Total Recall REVIEW

Total Recall DVD review: Will the real Total Recall please stand up?

“Consider this a divorce!”

Release Date: 26 December 2012
2012 | 12 | 118 minutes | £19.99 (DVD)/£24.99 (Blu-ray)
Distributor: Sony Picture Home Entertainment
Director: Len Wiseman
Cast:Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy

Somewhere in an alternate universe, Len Wiseman’s Total Recall was made first, Paul Verheoven’s came second, and the internet is full of people moaning, “What the hell was all that Mars nonsense about?”

The vitriol that was heaped on this film even before it came out was astonishing, as if director Len Wiseman was some presumptuous fool for even daring to remake such a classic. It once again raised the whole debate about “What’s the point in remaking good films”? The simple answer is because there’s no point in remaking bad ones; Hollywood’s marketing departments can’t promote something on the basis that, “We’ll get it right this time!”

The result, however, is that you can’t help watching this new Total Recall in “compare and contrast” mode. And while Wiseman wisely avoids a “We can remake it for you wholesale” approach and tries to spin something new from Philip K Dick’s original short story, he doesn’t go quite far enough. The little homages throughout (a three-breasted prostitute, a disguise to get through customs, the painful removal of a subdermal tracking device) may well be in-jokes, but they also keep reminding you of the 1990 film. The result feels less like a cover version and more like a rap based around a classic riff.

The real shame is that if there had never been an “original” Total Recall, the reaction to Wiseman’s version would surely have been a lot less frosty. Because in and of itself, it’s a decent enough sci-fi action flick – severely flawed, but a lot of fun.

It opens similarly to its predecessor, with blue collar worker Douglas Quaid dreaming about being a secret agent. He goes to a company called Rekal which can implant false memories, so that he can experience life as an agent, only to be told he actually is an agent, who’s been given false memories. This propels him headlong into a world of terrorists, corrupt politicians, double-crosses and triple-crosses; all the while he’s trying to figure out if he’s an everyday Joe dreaming he’s a spy, or a spy dreaming he’s an everyday Joe.

It’s an enticing plot, and for the first hour the film teases you with the “Is he or isn’t he?” shenanigans very well, with some great twists and turns. The film also benefits from some glorious production design, that’s full of rich detail. Elements of this world are clearly magpied from a host of predecessors (chiefly Blade Runner and Minority Report) but the result remains visually impressive. It’s also a feast of gadget porn; and with Bond having gone all “realistic” there’s a place for some of that.

But as the film wears on, ideas become thinner on the ground, and it turns into a wearyingly formulaic action film. Bryan Cranston is entirely wasted as the two-dimensional crooked-politician villain, the final plot revelations are disappointingly mundane, and despite all the climactic special effects, the film ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

The film’s main crime, though, is its suspect central plot contrivance. In this future, there are only two liveable land masses on the planet: Britain and Australia (roughly). To get from one to the other commuters (yes, commuters!) use “The Fall” – a kind of shuttle bus that “falls” through a giant tunnel through the Earth. It’s a mightily impressive piece of machinery; it’s also so utterly ludicrous it’s impossible to take seriously. Then again, the original film did have that utterly ludicrous instant terraforming. Maybe it’s another in-joke?


The DVD (rated) offers only the theatrical version of the film, and has predictably slim pickings. You get an amusing seven-minute gag reel, a three-minute featurette on the design of The Fall, and a vapid seven minute featurette with some rent-a-boffin wittering on about how the science fiction in Total Recall could be science fact in the near future.

The Blu-ray is quite another matter. Aside from the theatrical release there’s a Director’s Cut, which adds a whole new layer of mystery to the film, and involves a much larger role for Ethan Hawke. What, you didn’t know Ethan Hawke was in it? Well, he was… until a whole plot strand was excised. So this Director’s Cut isn’t just a case of a few cut sequences being put back in – some scenes are completely different. Whether this makes the film better is debatable, but it’s fascinating to watch this alternative version.

The Blu-ray also adds a director’s commentary on the director’s cut, and a decent “Insight mode” on the theatrical cut (with behind-the-scenes footage overlaid onto the movie as it plays). There are 25 minutes of pre-visualisation footage (it’s almost like watching a third, animated cut of the film) and a rather random 20-minute Making Of (you get the feeling this was a dumping ground for all the behind-the-scenes footage that didn’t fit anywhere else). By the time you’ve watched all that lot you’ll have trouble recalling which version of Total Recall was the real Total Recall!

Dave Golder

Watch a Total Recall extended scene.
Read our Len Wiseman interview.
For an alternative perspective, read our Total Recall review
from the theatrical release.