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'Total Recall': An Obsessive Chat

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Right now, as this is typed, a remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 quasi-classic Total Recall is playing in theaters. This remake is also called Total Recall and, like the original, the plot centers on a man named Doulas Quaid who may or may not be a spy. Unlike the original film, it's not particularly enjoyable to watch, for quite a few reasons. So many reasons, in fact, that Matt Singer of Indiewire's Criticwire blog and myself decided that an obsessive chat about the new Total Recall was needed. (And, yes, spoilers lie ahead.)


Mike: I feel we should discuss Bryan Cranston's hair. As little as I was into this movie, his hair just took me to another terrible place.


Matt: A terrible place that never, ever moves, even in the middle of a knife fight.
His hair was impossibly bad. It was the best argument in this Total Recall that the whole film is a dream -- no way someone in the real world has that hair.


Mike: Agree. But that's the other thing: This movie makes is less ambiguous about the whole "Is it a dream?" aspect than the original. And that's disappointing. You're joking, but Cranston's hair really might actually be the biggest clue.


Matt: Yeah what made the original Total Recall so great was the fact that it was this fun action movie that also posed some genuinely interesting questions about the nature of reality and our perception of it. This one is basically just a straight chase movie.


Mike: It's like someone said, "Here's an idea. Let's take Total Recall, remove all the mystery and fun humor and replace it with chase after chase after chase after chase after chase after chase after chase."


Matt: The movie includes most of the scenes that provided the ambiguity, but they're rendered unambiguous this time.


Mike: And the thing is, I just watched the original Total Recall -- it could have been improved upon.


Matt: Dis. Uh. Gree. I disagree! Improve the original TOTAL RECALL? How can you improve upon sublime perfection.


Mike: There's a lot of hamming for the camera in that movie. Michael Ironside's friend with the glasses? Oh, puh-leeze.


Matt: If I knew you were going to use this as an excuse to insult Lord Schwarzenegger, I would not have agreed to this conversation. Mike, a little person prostitute stabs a man in the stomach while he's shooting the machine gun.


Mike: I have no problem with Arnold. What's around him isn't always great.


Matt: And thus was greatness invented.


Mike: The thing is, this isn't a great side of the argument for me to be on because, in comparison to the remake, I'm going to agree with your points. Plus, there's a lot of cussing for no reason. Which is nice.


Matt: I think you'll agree that compared to the remake, the original is Citizen Kane. (If Orson Welles had three breasts.)


Mike: But there are little things in the original that I like. I love that, as an afterthought, the lab assistant says, "Blue sky on Mars? Haven't seen that one before," right before Quaid's procedure. And, guess what? There is blue sky on Mars by the end of the movie. So, is it real or not? But the remake doesn't take the time to do anything like that. Though, we do get a very long chase through an elevator shaft.


Matt: Most of the movie is set in shafts of various kinds. There hasn't been a movie since this many shafts since the Shaft reboot with Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree.


Mike: Fitting, because anyone paying to see Total Recall does get the shaft. In the new version, Quaid reads The Spy Who Loved Me.


Matt: Because in the future, people will forego tablets for old paperbacks.


Mike: To be fair, The Fall might not have Wi-Fi support. I have to admit, The Fall didn't look like a terrible commute. Actually, I would probably look forward to it every day for some well deserved down time. I'd take The Fall over the 6 train any day.


Matt: The Fall is this tunnel that connects what's left of England and what's left of Australia and people use it to get to work. I didn't catch this myself but someone else said it took 17 minutes to go from one continent to the other. We need an obsessive physicist to tell us how fast The Fall has to travel to go through the entire planet in 17 minutes.


Mike: Which is less time than it takes me to get from 86th St. to Astor Place using the 4,5,6 in Manhattan every morning. Can't we figure that out on our own? What's the diameter of Earth?


Matt: I am pretty sure we can't. This is why we do what we do: Because we're idiots. The speed it would take to do that is implausible to start with -- and then they start climbing on the exterior of the thing while it's in motion.


Mike: I looked it up. The diameter is 7,926.41.


Matt: So it's moving 466 miles per minute. 27,975 miles an hour (I think. Again, I'm an idiot.) Not even Arnold could climb the outside of a ship moving at 27,000 miles an hour. But Colin Farrell does it!


Mike: He does. But, my point remains the same: That would be a fun commute.


Matt: Fair enough. Next question: How did a civilization decimated by chemical warfare, running out of land and precious natural resources build a tunnel through the center of the earth?


Mike: Gumption? We don't know when the wars happened, right? Maybe it existed before?


Matt: For what purpose? The whole point is they can't get there any other way.


