Original VS Remake: ‘Total Recall’
So, here’s a sticky question. Is it a remake if they’re both based on the same source material? Under most circumstances I would say no, and not include them in this series. Charlie/Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory both feature elements from the book that the films don’t share, so they’re unique films based on the same source material.
There are some cases where it’s clear the second film is based on the original film regardless of the book. Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall used Phillip K. Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For Wholesale’ to set up their first act before spinning off their own yarn. The remake had even less to do with the book, and includes aspects from the first film that never appeared in the book.
How do we describe 80s-90s Paul Verhoeven? He’s…Zack Snyder with a brain. Yes, he had some duds but Robocop outweighs a lot of bad. His 1990 film, starring Arnie, is set in a future where other planets in the solar system have been colonised. Arnie plays Quaid, a construction worker on Earth haunted by dreams involving a mysterious woman on Mars. With his wife Lori unwilling to join him on a vacation to Mars Quaid employs the help of ‘Rekall’, a company that can implant false memories. He requests a special memory that sets him up as secret agent on Mars on a mission, including a lookalike for the girl in his dreams.
The procedure goes south when Quaid starts freaking out during the procedure, claiming they would blow his cover and turns violent until he is sedated. At first they feel he’s having a negative response to the implant, but it’s revealed that he hasn’t had it yet and he is a real spy with his real identity replaced with false memories.
After waking up in a cab, Quaid is confused about what is real and what is an implanted memory. He gets attacked by his boss and then his wife before making his escape. He is contacted by a mysterious man who provides him with equipment and weapons to get to Mars. Upon his arrival he makes contact with his Melina, the girl from his dreams, and the Resistance. The residents of the Mars slums and the mutants of the planet have banded together to battle an evil corporation who demand payments to supply air to the colonies. They seek out an ancient alien turbine that will terraform the atmosphere to supply free air.
A previously unseen man meets with Quaid and tells him that he’s still at Rekall and is trapped in a delusion. Lori arrives to help convince him to take the pill that will allow him to wake up. Quaid is about to comply but notes that the man is sweating and shoots him, deducing that he was lying. Lori attacks him but he escapes with Melanie and cab driver Benny. They make their way to the resistance base and meet with their leader, a mutant named Kuato who instructs Quaid to tell on the alien reactor. Benny betrays them to the company, Kuato is killed and Quaid and Melanie are taken to company leader Cohaagen. The company also shuts down the air to the colony as an incentive for them to turn in the resistance.
While prisoner they are shown a video of Quaid calling himself Hauser, explaining that everything was part of a manipulation to get to Kuato and close down the resistance. Quaid refuses to believe them and fights his way out of the procedure to get Hauser’s memory restored. He frees Melanie and they fight their to the reactor. Once there they encounter Cohaagen again. Cohaagen triggers a bomb to prevent the reactor from being activated, but Quaid throws it away, destroying an outer wall and causing explosion decompression. Quaid knocks Cohaagen onto the planet surface where he begins to asphyxiate. Quaid activates the reactor before he and Melanie are also sucked out onto the surface. They barely survive, but the atmosphere changes and oxygen becomes available to everyone on Mars. Quaid pauses to consider whether or not he’s still in a dream before dismissing the idea and kissing Melanie.
Total Recall is an action sci-fi classic, managing to marry some pretty cool themes with Arnie style shenanigans at the height of his game. The science is kinda…dumb (who puts glass windows on a Martian colony?) but the core concept is strong. This is the clearest influence from the writings of Phillip K. Dick, who was always more about the philosophy of what technology and humanity could evolve into than the nitty-gritty details. The void left by the nitty gritty gets summarily replaced with shooting, explosions, funky gadgets and Arnie being Arnie. This combination should not work. But it works through a liberal application of imagination.
