This review has been a long time coming; not just because I’m lazy (although that’s a big part of it, let’s not kid ourselves), but also because I’ve been struggling for how to describe this half-arsed remake of a 90s Schwarzenegger sci-fi action film based on a Philip K. Dick novel starring Colin bloody Farrell and not much else, without just using the term ‘shit’ and leaving it at that.
It’s been out for some time now, so I don’t want to beat around the bush: if you were going to see this, you probably have, in which case you have my sympathy, and if you weren’t, you can rest assured that you made the right choice. The signs were there from the start; directed by Len Wiseman, which for all but the most optimistic filmgoers has to be a red flag at the very least (the original Underworld might have its rare few fans, but the rest of his oeuvre, consisting mostly of the sequels of that surprisingly tedious series, is largely and rightfully ignored), this limp and soulless film-by-numbers pales not only when compared to its 22-year-old alternative, but to pretty much any other hollywood sci-fi film since.
The story is set in a world which is stolen in equal parts from Blade Runner (an overpopulated ramshackle distopia) and Minority Report (hover cars, Colin Farrell), with a bunch of I, Robot’s robots thrown in as kid-certificate-friendly cannon fodder. For reasons that are neither interesting nor important, apparently only Britain and Australia (imaginatively referred to only as ‘The Colony’) remain in this polluted world, with ‘The Lift’ running between the two to bring workers through the core of the planet in double-quick time (no word on how this affects the Air Miles scheme). I would pause to talk about The Lift, but if you’re not just going to accept that then you’re not going to get very far into this film. Quaid (Farrell) is a factory worker with an attractive wife (Wiseman’s real-life spouse Kate Beckinsale, defending their ‘Most Blatant Nepotism’ award against a strong challenge from Paul W.S. Anderson and his constant use of wife Milla Jovovich), but a life in the tedious business of building genericobots for the Police leads him to seek solace in the bizarrely-out-of-place Rekall clinic, looking to have memories of being a secret agent implanted in his brain for reasons that are at best unimportant, and at worst non-existant. Part way through the procedure, government agents burst in, because it appears he was a secret agent all along, but had had his memory wiped, and he then proceeds to kill a lot of people in conspicuously sterile ways. Upon returning home, he informs his wife, who it turns out is already in on the whole gig, promptly turns evil (naturally at this point she adopts an English accent, as this is Hollywood shorthand for a character being evil, though why she previously, and every other character in Britain/Australia in the film, is American, is never explained), and forces him into a bland and uninteresting chase across CGI concrete rooftops, until he is rescued by the resistance, in the face of Jessica Biel, who explains that he is actually their turncoat hero, and then lots of robots, one almost-interesting exchange in a hotel lobby, Bill Nighy, Bryan Cranston and a great big explosion the end. Sorry, I might have condensed things a bit there, but trust me: you wouldn’t care about the details.
It might not be fair to compare this 12A to Schwarzenegger’s 18-rated 1990 effort, but I’m going to and I don’t care. Whereas that film competently captured the narrative’s central conceit (is the whole story real, or just the fake memories that central character Quaid wanted implanted at the Rekall clinic in the first place?), this version purposefully throws away any hint of ambiguity in the opening scene, and returns to beat the audience over the head with this fact later on, when one character states to his face Quaid shouldn’t bother about who he was/thought he was in the past, as the only thing that is relevant is what he does right now, so maybe he should stop thinking about hard questions and get back to murdering the group of people he doesn’t like at this current moment. Now, there’s a chance that this is a challenging exploration of the concept of existentialism on the part of Wiseman, but it does seem a lot more likely that he just wants to get back to shooting bloodless robots (12A, remember), and blowing up boring CGI stuff.
Furthermore, unlike Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 version, which used visual effects that were at least interesting, if not ground-breaking at the time, this version can only conjure generic CGI counterparts to repeat those beats. Here there is at least a nod to that version, as many of the original’s set pieces return, but it only serves to highlight how devoid of ideas this film really is, shoehorning them in for no reason other than titillation or nostalgia (or both, in one fleeting case that may leave some 12-year-olds with serious misconceptions about what a topless woman looks like).
Farrell is uninspiring as Quaid, as bland and unexciting as a man with no memory, and no desire to find one, could be. Beckinsale has a fair turn as his wife/pursuer, but falls firmly into the mould of ‘tough bitch’ once revealed to be ‘evil’. Biel is only there as a lazy love interest and plot momentum device, which leaves only Cranston coming out of the whole thing as even vaguely entertaining as sinister politician/evil stab-man Cohaagen, another in cinema’s long line of men who are in charge of the entire world but apparently don’t know how to delegate the murder of one annoying person.
Neutered, boring, pointless and over-long at nearly 2 hours, this flaccid film is one to skip.
On the plus side, this does rank fairly high in the pantheon of Colin Farrell films. Behind In Bruges, of course. And Phone Booth. And Minority Report. And The Recruit. And SWAT. OK that last one might be pushing it.