Mike: Seventeen minutes! I mean, if we could build it now, I'm in. I'd take that over a 22-hour flight.


Matt: There's only one Fall though, right? We only ever see one, they only refer to it as "The" Fall.


Mike: There could have been others, but maybe they had other nifty names? The Descent. The Jump.


Matt: Well here was my point: How does an entire continent of people commute on that one tiny thing? Later an entire nation continent invades the other via The Fall.


Mike: Couldn't they just turn it off?


Matt: Right! You know they're coming. There's only one way they're getting in!
Just like unplug it!


Mike: Like, "Nice try, tough guys." Then we see a big lever go from "on" to "off."
Or like Johnny unplugging the runway lights in Airplane! If he hadn't passed away, they could have even brought in Stephen Stucker to do that scene. Or maybe drop a grenade down the shaft? Or a bowling ball. I mean, at those speeds ...


Matt: Everyone in "The Colony" knows he's coming, too. The whole plot involves Cohaagen, the president of the UFB (and the Hair Club For Men) using sneaky tactics to destabilize relations between the Colony and the UFB. Setting up fake terrorist attacks, then blaming it on the Colony. Then after all that planning and subterfuge, he just invades! And HE leads the invasion! Personally! With a knife!


Mike: I really wish Cohaagen's office had a framed Attack of the Clones poster hanging in it.


Matt: The whole movie is very Attack of the Clones. The faceless, synthetic soldiers, the totally incomprehensible political subplot, the fact that the bad guy is called "Chancellor."


Mike: Don't forget the flying car chase. Or the fact that both Chancellors eventually die by falling down a shaft, then exploding.


Matt: Both also have really fake hair.


Mike: Seriously. That seems like a very rare way to die. Speaking of Cranston: Doesn't he have enough Walter White goodwill to not have to take roles like this? I did like him in Drive.


Matt: Yeah he was great in Drive. Cable TV doesn't pay the bills I guess. He was placed in a Rekall machine and given the fake memories of signing the contract?


Mike: Walter White would smash his television in disgust if this movie came on cable. "I'm the one who knocks!" Let's talk about the scenes that are similar to the original movie. What did you think of the, "Quaid, you're in a dream, come back to us," scene? I mean, taking a pill seems so much more reasonable than, "Shoot this woman in the face."


Matt: Maybe what they were going for was "This all makes so little sense it must be a dream!" Because why would Rekall send in some random friend into his dream, instead of his wife? And why would the wife be there, but outside, wrapped in a blanket? And, yes, as you said, why would he need to prove his understanding by shooting someone in the face? In the original scene it was a Rekall scientist (he's seen earlier in the film in a commercial for Rekall, too) that tries to convince him. In this one, it's the dude who told him not to go to Rekall. Why would he agree to do something like that if he hates the place? The whole scene feels designed to deliberately undermine the possibility it is a dream, to discount the possibility. In which case, why even have it? Because that scene was in the first movie. That's the reason for just about everything in the movie that doesn't make sense. Why is there a woman with three breasts? Because there was one in the first movie.


Mike: You're right, that makes no sense. The woman in the first movie was a mutant on Mars. Now it's just a passerby on Earth. She gives Quaid directions. That's it.


Matt: In the first movie, she has three breasts because of radiation. In the second movie, she has three breasts because of the woman in the first movie who had three breasts.


Mike: I mean, look, a lot of these things -- like the "two weeks" woman -- are obviously wink-winks at the original. But why make callbacks to a movie that people like better? "Hey, wouldn't you rather be watching the original movie instead?" "Yes." Did you miss the Mars element?


Matt: Not necessarily; but I don't understand why you replace the Mars element with this even more convoluted two-continent commuting system. Was there anything about this version you liked better?


Mike: Hm. I did like the hand phone.


Matt: Some of the characters have cell phones built right into their hands. Yeah, that was kind of nifty. And you could see both why someone would want that and how that would be a terrible idea in a civilization that is constantly monitoring their citizens. I thought Kate Beckinsale was fun to watch. She's clearly enjoying herself. She gets to basically play both Lori and Richter. She's married to Quaid and then chases him around like a badass.


Mike: Yes. And I felt that she watched the original and gave her performance based on the original. In other words: She was interesting and fun. Though, she was also the T-2000 as far as her indestructibility.


Matt: She is pretty indestructible. Beckinsale is married to the director, and after watching this movie I am totally convinced he loves his wife. Because he spends most of his energy making her look awesome. And he succeeds! On the one hand, maybe he should have spent at least a little time making his hero look cool. But whatever. A man has to have priorities.


Mike: You know who it's obvious the director is not married to? Bryan Cranston.


Matt: Heh.

Matt Singer is a critic for Indiewire and ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.


Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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