Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Total Recall (2012) – Review

Review: Total Recall is all action and visual spectacle with no substance or resonance. Ultimately, this new version is not as good as the original, and thus further begs the question of why it was necessary (remakes are fine, I have problem with them, but if you want to tackle a genre classic, might as well make it good, right?). The film is about Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who dreams of something more in his life. Wanting to get away from the day-to-day tedium, he decides to visit Rekall to take a virtual vacation by having new memories implanted into his head. Something goes wrong and Quaid is thrust into the middle of a conspiracy. Suddenly, he is told he is not Quaid but actually a spy named Hauser, who betrayed his government going rogue on his latest mission. Quaid’s world begins to fall apart as he questions his true identity while fleeing from government agents. Director Len Wiseman does do a great job with the aesthetics of the film, as everything has a great sci-fi future utopian/dystopian (depending whether the characters are in the Colony or in the UBF) visual look and feel. His action set-pieces are also mostly well done and feature compelling moments of spectacle. However, Wiseman’s narrative seems to be a very distant second to the visuals and action pieces. The whole story and Quaid’s character arc are merely devices to propel the film forward from one action sequence to the next. The characters are all broadly drawn stereotypes with no personalities or interesting moments. It is as if Wiseman decided that the characters did not matter at all. Quaid’s quest is seemingly to find out who he really is, but the film never gives him any time or dramatic moments to wrestle with this question. Rather, he is thrown into the action and just accepts his role, shifting the focus from ‘who am I’ to stopping Cohaagen’s evil plan, and thus the second act is just a series of action set-pieces occupying space until the final confrontation. The problem is, though, the audience does not care about Quaid, and why should they if the filmmakers do not. In the first act, Wiseman tries to economically fit as much character into Quaid’s scenes to suffice for the rest of the narrative – Quaid is unhappy with the way his life has turned out: he has a crappy job, a crappy house, and no real future (but his wife is good looking and supportive - so how bad for him can we really feel?). But all that groundwork is sort of meaningless when Quaid is not really Quaid but Hauser, and Quaid easily accepts that he is Hauser and it is his mission or responsibility to get wrapped up in this life threatening adventure to stop Cohaagen, who also happens to be the leader of the government. Some hesitance should be expected right? Apparently Quaid wanted a new life so much that likely dying seemed a better alternative. For the audience however, the character just does not resonate, which makes all the action scenes work only on a pure spectacle level, as there are no real stakes for the audience (and the whole film is basically one action scene after the next). To make matters worse, the main supporting characters are terrible as well. Melina, Quaid’s contact in the terrorist organization (and love interest) has no personality at all, she is just sort of there to tell Quaid what to do and get him from one action sequence to the next. Cohaagen and Matthias (the leader of the government and terrorist group respectively) have minimal involvement in the story until late in the second act (and Matthias really has no point at all). Only Lori, who is just a henchman (sort of combining Lori and Richter from Paul Verhoeven’s film), has some good bad guy stuff (though, still nothing that great). Thus, Total Recall is a film with no characters that matter on any level to the audience, and therefore the narrative is meaningless leaving the crux of the whole viewing experience on the action, which is only adequate with a few great and compelling moments (like the initial fight between Lori and Quaid and the fight between Lori and Melina). It is really the visual style and ambiance of the film that is its saving grace. Without good characters to care about, the action, as good as it is in places, still feeling long and even boring, and the visuals only go so far. To say the least, the film is disappointing and forgettable (and completely unneeded).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Len Wiseman has made a career for himself as an action director who makes entertaining films (but nothing great) like Underworld and Live Free or Die Hard (both of which I enjoyed). But with Total Recall, he has given in to the seemingly predominant feeling in Hollywood action films right now – spectacle over character and narrative. Sadly, it is character and narrative that make the action work, otherwise it is just noisy and inconsequential – clumsy filmmaking that is to no one’s benefit. Visually, as stated in the review section, the film is quite compelling. Paul Cameron’s cinematography and especially Patrick Tatopoulos’s production design does a fabulous job of creating the world and style of the narrative. The overall visual style pays homage while creating its own look. The Colony has a great aesthetic to it – that of a futuristic overcrowded slum. Cameron uses lens flare a bit too much but still effectively to create a sci-fi feel and visual motif (I am not sure, but my guess is that it was added in postproduction), a bit like what J.J Abrams and his D.P. Daniel Mindel did with Star Trek. The crisp lighting mixed with the gritty backgrounds harkens back to the neon style of Blade Runner in the Colony and the clean detached style of the UBF to Minority Report (and many other sci-fi films). Harry Gregson-Williams provides a great score for the film. It punctuates the emotions (and fills in for the missing emotions in many cases), while also completely complementing the overall aesthetic. It is very good work (here is a suite). On paper, the cast is made up of fantastic talent. However, the film gives its actors very little character to work with, and almost no good dramatic moments. Basically, all they do is spout exposition and run around in action set-pieces. John Cho, Bokeem Woodbine and the criminally underused Bill Nighy are good in their small supporting roles. Bryan Cranston and Jessica Biel (both with horribly underwritten characters) still add enough to their characters to make the audience somewhat engaged. Kate Beckinsale has probably the best role in the film. As the main henchman, she gets to just be evil and go after Quaid relentlessly, and she does a good job doing it. Colin Farrell does his utmost to make the audience care about Quaid. But, the majority of the film is spent on action and not character, and so he is unsuccessful (but it is not his fault).

Summary & score: Total Recall is a throwaway genre film, to be seen only by fans of vapid and soulless action spectacle. 4/10 

No comments:

Post a Comment