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Blistering B-Listers!

by Ross Douthat

A review of Total Recall

There are few Hollywood career transitions more fraught than the leap from “star in the making” to movie star outright. Consider Colin Farrell: The handsome, roguish Irishman worked his way up the movieland ladder in the early 2000s, and then found himself graced with a remarkable string of opportunities. Between 2004 and 2006, he was cast as Alexander the Great by Oliver Stone, as Crockett in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, and as John Smith in Terrence Malick’s The New World — three chances of a lifetime in quick succession.

And none of them worked out. Stone’s Alexander was a fiasco, with Farrell looking dazed and confused under a blonde dye-job; Vice was a disappointment (though an interesting one), with Farrell looking puffy in the role Don Johnson made famous; and The New World was a work of genius that the critics unfairly buried. Instead of becoming an A-lister, Farrell was suddenly just another overexposed wannabe, earning gossip-column inches instead of paydays.

Or consider Kate Beckinsale, like Farrell a British Isles import who rose through costume dramas and art-house flicks (her best role was as the mean girl in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco) to what should have been her big moment: playing the nurse torn between two flyboys in Michael Bay’s attempt to imitate James Cameron’s Titanic, 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

The movie was a hit, but unfortunately for Beckinsale it was also a joke. People went for the bombs and special effects, but they sniggered at the love triangle in a way they hadn’t at the Kate Winslet–Leonardo DiCaprio pairing. Which meant that instead of being borne upward to true stardom, Beckinsale slipped downward into the B list, alternating between thankless “hot wife” parts and her recurring (and, one hopes, well-compensated) role as the leather-clad vampire Selene in the Underworld franchise.

The Hollywood gods sometimes offer second chances, though, and this month finds Farrell and Beckinsale jointly graced with their biggest chance in some time: They have the leading roles in Total Recall, the big-budget, don’t-call-it-a-remake adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven made famous 20 years ago.

Farrell plays the hero, Quaid, a working stiff in a futuristic, chemical-warfare-ravaged world who opts to escape from the everyday with a trip to “Rekall,” a boutique memory-implantation firm that promises to make whatever secret fantasy you’ve always nursed feel like it actually took place. Beckinsale plays his lovely wife — or rather, the woman who seems to be his wife, because just as he’s about to begin the Rekall process a squad of soldiers bursts in to arrest him, and Quaid fights them off with skills he didn’t know he had. They’re the skills of the secret agent he used to be, it turns out, before his memory was wiped and replaced and Beckinsale’s character, a fellow secret agent, was assigned to monitor him by posing as his spouse.

The Dickian hook here, of course, is the Rekall business, which leaves the audience — and Quaid himself, eventually — uncertain as to whether all of the secret-agent action is actually genuine, or is all just the fantasy he paid for playing itself out.

If it’s the latter, Quaid clearly gets his money’s worth, since his post-Rekall adventures throw him right into the middle of a world-spanning struggle between the two surviving outposts of civilization: a wealthy London-based capital and a poorer, exploited, rebellious Australian colony, which are connected by a part-train, part-elevator conveyance called “The Fall” that travels (I kid you not) through the center of the earth.

The London government is embodied by Bryan Cranston, cashing in on his fame as the antihero on television’s Breaking Bad, while the rebellion is represented by the gorgeous Jessica Biel, so you know which side to root for. The real action, though, pits Farrell against Beckinsale, because it turns out that hell hath no fury like a “wife” who’s exposed as an impostor and then assigned to hunt you down.

If Quaid gets his money’s worth, though, the audience does not. The Schwarzenegger Recall was campy and garish and fun; this version is self-serious and desperately dumb. The world-building is by turns ridiculous (again: it travels through the center of the earth) and entirely unoriginal (the film’s rain-soaked colony is ripped off from Blade Runner, and its glittering capital from The Fifth Element). The plotting is dimwitted, the political gestures predictable, and the most interesting aspect of the story, the “is it real or isn’t it” uncertainty, mainly feels like an excuse to justify lazy screenwriting. (“Since Quaid’s adventures might not be real,” you can imagine the filmmakers saying to themselves, “we don’t have to worry about making any of them realistic.”)

Amid all this awfulness, the two stars do their best. Beckinsale is hot and wicked and magnetic, and the slightly baffled look that Farrell wore as Alexander works much better with this character’s confusions. Watching this movie so soon after watching Anne Hathaway and Christian Bale — two not-so-dissimilar actors who have broken through to a higher level of success — glide through the almost infinitely superior The Dark Knight Rises, the main thing I felt was sympathy for Total Recall’s leads: so close to true stardom, and yet still so far away.

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