Back to the future

Len Wiseman wanted to bring his own vision — and Colin Farrell — to his Total Recall remake, writes Alan O’Riordan

A REMAKE will usually prompt one of three reactions: Why? How dare you? And, ooh, what a good idea. Director Len Wiseman’s newly minted Total Recall, it’s safe to say, has bumped up against the first two. Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 version of the Philip K Dick story had Arnold Schwarzenegger at his buffest, Sharon Stone, a three-breasted hooker, and was cartoonish and sleazy at the same time. What treasures! No wonder it still has so many partisan fans whose view of this piece of Martian shlock is as rosy-red as that planet’s atmosphere.

But memory is an unreliable thing. This writer dutifully watched Verhoeven’s Recall recently and, well, it’s not as fun as its reputation would have you believe. Its endurance rests on several unforgettably cartoonish scenes: such as when Schwarzenegger removes a bulbous, red tracking device through his nostril. The 2012 vintage doesn’t have anything quite so idiosyncratic, but its first hour has more tension and atmosphere, while its twists remain twistier for longer. It’s got Colin Farrell, a Blade Runner-ish view of future dystopia, and, yes, a three-breasted hooker.

“It’s such a different take on it, quite a departure from the original one, so I wanted to bring things like that in and have fun with them,” says Wiseman of the throwbacks. The director is in Dublin, home of Total Recall’s star, Colin Farrell, for the film’s premiere. “I wanted to have elements that I remembered as a kid,” he says. “A lot of people will remember stuff from the original, so I made a list of things I remembered, more of a teenager’s point of view. I just wanted to have fun and bring some of those alive with a different twist. Like I said, I was about 14 at the time!”

Wiseman is best known for the Underworld series of werewolf movies, but his experience on Live Free or Die Hard means he’s prepared for the inevitable flack that comes with re-imagining a much-loved film. “God, the amount of people who were up in arms just because I shaved Bruce’s head,” he says. “John McClane to me, as a fan, is many things, but it has nothing to do with his hairdo.

“There’s always a target on a remake. It’s very tough. There are preconceived notions of what it should be, what it shouldn’t be; everyone has their opinion and you’re not going to satisfy everybody. But those who are coming into it looking for a movie that replicates Verhoeven’s movie aren’t going to have nearly as much fun as those interested in seeing something that’s a different take.

“As a director you can’t get passionate about replicating someone else’s style. Verhoeven brought almost a cartoonish violence to Total Recall, but it’s not even inherent in the Total Recall story; that’s his style. He brings it to Robocop, he brings it to Starship Troopers. Some people will appreciate what I hope is a more grounded take.”

Grounded is the word for Wiseman’s film all right. It teases its audience about a trip to Mars, but stays rooted to a grim 21st-century planet Earth for its duration. In this, Wiseman’s Recall is faithful to the Philip K Dick story, although Dick’s ‘We Can Remember it for You Wholesale’ only provides a kernel of a plot for each of the film adaptations.

In Recall 2012, ecological collapse and resource wars have rendered most of the planet uninhabitable, and the inhabitable parts more overcrowded than a Rio slum. Politically, Earth is divided into two jurisdictions: the wealthier United Federation of Britain (a pleasant change from the US-centred futures that dominate Hollywood sci-fi), and the Colony, which is geographically Australasia, but looks more like a Chinese megacity. Workers from the Colony travel to work at menial jobs in the Federation through the Earth’s core, via a gravity elevator called The Fall. The regime in the Federation is your typically sci-fi surveillance society, and a rebel group from the Colony is fighting its covert expansionist aims.

Farrell is Doug Quaid, one of these commuters in a future world that has robot police but, for some reason, still needs human assembly-line workers. Except, of course, he isn’t. He’s Carl Hauser, a government agent who defected to join the rebels he was spying on and was subsequently captured and had his memory wiped. A trip to Rekal, a company that implants false memories in unhappy minds, puts a crack in Hauser’s new identity and soon Farrell is dodging death as a detective on the trail of, well, himself.

FARRELL was the director’s choice for the role. “He embodied a lot of the things I felt when I read the short story,” says Wiseman. “That Quaid is very different than the movie version, the Arnold version. I’d been a fan of Colin’s anyway for a long time. I wanted someone with a vulnerability to him but who, when the time came, had enough of a toughness and a danger about him.

“Colin has a very kind, very sweet, very likeable quality about him, but he also has that ‘push him the wrong way and he’ll kick someone’s ass’ thing. A lot of actors have the vulnerable side but they’re not tough enough. He’s a good combination, he plays on both levels.”

NASA’s Curiosity rover might be beaming back views of Earth from the red planet, but Total Recall’s decision to stay earthbound feels nonetheless apt for our times. After all, if science fiction isn’t about the here and now, it’s about nothing. And we do need to clean up our own back yard as a matter of urgency. Total Recall may be a conservative movie in that it sticks to the three-act blockbuster format too rigidly for its own good, and ticks all the boxes when it comes to action set pieces, tempo and cliffhangers (to say nothing of the many, many feminism-never-happened shots of female rear ends), but it does have a message about globalisation and climate change far to the left of the American mainstream.

Furthermore, Verhoeven’s baddie, Cohaagen, a paragon of naff 1980s greed, here becomes an emollient, megalomaniacal politician. The film manages to be, in other words, a Total Recall for 2012’s preoccupations.

“That’s what I love about science-fiction,” says Wiseman: “How it’s based on our reality, how it draws on what we’re going through, whether politically or technologically. This idea of ‘what if we went this way?’. What we have today is not that far from where Recall ends up going. I can’t take full credit for that, a lot of it was in place before I came in. Kurt Wimmer [one of the writers] is very political, almost a writer activist in his own right, so that was something he brought to it. I thing that is what makes good science fiction.”

* Total Recall is on general release


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