Total Recall

September 8th, 2012

Was this an elaborate attempt to make me feel bad for pointing out how unconvincing I found some elements of the Dark Knight Rises?  Because, man, I recant.  Right from the off, this re-imagining of Paul Verhoeven’s re-imagining of Phillip K Dick’s short story asks you to swallow some real humdingers.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this film posits a future in which hundreds of thousands of people commute daily from Australia to Europe via a giant tunnel through the earth’s core.  If only that was as unbelievable as it got.  For the first hour or so, I was actually quite enjoying it, I must confess.  It didn’t take itself half as seriously as Dark Knight Rises so I could cut it some slack and appreciate the excellent design work, if a little Blade Runnery, and the quality action sequences, but pretty soon I was wondering – must they lavish so much skill, effort and money on such incoherent material?  The cumulative effect of that much unbelievableness became quite wearing, and by the end I was squirming.  Nothing really made sense, and not in a ‘is it all a dream’ way, just in a ‘is it all a lot of bollocks’ way.

Maybe it’s my rose tinted glasses, but as I recall (totally), the 1990 version may have been shiny and cheesy but it was fast, ruthless, funny, had memorable characters and it actually made some kind of sense.  It was about greed.  Villain Ronnie Cox, the undisputed champion of late 80s corporate sleazeballs, reprising his role as a corporate sleazeball in Paul Verhoeven’s other late 80s SF classic about greed Robocop (also being remade, I understand, probably incoherently) had a scheme any board of discerning sleazeballs could understand.  He wanted to suppress a wonderful technology that would give free air to all so he could maintain control of Mars and make money selling air.  In the 2012 version, when villain Bryan Cranston starts clumsily expounding, his plan makes sense in literally no way at all.  In 1990 the rebels were attempting to overthrow Ronnie Cox and free Mars.  In 2012 rebel leader Bill Nighy reveals that his rebels haven’t even apparently been doing any fighting.  Just hiding in a sealed cathedral in a poison gas cloud.  When its windows are smashed, incidentally, no one suffocates.  You know when actors of the calibre of Bill Nighy and Bryan Cranston look, well, a little bit like rubbish actors, you’ve got a problem.  In 1990, everyman hero Doug Quaid discovers his life is a lie and he’s been manipulated into doing evil by his past self, who was a total shit, but is it all a hallucination anyway?  In 2012, everyman hero Doug Quaid discovers his life is a lie and he’s been manipulated into doing evil by his past self, who was actually a really decent guy, but … oh, never mind.

Have our storytelling skills really regressed so far in 22 years?

Holy crap, is it really 22 years since the Schwarzenegger version?

I’m old.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on September 8th, 2012.

39 comments so far

  • Matt says:

    Mate, remember the hideous Conan remake too?

  • Josh says:

    I was sort of tempted to go watch it, but I realized that I loved the original with Schwarzenegger so much that that there was little point. It was never going to measure up.

    Like you say, it was cheesy, but somehow, since then, a lot of movies (and those who make them, of course) have forgotten how to have fun, and to make it fun to watch for, you know, the viewers.

    I’m old too. There should be an old man’s club for Sci-fi/Fantasy geeks or something.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I most certainly do remember it:
    Funny, actually, my review of that is very similar to this.

    The 90s one was cheesy, but it was coherent, and like a lot of Verhoeven’s better stuff had an acid satirical edge in there about media, government, capitalism. For all the visual grit on display in the new one it felt very soft and disposable. The 90s one also played the – is this all a delusion/identity crisis stuff a lot more convincingly, for my money. Just a much better film all round.

  • Mason K says:

    Storytelling has regressed that far, it’s why Hollywood relies on remakes of known quantities. There’s a built in audience no matter how bad the movie is. The skill to sell a new story on its own merits just isn’t present anymore.

  • Grey Freeman says:

    I liked how there were no Australians in it. Also how Hollywood couldn’t bear to have an English rebel leader, forcing Bill to put on an American accent. I also liked how the London tube looked an awful lot like the New York subway.

  • Giasone says:

    I haven’t seen the new TR, but I suspect your assessment is spot on. It was canned on the TV programme, ‘At the Movies’, here in Australia ( ). I can’t understand why they even bothered to make this – especially since Schwarzenegger is still well and truly alive.


