|"What kind of fantasy is this!?"|
Last week I was getting myself psyched up for Total Recall, a remake of the much lauded 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Colin Farrell stepping in for Schwarzenegger’s role. Part of my mental preparation involved poring over the critics’ reviews in the days before, and I was not completely shocked to see that they were less than enthused. I mean, it’s an action movie; dizzying graphics and endless gunfire are not the stuff of great depth. “Totally forgettable” the various headlines and reviews screamed. As far as the action sequences, yes, they were right. The constant chase and fight scenes were compared by some to video games, and with what video games look like these days, I can see that.
But here’s the thing; I HATE the action film genre, and a truly great video game should NEVER so much as resemble a movie (though the main author of this blog may disagree). So why was I interested in this movie? Dystopian themes of the Phillip K. Dick variety warm my heart, and the main plot points (which, if you don’t know them by now, you can learn about here) intrigued me. I also hoped to see a smarter performance of the Douglas Quaid/Hauser role by Colin Farrell, who redeemed it to a state worthy of PKD’s work, after Schwarzenegger made a joke of it.
Before Total Recall 2012, however, I needed to see the original (for the first time). The Arnold, Sharon Stone and the rest lived up to all the clichés I hate about action films, with an extra dose of cheese. What DID shock me about the reviews for the 2012 version was how enamored most critics seemed to be of the original. Slant magazine called it “a superlative 1990 sci-fi satire,” while Time Magazine criticized the remake for lacking its “vigor, density, humor and R-rated juice.” There was more than one gleeful reference to the sitcom-esque one-liner “Consider that a divorce.” WHAT? I hope the British writers of the Guardian piece “Total Recall remake: US critics dream of original” were laughing at their American counterparts even as they penned its title. The only way you can begin to justify such adulation is to assume that the critics last saw it 22 years ago and that they were adolescents at the time. After the first (admittedly over-the-top) action scene in the remake, they were more than ready to write it off completely. If they’d bothered to pay attention they would have noticed that the remake has a lot more depth, in addition to better acting and shows greater loyalty to PKD’s vision.
Both versions implicitly ask, is the sequence real or an illusion at the Rekall facility? If you pay attention and can read between the lines, it’s pretty clear that 1990 TR was reality, and 2012 TR is a Rekall fantasy. Why? I probably missed a lot of clues, but here is what I saw that gave me that impression:
Why Arnold Schwarzenegger was really Hauser:
- Sharon Stone overly lovey-dovey when comforting Doug about his opening scene bad dream (after 8 years of marriage? Yeah, right)
- From Dr. Edgemar’s speech when he’s trying to talk Doug down: “The walls of reality will come crashing down around you. One minute, you're the savior of the rebel cause; next thing you know, you'll be Cohaagen's bosom buddy.” Dr. Edgemar knew all this was true, and wanted to give Doug one last mind-fuck in case he got shot (as he did).
- There were a lot of conversations and scenes without Doug that only make sense if it was reality. Watch the movie again and you’ll see what I mean.
- The last video recording from Hauser: He admits that he was an asshole the whole time, and in a fantasy, this sort of revelation wouldn’t make sense.
Why Colin Farrell was really Douglas Quaid:
- After Doug awakens from the bad dream, Lori asks if he feels trapped in their marriage. She’s concerned but doesn’t get all kissy-face, more realistic after 7 years!
- Doug fails to tell Lori that he was NOT alone in his dream, that there was another woman who resembled her. This omission seems guilt-related, and Doug is not ready to admit his unhappiness with his marriage to himself.
- The Rekall technician predicts the ensuing movie sequence almost exactly: You can be a spy for Cohaagen… or for the resistance. Why not both?
- When the technician starts freaking out, he puts a gun to Doug’s head. WHY would a gun be involved, or even in the room for that matter? Then security forces bust their way in out of nowhere? Try to explain that as anything other than an illusion.
- During one of the scenes where Lori is hunting Doug down, she tells him “All this time I’ve been living with the greatest spy ever.” Hello ego trip! Who talks like that in reality?
- There’s no final revelation message from Hauser. He might even have been completely duped by Cohaagen into trapping Matthias. In a dream/fantasy, you don’t want to find out at the end that you were really a treacherous asshole all along.
- Doug kills Lori, and why not? The bitch had promised to talk with him about his issues before she ran off to work at the movie’s start, and then when he gets home she’s fast asleep after fighting the resistance all day. What nerve! Again, marital resentment.
- One of the major criticisms by reviewers was that the 2012 film had “no grace notes, or grace, no nuance, no humanity.” You don’t expect much nuance in a dream, do you? The dark, dystopian setting shot through with conflict and excitement seemed like a manufactured fantasy to me.
So this is what the remake was about: Douglas Quaid was a regular joe unhappy with his life, in a tepid marriage with a stressed out wife who couldn’t cater to his emotional needs. So he needed an escapist fantasy. He wanted to pretend he was someone important and awesome. He didn’t have strong political loyalties, allowing him to fight the resistance as well as the government. Ultimately, he resents the government most because he hates his life and the societal infrastructure that keeps him stuck where he is.
The last point to this film which I loved was that yes, it was an action film…but it was a dream. The film employs silly action motifs, but in posing them as an illusion, it shows how ridiculous all the oh-so-close brushes with death really are when they’re presented as real in most action movies. Even if I’m not a fan of this sort of escapism, I can understand why it might appeal to some people. But this kind of honesty is wonderfully refreshing!