1. As a skeptic of the original Total Recall, I was ready to give its remake more than a fair shake. My primary issue with the original is how little it does with the film's initial, fantastical Philip K. Dick premise, that the difference between reality and fantasy is not only slim but perhaps irrelevant; that film was too interested in Arnold Schwarzenegger wisecracks and dopey Future Jokes to slow down and develop that central theme. I'm happy to say that the remake does, actually, focus a little bit more on that premise, and stay consistent with it. That's pretty much the only thing I'm happy to say about it, though.
2. OK, the film also has the advantage of casting a legitimately outstanding actor in the lead role, Colin Farrell, who does his best to give his potentially compelling but sketchily conceived character a foundation as the movie skitters messily around him. The premise is the same as the first film: In the future, a lowly construction worker dreams of a less dreary future and has memories that he was once a spy "implanted" in his brain. Next thing you know, something goes wrong and he's involved in a revolution and his beloved wife is trying to kill him. This movie gets rid of the Mars aspect, the leader of the rebellion is less "scary alien baby" and more "Bill Nighy" and this time the Michael Ironside and Sharon Stone characters are combined into one, but other than that, this is the same deal, with updated special effects and less gore, to make sure they hit the PG-13 rating. (The three boobs are still here, though. I wonder if four boobs would have earned that R.)
3. The issue here is that as safe as I might feel Paul Verhoeven played it with the original—for him, anyway—director Len Wiseman (most well-known for the Underworld movies, though I did think his Live Free or Die Hard was cheerfully over-the-top) locks this movie in a room and puts a bag over its head. It's bizarre how humorless the film is, as if this whole notion of a futuristic dystopian society was sacred or even, you know, not the topic and tone of every science fiction movie made in the last 25 years. The movie is dark and ominous and thudding in predictable, deeply boring ways. I'm pretty sure the whole movie contains only one joke, and it might have been one Farrell sneaked in when his director wasn't looking. If you're not going to go all the way this and make it some Aronofsky-ian delve into the depths of a mentally diseased man's search for psychological truth and stability—and, uh, Wiseman isn't going to do that—at least let us have fun with the aliens and the spaceships and the robots. Wiseman directs with a two left, leaden feet.
4. Not even the third-act introduction—and it's essentially an introduction; his character is only seen on video screens for the first 90 minutes—of Bryan Cranston as the evil president Cohaagen livens up the proceedings much. He does try, though; Cranston clearly is giddy about the opportunities he has in a post-Walter White and invests a sense of legitimate menace in Cohaagen that the movie doesn't have much interest in following. Instead, it would rather keep following around Kate Beckinsale, in the Ironside/Stone role. Her character is essentially absurd, showing up in every scene (whether she could have possibly known what was going on or not), and exists mostly so Wiseman, Beckinsale's husband, can direct his wife jumping across rooms and scowling like he did in the Underworld films. While she's convincing as a fighter—I sure as hell didn't buy Jessica Biel holding her own in a fight with her for more than 10 seconds—her character makes no sense and mostly inspires laughter every random scene she shows up in. You don't for a second believe Farrell's character would believe her as a traditional wife in the first place; at best, he'd hire her for security.
5. Then again, the chance exists that this whole movie exists in the protagonist's head in the first place, so of course he, unhappy with his life and marriage, might see his wife as a destroyer in his dreams anyway. That central idea is so flush with opportunity that it's frustrated that now two movies have wasted it. Farrell is easier to buy as an Everyman than Schwarzenegger—I think Tom Waits is more believable as an Everyman than Schwarzenegger—and there are times he makes Quaid/Hauser's confusion and fear palpable. The movie is better at keeping this possibility enticingly on the surface than the original was, and the wink at the end feels more genuine, more potentially haunting. It doesn't follow through on it, though. This could be a whole reinvention, the original twisted on its head. But this new Total Recall doesn't have the gumption; it would rather be a blockbuster than a mind-bender. It turns out to be neither.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.