What the Remake Kept the Same
We do start with Doug Quaid on Earth, married to Lori and working in a construction job. He dreams of a life with another, unfamiliar girl and feels that he’s missing something in life. In an attempt to fill the void, he goes to Rekall and asks for a memory about a secret agent travelling to Mars. This turns out to be a mistake when the operators discover he actually is a secret agent, which surprises him. He gets attacked and makes his way home before being attacked by Lori, sending him on the run. He meets up with the mysterious girl from his dreams and they work together to fit off the authorities while making their way to the resistance. On the way some character turns up to try to convince him that he’s still at Rekall and trapped in a delusion.
The government frequently comes at Quaid, trying to convince him that he is still living a false memory and needs to wake up, or that he’s one of their agents working undercover using a fake identity. Quaid does meet up with the leader of the rebels only to find it was part of a plan to lead the government to him. This is followed by Quaid resisting the attempt to return his original identity.
We also, for some reason, have a reference to the memorable customs scene from the original. A woman looking similar to one in the original delivers the “two weeks” line like in the original, but Quaid is disguised as the person behind her. This is beyond dumb, because the entire sequence is set up to be a misdirect for those who have seen the original and makes no sense to those who haven’t. It’s a real indicator that the producer’s intent was to cash in on the brand than telling a new story.
Oh yeah…there’s a lady with three boobs. Because THAT was the important part.
What the Remake Changed
Mars. The entire setting of Mars and associated story elements are completely absent. Yet Quaid is still hung up on getting somewhere, leading him to visit Rekall. It’s like they kept the key plot point without including the motivation to set it up. That kind of approach is common throughout this film.
Instead of Mars we have ‘The Fall’, a giant elevator that travels through the core of the Earth…somehow. It switches gravity in a matter of moments halfway through…somehow. Amazingly this concept makes the science of the original plausible because it ignores simple things like the molten core in the middle of the planet and logic. With the Earth surface basically being a radioactive wasteland the population is split between the Untied Federation of Britain and The Colony (Australia), with the two linked by the stupid elevator. The Resistance strives to improve conditions in the Colony while the government brands them as terrorists.
Then there’s the back and forth ambiguity of whether or not Quaid is a real secret agent or trapped in a delusion. The original never made it entirely clear but gave viewers enough evidence to point to either one. For this one it’s pretty clear that he’s not really Quaid as he begins to remember the relationship he had with Melina and it winds up being a generic ‘true love’ subplot. Yawn.
Paul Verhoeven also had a unique style making his films recognisable. Len Wiseman, director of the remake, just wanted to rip-off Blade Runner. In spite of this tonal and visual shift the film does borrow many designs from the original, most notably the chair for changing memories at Rekall with some added CGI.
Whilst Arnie’s Quaid remained more or less the same character before and after the memory implant (that may not have happened), Colin Farrell’s suddenly unleashes hitherto unseen kung-fu skills because that’s the kind of thing you get through memorization and not practise and upkeep.
Then we have Lori, played by Sharon Stone in the original and Kate Beckinsale in the 2012 remake. Stone’s Lori has little character at the beginning of the movie, with her just hanging around their home and acting a bit sick of Quaid’s obsession with Mars. This stereotypical wife routine makes it all the more surprising when she violently attacks him after his encounter at Rekall. Beckinsale’s version is established as a law enforcement agent and it’s less of a surprise when she fights Quaid. She has a larger role, being his main foe throughout the film, yet somehow has less personality than Stone’s version. Beckinsale’s main attack is goading Melanie on having slept with her boyfriend…a ploy that weirdly works.
We also Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy as Melanie, the President and resistance leader respectively but they’re so boring it’s not worth mentioning them further.
Which One Should You Watch?
If you couldn’t tell already – the original. It’s better made, the action is more exciting and it’s unique. Replacing the visceral and bloody fight scenes with endless CGI gadgets makes the remake feel cold and lifeless. Arnie’s character has strong convictions, leading to the sense of uncertainty it what is real. Farrell just wanders about looking confused.
This is the choice between a film brimming with personality and faded replica run through the copier a dozen times.
Which version do you prefer? Got a remake to be looked at next? Comment below!