Mon
Aug 6 2012 1:00pm

The Farrell Identity: Total Recall Forgets to Have Plot Twists

Unsurprisingly, the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” breaks a lot of so-called narrative rules in terms of basic point-of-view structure. Switching harshly from a close third person narrative to a clunkier omniscient third person, this classic story reveals itself to be less about the characters and more of an exploration of the nature of memory itself. I know a lot of memoirists who worry about the scrutiny of memory-based writing and I often wonder what impact Rekal would have on the non-fiction literary population if it were real.

But until that happens the only place Rekal exists outside of “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” is in the cinema. And now, it’s back. How does this Total Recall fare against our memories of the bombastic 1990 Schwarzenegger/ Verhoeven joint? Well, let’s just say the movie might be called Total Recall, but Rekal itself barely even shows up.

Light Spoilers Ahead.

Beyond the political implications generally found in Phillip K. Dick’s work and the unique style that has influenced so many, the one thing that can be counted on in his stories are plot twists: genuine, honest-to-goodness twists that can leave you smiling, shaking your head, angry, happy, irritated, or confused. Some are better than others, and the jack-in-the-box of “We Can Remember It For You Whole Sale” is endlessly satisfying. When a desired artificial fantasy turns out to be real, can any of us real determine the nature of our memories? The short story contains not one but two awesome reveals as to the supposed reality of Douglas Quail’s true life. And while it’s not remotely as cerebral as the story, there are at least a few fun identity-switch-a-roo scenes in the 1990 version of Total Recall. But what about plot twists in this new Colin Farrell version? The one and only true plot twist occurs about 20 minutes into the movie.

The introduction of the concept of Rekal feels faithful enough at first. Quaid (not Quail, once again) is having certain dreams, expressing a sort of longing, which are causing him a loss of sleep and ennui. In the story his wife is just straight up mean to him, whereas here she seems tolerant, if a little judgmental. Unlike his literary or Arnold Schwarzenegger-ian counterparts, Quaid doesn’t have a big interest in Mars. It’s mentioned once, off-handedly as a kind of nod to what’s gone before. Then, when the actual idea of Rekal is presented the concept feels decently close to what it should be: counter-factual memories, which are better than the real thing. And yet, right at this point, the movie misses what makes the classic story so great. In the story, you never actually ever remember going to Rekal, which makes sense. The whole appeal of the false memory is that you never know it’s false. Furthermore,  in the story the Rekal memories are presented as being more vivid than “real” memories. From the text:

“…our analysis of true-mem systems –authentic recollections of major events in a person’s life—shows that a variety of details are very quickly lost to the person. Forever. Part of the package we offer you is such deep implantation of recall that nothing is forgotten.”

The reason this is important is because it demonstrates what truly makes Rekal so attractive: it’s the perfect fiction combined with dream fulfillment. Best of all, you never actually have to do anything to have the things you want. But in the new Total Recall movie, characters are completely aware they’ve gone to Rekal! In fact the character who encourages Quaid to check the place out says he’s been there “three times.” If this were true, no one would want to go to Rekal, because they would know the memories were fake. In a better film this could be some kind of red herring, but like many of the plot point in Total Recall, it’s more of a no-herring.

Once Quaid is strapped in to get his desired “secret agent” memories; the Rekal technicians run a check to make sure he doesn’t actually have any memories like that, since implanting fake memories over similar real ones will make you crazy in the brain. As in the short story, these guys are shocked to find out Quaid does indeed have secret-agent memories and then all hell breaks loose. Quaid suddenly activates like a sleeper agent and manages to kill a bunch of robot cops and other people. After this scene, the science fiction of the movie is completely arbitrary. Sure, we’re given a plotline about an underclass of people rising up against their oppressors, and there are science fictional reasons behind it, but it doesn’t really feel original or interesting, mainly because it’s not about real versus fake memories anymore.

Never again does the audience wonder if this secret agent thing is a real memory or not, nor are we given any new counter-factual memories to further mix up the plot. Essentially, this film is exactly like The Bourne Identity in the future. There’s a even scene directly RIPPED OFF from the The Bourne Identity, in which Quaid goes to a safe deposit box and finds a gun and bunch of fake passports. It’s shocking how it’s not really different at all, except here there’s a face-changer gizmo to account for the different faces on the passport.

