When John Carter opened to a deafening silence in March, it somehow made Mars seem pretty bland, despite the fact that author Edgar Rice Burroughs had to write about under an assumed name a century ago, lest people think him quite mad. This was largely because Rice’s story took most of that century to make it to the big screen, by which time its ideas had been cannibalized pretty thoroughly, both by sci-fi authors and Hollywood blockbusters. One of the most famous of the latter was 1990’s Total Recall (very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s classic, very short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”), in which Mars was reimagined as a futuristic Wild West mining town. Now that we’re on the other side of summer, here comes the traditional 20-year reboot, with the Red Planet now taken right out of the equation — and not three days after it hits theaters, the whole world’s eyes are on Mars, thanks to a rover which may represent the first step in actually realizing colonization. Now you know why the suits are always complaining about the pressure they’re under.
Whether you felt the original Recall was a classic had largely to do with your feelings about notorious director Paul Verhoeven, who shares Stanley Kubrick’s cold contempt for humanity and exactly none of his vision. Verhoeven did know his popcorn, however, which meant that his rampant misogyny, rock-video sense of sleaze, bad jokes, and worse violence actually worked in the original’s favor: an action movie about futuristic anomie should be troubling and confusing, whereas, say, a comedy about strippers, not so much.
The remake is the work of Len Wiseman, architect of the Underworld films, which means it looks fantastic. Not just the big-budget backdrops, but the color palette, the action sequences, and the beautiful fleshbots standing in for the cast. It also means that, even more than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brutally silly tour de force, everything’s surface-deep, and now, not even all that fun. Like the Underworld franchise, it’s soapy and pretentious, a deadly combo for an action movie. Arnold and, yes, co-star Sharon Stone were movie stars, not actors; they had enough movie-star presence to keep you hooked. Colin Farrell, bland pretty-boy king of the remakes (Miami Vice, SWAT, Fright Night), has none of the Governator’s grinning, predatory righteousness. He looks less like someone who lost his identity than someone who misplaced their wallet.
As nice as it is to see a Recall redux where every single female character isn’t some kind of prostitute, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel are still furniture. Strong, confident, empowered, yet hot furniture. The bad jokes (“Consider that a divorce!”) are replaced by weak attempts at social statements (Obama’s on the $1!) The fighting is ridiculous, even more contemptuous of physics than you’d expect — what works in the supernatural realm doesn’t cut it in the same genre as The Bourne Identity. The original was grisly in its thrice-breasted, sweaty, glad-rag ugliness, but at least it was a convincing dystopia. The Recall of 2012 is slick, airless, and smothered in the familiar, which is death for a movie about loss of identity, especially so in a post-Fincher, post-Inception multiplex. It’s like rebooting Robocop as an app.
And again, Mars is out. The oppressed worker-state is now located in the bowels of Earth, accessible only by a giant, aircraft-sized elevator, and its the movie’s one innovation — half credit for the hovercar chase scene, which is far from original but fully realized. The proles are held down by the same evil overlord, now a politician instead of a businessman, and protected by Stormtroopery things that looked like they just got shipped in from a Japanese robot expo.
That’s it; that’s the new. What remains is a scene-by-scene remake of the film (not the story) with expensive visuals but no ideas and no sense of style. One can only wonder why a studio would spend slightly more in inflation-adjusted dollars on this reboot, then outfit it with b-listers and dump it on the airless mountainside of the August movie season. Then again, that advance whiff of fail was probably why lots of moviegoers skipped the chance to watch an actor with no personality pretend he has two, opting to stay at home instead and look at actual pictures of Mars. Reality? You win this round.