Sunday, August 5, 2012

It's deja vu all over again again. Again.

OK, just caught “Total Recall,” though strictly speaking, it should be “Total Re-recall.”

Yes. It's a remake. Of "Total Recall." That Schwarzenegger movie from 1990? Yeah, that one. Seriously? Yeah, seriously. Why would anybody ... Well, they did.

I was just as shocked as you were. But facts are facts.

Fact: As improbable as it may seem, director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback felt compelled to do a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale.” Fact: Somebody convinced the money people that a remake would make money. Fact: They actually made this movie.

OK, I got over it. I accepted it. I gave the 2012 remake a chance. I even got my !@!#$ hopes up. After all, the trailers looked great. The promised movie would’ve been great. And now I've seen it.

Well, the movie looks great. Lousy future rendered in Academy Award-level CGI. A beautifully painted nightmare. But not a great movie. Why not? I'll get back to that.

First, here’s a Total Recap, in easy-to-swallow capsule form:

The year is 2084. The remake substitutes Australia for Mars and the UK (rebranded as the UFB) for Earth. (It’s a post chemical World War situation: those two islands are the only habitable territories left.) As Earth exploited Mars, so the UFB keeps its boot heel on Australia. Geography shifts, but the plot outline doesn’t. As before, Doug Quaid, a working class slob, goes to Rekall to implant false memories of an exciting life as a spy. This triggers his buried identity as a real spy. Complications, double-crosses and chase scenes ensue. Again.

Oh God, you're choking on the capsule? Here. Drink this glass of water. You OK, now? Great. As I was saying ...

Basically, Earth turns into the UFB and Mars becomes Australia. Schwarzenegger played Quaid the last time; Colin Ferrel plays him now. They go through shit, and it's more or less the same shit. Other than that, it's pretty much the same movie. But this time around, it’s not as fun. Why?

To put it another way, why was the first movie so much fun?

Consider the material.

The weirdness of it. The rules broken. The odd bedfellows involved.

Dick’s original short story was, like most of his stories, a parable for his convoluted gnostic philosophy. What is reality? It was a joke when The Firesign Theatre said it. To Dick, that question was no joke. It drove him nuts and compelled him to pop pills and pound out tales like this. Surprisingly, Verhoeven took the seed of Dick's crazed little story and grew it into a 113-minute joke -- an over-the-top, cheesy sleaze fest. Surprisingly, drug-fueled religious mania and a cynical dirty mind from Holland made a great combination. Two great tastes that tasted great together.

But they shouldn't have.

The original movie had every reason to fail. (The way that Verhoeven's execrable adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers failed.) The 1990 movie broke all the rules. Rule-breaking in itself is not a rule. The first movie succeeded in spite of itself. Not that you asked, but I'm going to tell you why anyway.

Verhoeven's adaptation had two levels. Surface level: Comic book action movie in which conventional action hero defeats the evil forces opposing him and saves the world. (In this case Mars.) Subversive subtext level: This is all bullshit. The hero is an ordinary slob who has paid to have a comic book dream. The plot is idiotic for a reason. It's not real.

The first movie shared DNA with Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In that movie, Sam Lowry, a clerk with comic book dreams of heroism, went to war against the State to win the woman of his dreams. The State lobotomized him. But in his mind, Sam dreamed a dream of heroic triumph. Objectively, he's a drooling idiot. Subjectively, Sam was a hero out of Joseph W. Campbell.

In the first movie, Quaid's fantasy was similarly immature. He dreamed that he was "an invincible secret agent from Mars who's the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he's a lowly construction worker."

In "Brazil," we saw the hero's triumph -- and in the next scene see that he's been lobotomized.

The 1990 "Total Recall" also shows us the hero's triumph. Then it ends.

But Quaid may also have been lobotomized. He may also be living in a drooling idiot's fantasy. Don't take my word for it. Verhoeven says so on the DVD commentary.

So, is it real or is it Rekall? The first movie bounced back and forth and never said yes or no. The second movie throws that out the window. Quaid is a spy. This is all real. There's no subtext. This is all really happening.

And that's why the movie ain't so great.

Short version.

Director Paul Verhoeven's 1990 "Total Recall" was an adaptation of SF writer Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" -- a dark, gnostic parable from 1966. The original movie was a freaky combination of Verhoeven's cynical, dirty-minded humor and Dick's crazed escape attempts from the prison of fake reality. The first movie was cheesy, sleazy, trippy, camp, over-the-top, hallucinatory, self-contradictory, disturbing, subversive -- and something we'd never seen before. The 2012 remake strips away Verhoeven's sneering jokes. It also strips away Dick's obsession with reality and illusion. What's left is a series of futuristic chase scenes, rendered in expensive, Academy Award-worthy CGI. The new movie looks great. But we've seen it before.

Additional thoughts.

Blade Runner was great because it was different and weird. If Blade Runner becomes a template, it's not great. Constant rain, Japanese advertising and flying cars won't make your SF movie a bloody masterpiece.

In terms of science literacy, an elevator through the earth's core from England to Australia transcends mere stupidity. This level of stupidity demands a new word. Not just stupid. Stooopid. Stooooopid.

The Matrix (a PKD rip-off if ever there was) was a cool movie. It worked. Once. OK? In 1999. Now let's move on. From now until the end of time, please spare us the bloody messianic revolutionaries spouting fortune cookie drivel. "The past is a construct in your mind. The truth is not in your head but in your heart." For the love of Christ, spare me. If there's a messianic revolutionary, make him a Dennis Leary asshole. Who never uses the passive voice. Please.

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