This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 14, July 2013. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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I’m a fan of the original Total Recall from 1990, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. Like the Stars Wars-obsessed character Tim Beasley from Spaced, who sets fire to all his memorabilia after being subjected to the terrible prequel The Phantom Menace, I was troubled when the ‘reboot’ version of the film was released last year. When filmmakers dig up the past – or the future – things can get digitally dirty.

The new Total Recall, directed by Len Wiseman, is about factory worker Douglas Quaid, played by a downbeat Colin Farrell, who seeks a mind-trip vacation to escape the frustrations of his life. To quell his restlessness, Quaid buys artificial memories of being a super spy from Rekall Inc. Then everything goes haywire. His wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, turns nasty – evil martial arts-style – and she and the police hunt him down with an arsenal of guns and robots. When Quaid is rescued by Jessica Biel’s character, resistance fighter Melina, he discovers his past as a double agent. With his hold on reality shaken, Quaid finds faith in his new fictional identity, and joins the fight against a corrupt government on a chemical warfare-ravaged Earth. It’s a stock-standard dystopian future tale played at blink- and-you’ll-miss-it speed.

Visually dark, the film draws on a strong cinematic pedigree. Neon-lit streets, cramped apartments and shady bars create a steamy atmosphere reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Later, at Rekall Inc., the glowing white halo of memory machinery and gestural computing – with its ritualistic hand signs and finger swipes –convey a feeling of quasi-religious faith, much like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report with its deity-like psychics and temple of pre-crime technology.

Engaging visuals aside, Wiseman’s remake fails to live up to its precursor. There has been a barrage of negative reactions from critics: Sandra Hall in the Age criticised the film’s dialogue, lack of originality and ‘ridiculously frenetic’ action, while Philip French in the Guardian was bored by the ‘long, repetitive chase with occasional pit stops’, and remembers fondly Paul Verhoeven’s original film and Schwarzenegger’s performance. The theme in these reviews is their yearning for the original, which was a big success at the time of its release, and was celebrated for its humour, playfulness and satirical edge.

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Verhoeven’s Total Recall has lingered long and large in cinematic memory. In this interplanetary story Schwarzenegger’s muscle-bound, accent-heavy Quaid is bored and plagued by bad dreams about Mars. Like the more recent film, he buys a holiday memory from Rekall Inc., and this turns his world upside down. ‘Sorry Quaid. Your whole life is just a dream,’ Lori, his beautiful and apparently fake wife tells him, a limited role pulled off with relish by a pre-Basic Instinct Stone. His ‘real’ name is Hauser, and he travels to the red planet to uncover his past. There the colonies pay for their air, and mutants are the result of cheap dome technology – living infrastructure built by a horrible governor.

Executed with a self-mocking and hyper-kinetic style, and a wonderful visual appreciation for splatter and the grotesque (shot perfectly against the ‘brutalist’ minimalism of Mexico City), Verhoeven’s film satirises the vulgar spectacle of Hollywood, and plays with the supposed stability of identity. It is trashy but cerebral – complete with crusty belly head mutants, and painful up the nose DIY surgery.

What is most fascinating is Schwarzenegger’s role as Quaid. His wooden performance is oddly affable and charming. It helps the film subvert itself by inviting us to question not only the ridiculousness of his playing a lowly construction worker, but the trustworthiness of Schwarzenegger’s celebrity image. For example, the ‘fictional’ Quaid discovers he was once the ‘real’ Hauser, an alpha male secret agent more like our memory of big Arnie in other movies. However, we learn through video messages played back to Quaid that Hauser is a villain and someone we cannot trust. As Alison Landsberg writes in the book Liquid Metal, the fictional Quaid is ‘more responsible, compassionate and productive than the “real” one.’ Weirdly, the ‘fake’ man is better than the ‘real’ man, who could be the celebrity Schwarzenegger.

This offers a canny and unexpected take on our ‘memories’ of masculinity, so often recalled in stereotypes like the invincible alpha male, or the meek geek. Quaid’s chosen identity is complex. He sits somewhere in between meathead construction worker, calculating double agent, and subversive underground activist. By the film’s end he’s still an arse-kicking hero, and with pumped-up Arnie muscles and Quaid’s existential questioning, his compassion and refusal to buy into Hauser’s cold and controlling ego suggests a dimensionality to the man that makes the film surprising. It’s both refreshing and humorous in a science fiction action hero, revealing the different possibilities for identity in the present, but also the social pressure to conform to the past, and to what others expect of us.

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Of course, all this head tripping into multiple identities and subversive fictional realities can really fry the brain. I’ll always be a sucker for cheesy one-liners and the grounding humour of Verhoeven’s film. ‘Get your ass to Mars,’ Hauser tells his future-self Quaid on a video message before mind erasure. ‘YOU BLEW MY COVAHHH!’ Quaid psychotically screams at Rekall Inc. after his holiday memory implantation. My mates still text me random Arnie quotes that never fail to make me chuckle.

total-recall-poster newWiseman’s Total Recall is not as bad as many reviewers have suggested. With time it may yield more beyond Quaid’s fast yet formulaic Rekall trip. But it is bland, and fails to capture the same levels of exhilarating energy, humour and subversion present in Verhoeven’s film. Interestingly, it is these qualities that have resonated the most in the years since the original Total Recall was released, rather than the expensive eye candy that fuelled much of its budget.