    Like cover versions of great songs, there really isn’t any point to remaking something unless you can ether improve on what has gone before or provide a completely new and worthwhile take on the material – such as the version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ with David Suchet. For example, the film versions of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ were pointless, given that the TV series of the 1980’s and 1990’s respectively were virtually perfect. And IMHO the latest versions of Sherlock Holmes are nothing compared to the TV series starring the late and great Jeremy Brett, who surely provided the definitive depiction of Conan Doyle’s hero, just as Suchet has done with Poirot.

    But it seems we’ve entered into a period when the entertainment industry is trying to cash in on what it thinks is nostalgia for the past. And so we get an ongoing parade of film versions of old TV series, movies and fairy-tales. Of course, some are better than the originals, like the last ‘The War of the Worlds’, whatever its flaws. And some films and TV shows beg to be completely remade (e.g. ‘Blake’s 7’) or updated (e.g. ‘I, Claudius’ , ‘The Owl Service’ and ‘The Devil’s Crown’).

    As for plausibility, this is what turns me off most sci-fi and fantasy – implausible science (e.g. space ships that can’t be damaged by nuclear weapons, even when they don’t even have some kind of force shield; or aliens with acidic blood that destroys metal in seconds) or supernatural stuff that just doesn’t add up – e.g. why would a wizarding family be poor if wizards can practice transfiguration? Why can’t someone use transfiguration to turn a giant Cerberus thing into a poodle? Indeed, why can’t some powerful wizard who can teach dark magic just turn even the darkest wizard into a toad? And why would a wizard’s owl both take the mail he sends and deliver the mail he receives? Wouldn’t he receive mail via other people’s owls?

    Is it because some writers and directors just don’t think things through because they get carried away with the magic-and-monsters trip?

    PS: I have yet to find any problems of plausibility in Joe’s stories. 😉

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Please don’t get me started on the bizarre incoherences in this film. So most of the earth has been rendered uninhabitable by clouds of deadly poison gas. But the gas doesn’t blow around at all, it stays in one place? Australia has no Australians, but the Federation of Britain or whatever (boo) which seemed on the map to be most of Europe, has no Europeans. Everyone seems to be American, or possibly Asian. Cranston doesn’t really seem to have any reason to invade the Colony except some mumbo jumbo about destroying it to rebuild, but he makes it known he’s going to invade. He only seems to take one cylinder full of soldiers, though, and to a very obvious place of egress. Would the Colony not close the Fall themselves? Not hard to destroy, you wouldn’t think. It’s like France declaring war on Britain then trying to invade up the channel tunnel with three minibus loads of robots. And once the Fall is destroyed, everyone acts as though everything’s great. But presumably the Colony is still at war with an irate Britain. They must have relied on Britain economically for something before (jobs, we are rather vaguely handwaved), what happens now they’re cut off? Then there’s just an arbitrarily brief period of weightlessness in the middle of the fall, the rest of the time gravity’s normal – even though the thing must be moving at tens of thousands of miles an hour? I could go on. A long time. And the annoying thing is, none of this is really necessary in any way. The setup of the original film made acceptable soft SF sense.

  • pedro says:

    havent seen this one yet,but the conan remake was quite atrocious,do we expect more since we have fond memories from the previous versions of the movie,i mean the one being remade,even without seeing it we expect certain lines to be crossed and scenes to flow a especific way..i guess.
    So joe what is your favourite medieval,sword and fantasy kinda movie???

  • Mason K says:

    I should have specified in my last comment that I’m referring to the movie industry. Obviously, storytelling in books is alive and well; otherwise, I wouldn’t be following this blog.

  • Iain says:

    Len Wiseman is up there with Paul W Anderson as one of the greats of action film directing…

    It takes a certain type of skill to turn a Vampire/Werewolf civil war and turn it into something as awful as Underworld. I never had any intention of going to see this remake and your review makes it even less likely.

    Cautiously optimistic about Dredd though.

  • Jay Long says:

    It’s a sad fact that the reason why the first movie was awe worthy just doesn’t exist in modern movies (cheesy, shameless brilliance!)

    That and I’m fast losing confidence in the whole concept of translating a book to a movie. If it is not a labour of love (Peter Jackson with the Tolkien books) then just stop ! I shudder to think what they will do to the Wheel of Time series.

    Also on a side note .. Thanks for a great read Joe!

  • Dan says:

    I thought it sucked. Walked out with about 20 minutes left in the film. I have no idea how it ended and I just don’t care. If anyone wants to see a great action movie, check out the Raid: redemption.

  • Adam Parkinson says:

    So, no three boobed ladies hanging about in bars? Doubt I want to see this version.

