If you’ve ever seen an online profile picture, chances are you’re familiar with the pursed-lips, craned-neck, supposedly slimming contortion known affectionately as “the duckface.” Total Recall is the sci-fi tale of a quasi-postapocalyptic duckface war between Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, with Colin Ferrell as the judge. At least, that’s what this remake of an adaptation of a short story, written by a gob-stopping five separate writers, seems to be about. Any larger theme is missed among the cacophony of dubstep and techno sounds, Farrell’s unrepentant shirtlessness and Biel and Beckinsale’s leather pants.
Some folks out there are under the delusion that 1990’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-led Total Recall is an untouchable sci-fi masterpiece. Well, if that’s the sliding scale for masterpieces, the Louvre should resemble a new parent’s refrigerator. There was no inherent harm in director Len Wiseman resurrecting this property for another go-round. Then again, there was no real incentive to do so either.
Ferrell is Douglas Quaid, or a secret agent named Hauser, depending on how you see things. He is perhaps the most bland, nondescript hero to ever possess two identities. In the near future, “chemical war” has rendered only Europe and Australia habitable, presumably because weather patterns in sci-fi movies allow gas to observe political borders. Quaid and his wife, Lori (Beckinsale), live in “The Colony,” which is Australian for ghetto. Each day, he has to board an elevator that takes him through the center of the earth to England, where he makes robots. Presumably, Stephen Hawking’s next book will be How to Build an Elevator Through the Center of the Earth for Dummies.
Dennis hates his life, despite being married to Kate Beckinsale. So he checks out “Rekall,” which is run by a badly hair-dyed John Cho. Rekall gives you fake memories so you can falsely remember a time when you didn’t hate your life. Dennis asks to be a spy because he’s had dreams about a sexy female agent (Biel), but right when he’s about to go under, it’s revealed he already is a spy. Or is he?
Much like the 1990’s incarnation, the “mystery” is whether or not Douglas is actually a spy fighting against the evil Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) or if he’s basically just dreaming. In addition to the beloved tummy mutant, Kuato, the most memorable part of the original was Mars, which is gone. That said, the single best element of this otherwise unremarkable outing is the set design. The overpopulated world has sloppy buildings that, while Blade Runner-inspired, are not derivative. Oh, and some of the fighting is OK. Beyond that, there’s only the intrigue of Cranston’s hairpiece and Biel’s flexibility that remain compelling.
There’s nothing wrong with the lifeless, charisma-free Total Recall. It is a blockbuster yeoman, if that does anything for you. To put it another way: Before the movie started, an audience member talking far too loudly confused Colin Farrell with Colin Powell and inaccurately described the plot of S.W.A.T. using Powell’s name. Now that idea is something that stays with you.
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.