A good science fiction story is not easy to write. Total Recall is loosely based on a short-story by famous science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, the mind behind “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the basis for Blade Runner, “Minority Report”, and “A Scanner Darkly”, that was adapted in a trippy rotoscoped film version by Richard Linklater. You perhaps remember the original Total Recall directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger: a fun and fast action-scifi movie. The 2012 adaptation, directed by Len Wiseman of Underworld fame, does not share much with the original, besides being based on the same short story.
Total Recall starts with a bland dystopian future, where large parts of the earth are uninhabitable, the United Federation of Britain remains on one side, and “The Colony” on the other side of the planet. One can travel between these two sides by means of a huge tube shuttle that runs through the earth. A quite genius plot device, as there’s a brief moment during travel where the gravity changes direction. Apart from this, there are plenty of smaller high-tech gadgets throughout the film, including hand embedded telephones and a face projection device. The production design of Total Recall is really excellent and succeeds in projecting the right feel for the film’s setting.
There are plenty of great action scenes in Total Recall, from nicely choreographed fights, to a (maglev) car chase, and a gripping sequence involving elevators. It is thanks to the eye-pleasing computer generated imagery, effects and nearly non-stop action that Total Recall manages to pull you in. However, none of this can compensate for some fairly obvious weaknesses in the plot. At one point a chase ends for no apparent reason, other than to advance to the next stage in the story. The villain is rarely seen and little emotional motivation is given for certain actions by the main character: Douglas Quaid. This makes it more difficult to identify with him and his quests.
The one thing where Total Recall does succeed is constantly throwing you off, so you start doubting as to whether what you are seeing is real or not. It is this combined with proper pacing that makes Total Recall a good and entertaining action movie, but certainly below average in terms of science fiction: it doesn’t really do its source material justice in that regard, but neither did the 1990’s adaptation.