Instead, Wiseman’s remake is a useful example of why the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick – whose stories seem so well suited to cinema – is difficult to adapt successfully. Both Total Recall films are based on Dick’s funny and mind-bending short story, ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’, first published in 1966. When I discuss this via Skype with Mike Jones, a screen studies lecturer at the Australian School of Film and Television, and Head of Story at Portal Entertainment, he puts it down to filmmakers ‘short-changing’ Dick’s ideas.

‘On the one hand, [Dick’s] a pulp writer, he’s a genre writer,’ Jones tells me, explaining why filmmakers are attracted to Dick’s stories. ‘So invariably he’s giving us lots of action, and really motivated characters, wrapped around this core idea, but ultimately when that gets adapted, the idea gets short-changed. He never short-changed the idea.’

For Jones, this relates to a common mistake made during adaptation: the focus on a strange premise or piece of technology at the expense of emotions, human relationships and relevance to contemporary life. ‘Dick’s books are not about a technology, they’re about an idea. And about a speculation on social and personal issues… Now in theory this should be the guts of every science fiction story, but it’s not.’

Buying artificial memories that make identity unreliable and create multiple realities is the central idea of Dick’s short story. It reflects a common theme across his writing, and what Umberto Rossi describes in his book The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick as ‘ontological uncertainty’. By this he means characters who search through what is real and what is not to find a ‘real’ reality, often out of reach. In an interview with the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge about Dick’s writing, Rossi explains: ‘When things do not fit our mental map, our mental image, maybe we have touched reality. Because it doesn’t fit our little mental play, our little mental theatre.’

In Dick’s 1966 short story, ‘Quail’, the main character – an office clerk who is less macho and more pedestrian than his on-screen ‘Quaid’ incarnations – discovers previously erased memories in which he is a secret agent. As it turns out, he once saved Earth from an alien invasion, but only because the aliens learned of his kindness and mercy. The reality most persistent here is one borne from compassion and empathy, enjoyably framed by Dick’s hard won, gag- with-a-twist style of writing, and from the perspective of a man struggling with his ‘ordinariness’.

This everyman sensibility is significant in Dick’s science fiction. It is what made his work unusual among less imaginative genre works focused on intergalactic battles and superficial supermen with laser cannons and pretty handmaidens. Of course, Dick’s stories tend to ignore characterisation in favour of bizarre concepts and wild possibilities – but this exploration of the little guy in his speculative world treads a fascinating line between the normal and the fantastic. It makes the shakedown of reality more familiar, and more disturbing. And often bloody funny.

‘The challenge is trying to retain that quality of the original protagonist in Phil’s work,’ Brad Schreiber told me at the 2012 Philip K. Dick festival in San Francisco. ‘But also reaching a lot of people, and making it visually interesting – as well as honouring the tone of the original work.’

I spoke with Schreiber, an author, screenwriter and producer who has adapted Dick’s short story ‘Sales Pitch’ for National Public Radio in the US, about what happens to Dick’s everyday characters when they make the transition to the big screen. Schreiber describes the scale of big production as highly influential, creating pressure on filmmakers to use large set pieces, explosive story points and grandiose special effects to reach as many people as possible. This often compromises the spirit of Dick’s ‘pedestrian’ characters.

While he is yet to see Wiseman’s Total Recall, he considers Richard Linklater’s low budget A Scanner Darkly to be the most honest and authentic film adaptation of Dick’s work, effectively recreating the novel’s spacey, drug addicted characters. ‘Obviously they’ve interpreted it [the novel] as rotoscoping, so it looks so unusual. It’s not a typical live action movie. But Linklater has stayed close, without being slavish, to the book.’

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Back home in Melbourne, Thomas Caldwell, Shorts and Next Gen Coordinator at the Melbourne International Film Festival, thinks much the same. He finds fidelity to the source material to be tedious, though, and tells me that it is more useful to engage with the atmosphere and essence of Dick’s ideas, which he likes to think of as ‘Descartes in space’.

‘It’s about making the connection between these ideas and the emotions. So they’re no longer abstract philosophy anymore, these are actual characters we can identify with, grappling with the enormity of the situation.’

He cites two scenes from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as examples: the opening on the sprawling, dark and industrial mega-city of Los Angeles as it belches fire and pollution, at once beautiful and horrifying; and the death of Zora, a replicant, shot in the back, who dies with a single tear on her face as Deckard watches, devastated by what he’s done.

As an adaptation of Dick’s work, Blade Runner remains impressive and, like Verhoeven’s Total Recall, it builds cinematically on the author’s ideas instead of using them as fodder for basic, action-driven science fiction. We see a creative interpretation of Dick’s concepts brought to life through emotion, sound and vision.

Caldwell is not a fan of Schwarzenegger in the original Total Recall. He doesn’t mind the guilty pleasure of watching the alpha male shoot guns, but Arnie is too far from the office worker of Dick’s story. He has little time for clichés, preferring ‘characters who have skills or intelligence or abilities they’ve worked hard for at some point. I’m not a big fan of naturally gifted characters. I have a problem with the Harry Potter films for this reason.’

For me, Wiseman’s Total Recall fails because it short- changes both Verhoeven’s film and Dick’s short story. Colin Farrell’s casting was a clever choice, but limited in its effectiveness. He is tough and surly. This conveys Quaid’s unhappiness. But the frantic pace of the action, bland dialogue, and monotonous escape sequences hamper the performance. And here’s the crux: the film is bound by a standard action formula that doesn’t play imaginatively with the possibilities of fake realities and shifting identity. Technology, not emotion, is driving the action.