We’re informed, at the opening of Total Recall, that it’s a time when living space is earth’s most valuable resource. Wait a minute. This isn’t science fiction. Go to Mumbai or Manhattan and they’ll tell you this is present-day reality. If filmmakers are going to set their films far in the future — the end of the 21st century, in this case — shouldn’t they be dreaming up scenarios that are worlds removed from today?

But the director, Len Wiseman, compensates with other touches that, if you’re a sci-fi nut, will leave you shivering with delight. A disembodied female voice instructs, with no more emphasis than that of a schoolteacher telling her wards to wipe their muddy shoes on the mat before entering class, “Please prepare for gravity reversal.” Elsewhere, palms begin to glow when the phones embedded in them go off, as if rendering literal the concept of handsets. And touch-and-erase messages from family show up on refrigerator doors.

Some things, however, haven’t changed. The drink of the dispossessed is still beer, a tall glass of which is set out in front of Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) as he moans to his best friend about not being happy the way his life has turned out. You may think he’s overstating things a tad, considering he wakes up every morning beside Lori (Kate Beckinsale). But we’re talking fantasy, after all — so that’s not enough. His prospects of escaping the assembly line at work are doomed because he hails from The Colony, the haven of have-nots.

Wiseman paints this realm in stoutly ethnic colours, with Asian-looking people (sometimes with parasols) surrounded by buildings with Cyrillic signage. The privileged, on the other hand, reside in the United Federation of Britain, which is mostly white, right down to the plastic-sheathed automaton troops that appear to have been imported wholesale from George Lucas’ production floor. An allusion to well-entrenched racism or just a screenwriter’s quirk? Only Wiseman can tell.

In order to take a break from his dull life, Quaid walks into Rekall, a dimly lit Chinese wonderland decorated with Buddha artefacts, in order to get a memory implant that will make him think he’s a super agent. All hell, inevitably, breaks loose. Like Paul Verhoeven’s take on this Philip K Dick story, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid, Wiseman’s film begins with a dream and descends into a nightmare. Quaid discovers that he is not who he thinks he is, and he spends the rest of the running time... well, running.

He is joined by Melina (Jessica Biel), and on their heels is a relentless, remorseless and nearly indestructible Lori. (Beckinsale treats the film as if it were a showreel for the casting directors of the next Terminator movie. The director, her husband, is only too happy to oblige.) Wiseman stages impressive action stretches, like the one that plays out like a sci-fi variation on the rooftop chases in the Bourne adventures. He has an eye for grungy sets that look lived in. What he lacks is Verhoeven’s sadistic vision.

The older Total Recall, defiantly R-rated, was splashed with a truckload of blood and its have-nots were grotesquely disfigured mutants on Mars, whose plight instantly drew us in. Wiseman pays homage to the earlier film in a scene where we think Quaid is disguised as a largish woman, but forced to hew to a box-office-friendly PG-13, he ends up with a generic action movie with no emotional beats, no gross-out shocks, no sex, no humour.

This version may be truer in spirit to Dick’s tale, but after one too many scenes spattered with grimy greys, I began to long for the pulpier pleasures of the earlier film, with its pop colours and its wisecrack-dispensing monolith of a leading man. When Farrell, ferreting for information about his identity, opens a safe deposit box, he finds passports featuring multiple identities, stacks of currency notes, and a hologram-enabling collar. When Schwarzenegger opened that box, there was just a folded piece of paper, which, when opened, revealed the legend: “For a good time ask for Melina.” Those really were simpler times.

Total Recall

Genre: Sci-fi/action

Director: Len Wiseman

Cast: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel

Storyline: A man in the future seeks out his real identity

Bottomline: Good action scenes, not much else

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011