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.