as is revealed earlier, Matthias’ group is not actually carrying out the bombings, what precisely are they doing? Why does Coehagen find it so objectionable that he has to seek them out and destroy them? At the end Kate sneaks into Colin’s ambulance, disguised as Jessica – apparently to finish him off – but rather than just shoot him while he’s asleep, she waits for him to wake up, see through her disguise and overpower her. This kind of garbage ruins any suspension of disbelief you may have sustained up to this point.
Total Recall is a tepid, incoherent, humourless nonsense. The pervasive use of green-screen sucks all the life out of the setting, and the issues raised by physics-defying sci-fi elements are simply ignored. The plot makes no sense, the action is not compelling, there’s no tension or invention in any of it and no reason to care about the characters, the conflict or this movie.