This is going to sound crazy, but I have this memory … It’s faded, like so many from the acid-house era, but I can clearly see Arnold Schwarzenegger playing this blue-collar kinda guy who comes home one day and finds his loving and beautiful wife, played by Sharon Stone, suddenly trying to kill him. I’m sure it was real: Who could forget Arnie double-tapping Stone with a burst from his auto-pistol before dropping one of his patented eff-you one-liners: “Consider that a divorce.”
But wait: It’s 2012 and I’m sitting in the cinema watching Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall,” and it’s the exact same scene, only it’s not Arnie but Colin Farrell, and his wife doesn’t look like a deranged aerobics instructor but that Goth chick with the posh accent from “Underworld.” What gives?
Neurons flash: Suddenly it’s 1982 and I’m watching the rain-spattered neon-tinted cyber-Chinatown streets of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” as hover-cars whiz past the buildings. Harrison Ford is talking with an immaculately coiffed Sean Young about implanted memories, and chilly washes of Vangelis synths swell on the soundtrack … Ford’s detective is looking for some androids from “the colonies.”
But I wake up, and I’m back in 2012, and there’s Farrell again, racing through the streets of “The Colony,” which are filled with rain and neon, parasol-bearing Asians and heavy-looking tattooed Caucasians. The hover-cars are more numerous, the soundtrack is all wobble-bass dubstep, but otherwise it’s the exact same place.
This is getting eerie. I watch as Farrell’s character begins to suspect he has false memories implanted in his brain, that the dreams he is having of a different life are in fact the reality. I know how he feels. One movie image superimposes itself on top of another; they’re all becoming one vague, indistinct blur, like the scramble suit Keanu Reeves wears in “A Scanner Darkly.” (And guess what? Farrell also dons one of those, as “Total Recall” — originally based on a Philip K. Dick story — seems to lift bits from every cool Dick adaptation to date.)
Hollywood’s constant flow of remixes and remakes — of which “Total Recall” is but one of many — seems intent on proving a point: No cinematic memory is so cherished or enduring that we can’t replace it, or at least muddy it, with a new one. “Total Recall” is practically smacking us in the face with this belief: Look, there’s Bill Nighy sagely telling Farrell how “the past is a construct of the mind. But the heart wants to live in the present.”
Even so, Farrell’s character in the film, Douglas Quaid, suspects that something’s up, and he values his dreams because he feels them more intensely. He’s correct: Some memories are more cherished than others, and the new “Total Recall” won’t even be replacing its predecessor, let alone “Blade Runner.”
There’s a reason for that: Wiseman, like so many modern directors, has an impressive arsenal of digital effects at his disposal, and can produce some thrilling action sequences — the hover-car chase is like the opening of “The Fifth Element” taken to extremity, and truly well done — but the film leaves no lasting impression because there are no characters.
There’s a big gaping hole where Douglas’ personality should be; all we’re given is a confused look and the ability to take out a roomful of cops in 30 seconds. Ditto for Kate Beckinsale as his treacherous wife or Jessica Biel as his rebel girlfriend: They spend so much time running, jumping and shooting that they feel more like avatars than people. The experience is like watching someone else play a game of “Assassin’s Creed” — it’s no fun if you don’t have any skin in the game.
Another flash, and I wake up. I’m strapped to a chair with wires running into me. My eyes are propped open and I’m being fed a steady visual feed of the chase scenes from the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series. Resistance is futile. A metallic voice from somewhere behind my head asks me, “How do you like it?” Over and over again. My mouth tries to formulate various responses but I find to my horror that only two words can pass my lips: “Awesome” and “Cool.” Wait, there’s a third! “Totally.”