  • Pete says:

    Damn, I had almost forgotten about the Conan reboot, now I will have to try and abolish the memory again. Why are there so few good sci-Fi or fantasy flicks these days? By which I mean well written and not overburden with pointless fx. Yet tv seems to be brimming with great stuff; Game of Thrones obviously, but even shows like Falling Skies, while mawkish are well written. It seems the bigger the budget the less need for a plot (hopefully The Hobbit will be an exception). The constraints of cost seem to make the makers far more creative and indeed adventurous. Thrones isn’t afraid to stretch it’s audience but mainstream movies think that a showy fx shot will blind us to 2D characters and dodgy scripts.

  • Naith says:

    Bugger! Frightening. That was what I feared. That is why I’ve yet to see it. Not that the original film was so amazing, but it was a coherent story and a good watch, with some memorable sequences. The Doctor from Voyager as the Johnnie Cab, three breasted mutants, the hologram is sweating ( ! ) moments. I was dubious when I saw the cast. Dubious when I heard about the project. I am still probably going to settle down into a masochistic hell for a few hours and watch something new do something old badly ( again ). Elements of the past and future coming together, to create something not quite as good as either… Boosh man…

  • Peter says:

    Damn, I had almost forgotten about the Conan reboot, now I will have to try and abolish the memory again. Why are there so few good sci-Fi or fantasy flicks these days? By which I mean well written and not overburden with pointless fx. Yet tv seems to be brimming with great stuff; Game of Thrones obviously, but even shows like Falling Skies, while mawkish are well written. It seems the bigger the budget the less need for a plot (hopefully The Hobbit will be an exception). The constraints of cost seem to make the makers far more creative and indeed adventurous. Thrones isn’t afraid to stretch it’s audience but mainstream movies think that a showy fx shot will blind us to 2D characters and dodgy scripts.

  • Curtis says:

    Agreed Dan, The Raid: Redemption was an awesome flick!!

  • Jacob says:

    A version/remake/sequel of a famous science fiction film with Colin Farrell in it, released in the year 2012.

    That sentence right there convinces me to not even bother checking it out. I might glance it out of the corner of my eye if someone else is viewing it. Maybe in the break room at an undisclosed date.

  • Spot says:

    It’s a shame that it seems that Hollywood has forgotten about Verhoeven. We can all speculate about the reasons why, but I do miss someone who can make a move that is both critical and highly entertaining.

    Now he’s doing some (somewhat interesting) stuff back in Dutchland, but our little country can’t cough up the dough that is needed to make a high profile movie like Hollywood can. It really is a shame.

  • T.C. says:

    I work as a 35mm projectionist in a multiplex, though not for much longer so I get to see the new releases I splice together on the first run through. It used to be the highlight of my week, getting in early on a Friday morning going at it balls to the wall, changing ads, trailers and posters, before settling down to watch my choice, with my feet up in the best screen with my lunch and a large cup of coffee.

    Suffice to say, I have sat through so many truly awful films, rehashes and sequels that I rarely take the time to watch these days, instead taking lunch in the booth with a book in my hand, only jumping up to jam my head to the viewing window to check each splice as it rolls through the projector gate.

    It’s very rarely a film captures my imagination and very often it’ll be a cheap independent effort that has managed, by the skin of it’s teeth, to get a limited release and as such will only be played in independent and art house cinemas.

    My branch is relatively small, just six screens but last week we were showing 14 films and not one of them made any lasting impression on me. A sad state of affairs. I will say this though, I think my disenchantment was largely responsible for my return to reading and in turn to writing. To me, it doesn’t matter how you dress a film up; If the basic storytelling, character motivations and pacing aren’t up to scratch, then what’s the point, aside from the obvious – making money.

    And as for length Joe, you think you’ve got it bad? Try carrying a 2hr 45min acrylic print, with an advertising head of approx. 20 mins the whole length of a projection booth, several times a day. My vertabrae will be only too glad when the planned digital installations render me obsolete.

  • Graham says:

    From the reviews of total recall I expected some ok action and a silly MacGuffin that made no sense and wasn’t worth paying attention too. It delivered…. although if I had paid for it rather than seeing it on my pay monthly card I would probably be more angry. Kate Beckinsale was good.

    I have higher expectations for Dredd tonight, although I am furious I am not allowed the option to see it in 2d.

  • Adam A. says:

    Hold on now, Joe… are you saying you went into that last Batman film (a comic to movie, albeit exceptional in that company) taking it more seriously than a Phil Dick film?

