And so another Philip K. Dick story gets another shot at being another movie. Funny how hard it is not to go in feeling protective and skeptical, as if Paul Verhoeven’s admittedly singular Schwarzenegger staple, from 1990, were some kind of inviolable masterpiece. This version, from director Len Wiseman and a complex web of writers, seems fun enough while it lasts but in the end not totally recallable. No eyeballs about to pop, no “give deez peepul ayre,” no little man protruding from another man’s belly and demanding that you open your mind. Still, if not as camp then as midsummer popcorn dressing, it’ll do.
In a grimy, concrete city of the doomed future, a factory worker (Colin Farrell) takes a mental vacation from his job manufacturing law-enforcement robots, only to find himself on the run from law-enforcement robots — and by extension their boss (Bryan Cranston), an evil tyrant with a world-domination agenda. It happens as a headlong rush of implanted memories, confused identities, and variously toxic atmospheres, not least that of our hero’s suddenly troubled marriage. His particular wife-or-dream-girl conundrum, with Kate Beckinsale as the former and Jessica Biel as the latter, involves the special intimacy of martial-arts brawls and matching bullet wounds. (Wiseman is married to Beckinsale, and for several films now he has enjoyed arranging and recording her action-figure poses.)
The movie’s gloomy, rainy sprawl suggests less debt to its namesake than to another Philip K. Dick derivative, “Blade Runner,” which might only mean that Wiseman isn’t fussy about his own sovereignty. He has vision enough: This domination-threatened world has reverted, post-apocalypse, to a very unhealthy colonial relationship between Great Britain and Australia, now connected by enormous intra-planetary elevator. As befits the impresario of all things “Underworld,” it’s a realm of gravitational challenges, aesthetically intriguing for its extreme verticality of urban density, with characters tending to leap and fall more often and more articulately than they speak. One potential exception to that tendency is a grounded tyrant-resister played by Bill Nighy, but the film seems nervous around his intelligence, and squanders it. Maybe the sage abdominal homunculus was the way to go after all.
In time, completist fans will scour all the minutiae for illuminating points of continuity between this “Total Recall” and the first one. At first glance it seems most telling that both invoke fears of accidental lobotomy early on, both find room in their dystopias for a three-breasted sex worker, and both prompt our hero to ask, “If I’m not me, who the hell am I?” Farrell delivers that theme-summarizing line with adrenalized desperation, his forte. Having also been in “Minority Report,” he obviously feels comfortable within Dickian confines of mind-bending pulp; on the run and unsure whether to trust anyone, including oneself, he’s at his best. That his half-innocent badass beefcake seems more anonymous than Schwarzenegger’s only affirms the perpetual movie-readiness of the source material. As for its cultural staying power, we’ll know more about that whenever the next version comes out.