All the performances from the cast are fine, if completely one-note. At no point did I understand why Kate Beckinsale’s character was so angry. Nor did I understand why Colin Farrell’s Quaid was supposedly “redeeming” himself—had I witnessed a scene from the past that showed me what an asshole he used to be, then I might have cared about his new identity making up for all of that. The action scenes are similarly competent, but also just as one-note. They’re essentially all chase scenes in which Farrell and Jessica Biel resemble old-school video game characters: jumping from one unlikely moving platform to another. In my head, Frogger: The Movie is more interesting than this.

I kept waiting for Total Recall to live up to its awesome source material and give me some kind of false memory twist. But instead, it gave me the dull reality of a sci-fi-lite action movie. And when you’re wishing the end of the movie would reveal that “it was all a dream,” you know you’re in trouble.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He’s got more class than to write about the 3-breasted space hooker in both the original and new films.

15 comments
Peter Tijger
1. Peter-Tijger
Probably as expected. How could they ever do better than the original !!! And it's not my opinion because Verhoeven is a fellow countryman. He just made an incredibly enjoyable movie with this one. Saw it with my ex-wife (not ex back then :)) and we loved it !!!

I had some hope for this movie based on some of the footage I saw, it looked absolutely great. But with looks only you don't automatically have a winner.
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
SPOILERS!

I figured out why Lori is so angry and so vicious to Quaid/Hauser.

Its blink and you miss the bits:

--There is a bombing early on in the film, and there is background speculation there and a couple of points if "Hauser" is the one responsible.

So, clearly, the sequence of events is:

Hauser goes undercover
Hauser turns Rebel
Hauser gets captured and turned into Quaid
--Here, the public (including Lori) don't know that, and still think Hauser is a vicious Rebel
Quaid pops his memory cap
Lori learns who Quaid is.

At this point, Lori realizes she has been watching and keeping a dangerous terrorist. Of course she would be mad, violate Cohaagen's rules, and go after him at all costs.
Walker White
5. Walker
This movie made absolutely no sense. My wife and I played "can you follow this plot" throughout the movie. To say this film was riddled with plot holes is an insult to plot holes.

One of the reviews said that this makes the original look like Citizen Kane. I think this was too kind. The impression that I got from this film is that they took the originaal, stripped it down to a skeleton, and use Mad Libs to fill it back in.
S.M. Stirling
6. S.M. Stirling
The worldbuilding was awful, too. The tunnel is a Point Failure Source for the Evil Empire.

And yet it's so vulnerable that it can be destroyed -by one guy with some limpet mines-.

Oh, please, throw the Ring into the lava, Frodo!

And you end up stopping an invasion by having a fist-and-knife fight with the enemy's -supreme commander-. Who is this badass ninja type, despite presumably having been behind a desk for decades and being 40 years older than the Quaid character?

Why can Evil Overlords in the media never get any minimally competent minions to do this grunt work for them?

The sort that have kept the leaders of places like North Korea in power through generations of mass starvation and stuff?
Sky Thibedeau
7. SkylarkThibedeau
@ S.M. Not to mention the sort that have kept Hollywood Moguls in positions of powers for decades.
S.M. Stirling
8. Kirshy
As soon as I heard they were doing a "remake" of this film I knew that it would inevitably suck. Aside from the fact that it was too soon for a remake, personally I don't think remakes should be attempted until the original is as least 40 years old, but also the original was so freakin' awesome and continues to hold its own against modern sci-fi flicks that a remake was just plain unecessary. But even with that being said I still held out a grain of hope that it would try its very best to not make an ass of itself. Alas that was not in the cards.

I walked out of the movie and found myself asking, what was the f'ing point? Why spend $200 million dollars on a such a giant peice of horse poop? Why go through the effort of remaking a classic and then do it badly? Why strip the film of its sci-fi roots and only leave crappy characterization and rediculous action scenes? I think the answer is that Hollywood is no longer trying to be "Original" (as the opening credits say, how ironic). They think we are stupid and will pay good money to see crappy films over and over again. There is a reason why internet piracy is so wide spread. Who wants to pay $13-$18 for a movie that is likely going to be crap? Not me that's for damn sure.