    And didn’t you also tear Prometheus a new one as well?

    In retro, there appears to be lots of great films in previous eras because we are no longer experiencing the time between their releases. But there have ALWAYS been tons of stinkers and few exceptional films. And many of these films considered great now were mercilessly panned when they were released (*cough* Bladerunner *cough*).


    @Graham, yeah the no-2D-Dredd thing makes me not want to give this film my money. A terrible decision, proving a complete disconnect with the target audience. Booooo.

  • Dan says:

    Can’t wait to see dredd! Those of you in the UK, tell me, how was it? I have to wait two more weeks here in US. I for one am looking forward to the 3d. From what I understand it was really meant to be watched in that format. The exploding heads and slo-mo require it.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Adam A,
    There wasn’t much feeling of Dick left about this version, if you ask me. I hold Batman to a higher standard than this because it takes itself so much more seriously, I think that does make a difference to suspension of disbelief, yes.

    But I totally agree on the rose tinted spectacles. We remember the good stuff and forget the crappier aspects of films, let alone the many crap films of the past. Plus people tend to remake things that were at least relatively good, if not classic, the first time around, so they automatically set themselves up with a tough comparison. They’d be better off remaking really rubbish films…

  • Graham says:

    Dredd was pretty good, not amazing but it did what it set out to do. Strong characters and brutal bloody violence. 3d was shite and annoying. Might give the new res evil film a miss if it is also 3d only, the franchise is a guilty pleasure but I can’t stand being charged more for something that makes the film worse!

    I have read some Dick and am not a huge fan, but it all seemed too way out there to translate onto the screen.

  • Graham says:

    I suppose Dredd was an example where it couldn’t be worse than the Sly Stallone version!

  • AntMac says:

    I also am not a huge fan of Dick. Not that I am saying being so is wrong or anything, I guess tastes vary.

    Actually, I think Dick is kind of a fad,highly over-rated, something people like because other people tell them “Oh, you will love Dick, I know you will”. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time with kind of “hipster” friends who were always trying to convince me to give Dick a try. Eventually I gave in to the peer pressure, and even though my first experience was distasteful, they kept on pumping Dick to me. Finally I tried the most famous Dick, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but the movie?, the movie is ten times better. 😀
    “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is written exactly like a disturbed Dick held the pen. The end is just shambolic, even if one didn’t know of Dicks mental problems, read that book and you can guess at them.

  • AntMac says:

    I am so sorry, I couldn’t help it. lol.

  • Kris says:

    I actually rewatched the old Total Recall a few weeks before seeing the new one. About once every five minutes (I’m being generous), I was thinking, “Damn, this is much worse then I remember it”. Now, of course, after having seen the reboot, I once again look fondly on the original. Reboots and politics, always the lesser of the two evils.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    You may not like Dick, that of course is your choice. There’s no doubt that some Dick is better and some worse, and I doubt anyone really enjoys having Dick aggressively shoved down their throat. But I think you have to accept that other people may, entirely in good faith, love, admire, and appreciate all that Dick can do, and they should be able to pursue their preferences without being judged in any way. For them, Dick is very definitely not ‘a fad’. My advice would be to just give Dick a try. Maybe start with a short one.

  • Giasone says:

    I haven’t read much of PKD’s work – virtually nothing, in fact. But I did like that little tale of his about the king of the elves. Any recommendations?

  • Patrick says:

    lots of innurendos going on around here.

    I have a policy of not watching film remakes or film versions of books I’ve read, so I’ll be missing this.
    Will give Dredd a try though because its a new film set in the same universe which is a bit different

  • Adam A. says:

    AntMac and Joe: nice.

  • Tomek says:

    Hey Joe, if you’re aching for a good low sci-fi action movie, I recommend Dredd. It’s violent, with lots of action and gore, stays true to graphic novels and 10 times better than Total Recall…

  • Tomek says:

    PS and yes, Dredd comes in 2D as well, despite of the title 😀

  • Daniel Horvat says:

    Agree 100%

  • Bob says:

    I was so stoned in the theater when i saw this that I couldn’t remember any of the horrible details. Thanks for reminding me.

  • Brian Turner says:

    It doesn’t have PKD’s ending then? Total Recall was an okay film, but the entire point of We Can Remember It For You For Wholesale was the ending!

    Or, to a point. 🙂

  • Adrian says:

    Hi Joe,

    Love your books, and especially the characters….and thanks for saving me from Total Recall……dodged a bullet!

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