Saturday, September 01, 2012

We Can Remake It For You, Wholesale

The plots for almost all your favourite novels can be summed up in just one short sentence. Catch-22: war is madness. The Great Gatsby: 'success' is failure. Moby Dick: 'a nut chasing a big fish', to borrow from Harlan Ellison. But, like John Conway's Game of Life, that apparent simplicity belies a vast complexity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described Hollywood as a "dump", so maybe I am expecting too much.

Total Recall (2012) is a passable piece of onscreen entertainment, it has some showy special effects and there are a few fleeting moments of interest, but it could/should be so much more.

Douglas Quaid is a disillusioned factory worker with a beautiful, loving wife. He lives in a ramshackle apartment in The Colony (present day Australia) and travels everyday on a turbo-lift, euphemistically known as The Fall, which passes through the centre of the Earth, connecting The Colony to The United Federation of Great Britain. We are told that as a result if some kind of natural disaster the rest of the Earth is now uninhabitable and that nothing can survive in what is known as The Exclusion Zone.

Let's pause there.

I love a good science fiction setup and would be willing to go along with this one if the detailing were better. What we are presented with is a starting point. When, how and why was The Fall created? Was it post-disaster or pre-disaster? What caused the disaster? How long has the Earth been this way? Why is the Exclusion Zone uninhabitable? Is anybody attempting to clean it up? In what universe would the Aussies willingly submit to colonial domination by the British? None of these questions are addressed, let alone answered. All you know is that The Colony looks like Blade Runner and is where the workers live, while The United Federation of Great Britain looks like Canary Wharf and is home to the bourgeoise.


The television tells us that both The United Federation of Great Britain and The Colony are under the control of a near-dictatorial politician called Cohaagen, who has accrued to himself emergency powers (and an army of law enforcement robots) to cope with the escalating 'terrorist threat' posed by a charismatic underground resistance leader called Quato.


This is powerful stuff, if the filmmakers cared to explore it. Unfortunately, they do not. 


Rekaal is a shady business that creates false memories by injecting special chemicals into the bloodstream. The advertisements promise that once the procedure is complete, the brain is unable to distinguish the imagined memory from any of your real memories. Turned over for promotion, Quaid goes out drinking and despite having been warned against it by almost everyone in his inner circle decides to visit Rekaal.

John Cho attempts to inveigle Quaid in the metaphysics of implanted memory.


But one cannot help but recall (pun intended) the far more dangerous character of Lenny Nero from Kathryn Bigelow's too little seen Strange Days, starring Ralph Feinnes as a black marketeer who sells other peoples' lived experiences, taken direct from the cerebral cortex.

"I'm your priest. I'm your shrink. I'm your main connection to the switchboard of the soul... I'm the magic man," he says.


And then the fun begins. Or should that be then the chase begins? Because like too many other Blockbusters, the rest of the film is one long chase - a chase across Chinatown rooftops, a car chase taken straight out of Minority Report, and a final confrontation on the vessel that carries passengers on The Fall, as it makes it's way through the centre of the Earth (what do you mean you knew that would be coming back?) The the fate of the entire World (what is left of it) is at stake - but nobody cares.


This the main problem with the film: the filmmakers are telling the wrong story. Their film is about an underground resistance leader who saves the world, whereas what the film should have been about is a man who does not know who he is. The viewer already thinks they know what is going on so why do the filmmakers not have a bit more fun with it? Play around? Mix it up? Throw a couple of curve balls? Crucially, at no point is there a sense that reality itself is up for grabs.


Having just killed a dozen gunman, drawing upon the kinds of skills he did not even know he had, Quaid's palm lights up and starts to ring like a mobile phone. In a reflect action (remembered from another life maybe?), he answers the call by putting his hand to his ear. It is someone claiming to be a friend from his former life. Quaid does not recognise him. The stranger tells Quaid about a safety deposit box where he can find more clues as to his identity (a trap?) and tells him that he should get rid of the device inside his hand because the authorities can use it to track him (slice open my hand? Are you kidding me?) Quaid cuts his hand open as if he were removing a sticking plaster and pulls out some bloody circuitry and a keypad. This is one of the best scenes in the film. But it also encapulates everything that is wrong with the film as well. Allow me to elaborate.

When his hand starts ringing, Colin Farrell looks slightly surprised, but I could not tell if it was a 'Who would be calling me at this hour?' kind of surprise or an 'Oh my God, there is a phone inside my hand!' kind of surprise. Are 'hand phones' just something people have in this future society? All the rage? A fashion accessory? Are they uncommon? Or even unheard of - except in elite spy circles? Furthermore, the decision to cut the phone out of his hand is taken far too lightly and it was nowhere near painful enough (a few little yelps is not enough, I don't care how tough you are) and why did he do it in broad daylight in front of a bunch of tramps who the baddies then bully when they find them playing with the exorcised erstwhile tracking device? Why not do yourself the favour of taking your own ideas seriously?

When David Cronenberg was developing what eventually become Paul Verhoven's Total Recall in 1990, he delivered what he hoped would be the final draft of the script to the the studio only to have the producer rebut him by saying, "You've written the Philip K. Dick version of the film".

"Isn't that what what we want?" said Cronenberg.

"No," said the producer. "We want to make Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars."

Cronenberg walked, although I am sure many of his ideas (albeit in a diluted form) helped to make the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle released in 1990 far more interesting that it might have otherwise been.

Unfortunately, the Colin Farrell remake does not even feature Mars.

With all those dollars, all those stars, all that CGI, I think audiences are right to expect more.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello there, I found your blog via Google at the same time as looking for a related topic, your website came up, it appears great. I've bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

9:12 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home