End of rant.

P.S. Len Wisemen needs to stop making films.
S.M. Stirling
9. blatanville
that's not how I remember it...*
S.M. Stirling
10. Denise B
I am glad that I read this.

I also was excited that they were making this movie. Was interested to see what better sfx would do for the story.

Though, at the same time, I was NOT holding my breath it would be better. I just hoped it would not suck.

Now I see it could not even achieve not sucking.
Sheila Ruth
11. SheilaRuth
I'm almost afraid to say that I enjoyed the movie. True, I wish that the memory issues had been delved into some more, but it was a fun movie and an exciting ride. I actually liked it better than the Schwarzenegger version. I thought the remake made the older version look campy.
LaShawn Capito
12. QueenC
I was excited about the movie- I thought maybe they could add better effects to make the movie more current. Then I went to go see it and I was so disappointed. I actually fell asleep about halfway through. I wouldn't recommend the movie to anyone who's seen the original.
S.M. Stirling
13. Lenie Clarke
That you can recall Rekal (heh) is this flick's least problem. It's pure escapist fantasy, sort of like a full immersion role-playing video game (minus any interactivity, it seems). Since people enjoy static movies and play games I don't see why they shouldn't enjoy fake memories that they know are fake. I'm not sure how you could make somebody believe he's a real-life James Bond and sending him back into his normal life without telling him it was just a trip into fiction, anyway...

TR's problems are those of all of modern Hollywood: a hyperfocus on FX and Big Name faces and other neglect of everything else, especially character development and story-telling.
S.M. Stirling
14. eazylnova
Ok so I need to get one thing straight.... Might sound stupid but anyways thats why these blogs are here for right? so my question is.... was the entire movie all a fake memory? it looked real to me... but what made me confused is the rekall advertisement at the end of the movie... and the short flash back of getting stamped... someone please let me know.
S.M. Stirling
15. Neverscared047
I too was waiting for a plot twist. It made total sense that he would come back to the chair and realize it was just a memory. First, it was a little too coincidental that right when the syrum started flowing, the guy suddenly shouts that he is a spy. Then, out of no where, the "law enforcements" burst through the door and shoot everyone but him. It was a little hard to believe that that would have occured in real life. It would make sense that right then, his fantasy began. Second, when confronted by his friend in the lobby, where there is a standoff, his friend tells him that he is getting too deep and has to come back to reality. You then see his "wife" crying and appears to be worried about him. It is understandable that if it were a fantasy, and he chose to believe it (by shooting his friend), the fantasy would continue as it did before and his wife then again turned into the villain again, instead of really being by his side.

I will say that the only thing that didn't add up about it being a fantasy, is him seeing Biel's character in his dreams, before being injected with the syrum. Ultimatly they could have made it twist but decided not to. Why? Because everyone is expecting it. everyone is just waiting to see him come back and say "wow, that wasnt real?". Instead they decide to make it the reality and it leaves you feeling cheated. After I saw the credits role, I searched the very end for "the real conclusion" and didnt find one. I was surprised to see it end like that because if it was the reality, it was a very mild movie. I agree with the original comment on here that "When you are wishing the end of the movie to be "all a dream", you know your in trouble".

The nature of a plot twist is to give you a little extra boost in the conclusion. but then when you are expecting one, and it doesnt happen, you start to feel as if the movie wasnt really over. maybe they were trying to be innovative and making everyone think there was going to be a twist, and then not. but one thing is for sure, THAT DOESNT WORK!! thats what happened in this movie. I do not know why they decided to include that advertisment and flash back to it, but if they were trying to hint that it was all a dream, they failed epicly.

But then again, if it were a twist, would it have been better anyway? because everyone was expecting it so it wasnt really a twist. All in all, dull movie. Only thing interesting about it was again, the woman with 3 breasts. haha :-)
S.M. Stirling
17. Superchicken
The special effects were good, and it certainly didn't lack for action, but I gave up on following the plot long before the end. I was still expecting the plot twist (waking up back at Rekall and then maybe a double twist) until the final credits started rolling. The inclusion of the 3-breasted girl was brief but satisfying.

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