If someone in the future wanted to know what political and cultural issues Americans were grappling with in 2012, they would only need to go to the movies. Films as diverse as “The Hunger Games,” “Cabin in the Woods,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” have all been set in one specific social, cultural, and political context – revolution. Each one has told the story of an entire class of citizens rising up against a ruling class. These films were all fairly serious meditations on the issues of income inequality and class warfare, and the filmmakers should be applauded for addressing and exploring those themes in popular films. But not everyone is so thoughtful. Some filmmakers – out to make a cheap buck – will simply aim to capitalize on the politics of the moment by dropping some nameless characters into a generic plot and shoehorn in overtones of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. This is cynical and irresponsible filmmaking. “Total Recall” is one of these films, and while it is spectacularly silly, its shallow politics are actually quite dangerous.
Most people know that “Total Recall” is a remake of a 1990 Paul Verhoeven film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his star power. In the 1990 film and Philip K. Dick story on which it was based, our hero, Douglas Quaid, is an ordinary man longing for some adventure. He gets more than he bargained for when he visits Recall, a new private enterprise that implants its customers with the memories of an adventure of their choosing. In the short story and original film, Quaid chooses to be a secret agent on Mars, which, in the world of the story, has recently been colonized by humans. But something goes wrong during the implanting, and Quaid spends the rest of the film fighting off bad guys with guns, while trying to figure out if the adventure is real or if it is just the memory with which he asked to be implanted.
It’s a clever idea for a story, and it’s only on the back of this concept that the remake succeeds at all. Forgoing Mars, this film puts Quaid, now played by Colin Farrell (who can pass for an ordinary man only slightly better than Arnold), on late 21st century Earth, which has been decimated by chemical warfare. Only two habitable land masses remain: the United Federation of Britain, where all the millionaires live, and the Colony, once known as Australia, where the poor folk reside. Every day, Quaid and his working-class friends travel to Britain, courtesy of a public transportation system that goes straight through the Earth’s core. Once in Britain, the 99 percenters from the Colony do the grunt work so that the 1% in Britain can sip martinis and watch the sun rise.
Further, there is a revolution afoot. A small band of colonists has pitted itself against President Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) of Britain. There have been terrorist attacks attributed to the resistance, although their extent of their involvement is not settled. After Quaid’s memory implanting goes wrong (or does it?), government agents come to kill him, convinced that he is a secret agent for the resistance. While eluding capture with the help of a mystery woman (Jessica Biel), he also tries to piece together the missing pieces of the life he can’t remember. So basically, The Bourne Identity without the brains.
I know what you’re thinking. So far the film sounds pretty progressive, siding with the proletariat against the tyrannical despot. But the film’s central failure is that it never bothers to delve into the politics of revolution, instead relying on a series of fairly standard action set pieces. Nothing against action films, but when the movie sets itself in the midst of a political revolution, the filmmakers have a responsibility to the audience to see those ideas through.
Consider this: the giveaway that this film is not actually interested in progressive economic politics is that we never see the rich who inhabit Britain, and we never learn what is quite so bad about living in the Colony. Thus, the movie cannot really be about class warfare, or we would need to be given some sense of what they are actually fighting for. No, this movie is about a rebellion against an autocratic rule. In fact, our only link to the oppressors in the ruling class is President Cohaagen himself, who, we learn, is staging the terrorist attacks in order to justify a military invasion of the Colony. So instead of a meditation on income inequality and class warfare – which could certainly include some dramatic action sequences – we get a standard shoot-em-up action movie with a rogue agent who is fighting the system.
But this film is worse than generic; it’s dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt that director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) intended to make a political film. Rather, his aim was merely to use the politics of the moment to make the film seem culturally relevant. Still, a simple examination of the politics embedded in the film’s rather flimsy plot reveals some unsettling themes. The perspective of the film is strongly aligned with the working class, but it also A) supports a violent overthrow of the government, B) allows its hero to violently kill a lot of (literally) faceless soldiers, and C) intimates that all you have to do to enact the change you seek is to kill the president. This is a troubling combination of elements that tap into the anger of the Tea Party and Occupy movements, while offering a false conclusion. “Total Recall” bludgeons the viewer into submission with action while couching its violence in populist rhetoric. That’s not progressive in the slightest. In fact, it sounds a little bit like fascism.
And the timing could not be worse. In the wake of the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, while many in the media argue about gun control, some journalists have been asking what role Hollywood plays in creating and supporting our American culture of violence. If that conversation ever happens, films like “Total Recall,” which not only glorifies its violence but also justifies it in political terms, should be a big part of it.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether
3 thoughts on ““Total Recall” is Worse Than You Think”
Thanks for the advice – I definitely will not go see the movie now.. But I wonder what you thought about the Justin Timberlake movie “In Time” and its message?? 🙂
Never saw it, Louise. I am a fan of the writer/director, who directed “Gattaca” and wrote “The Truman Show.” What did you think of it?
Thanks, Noah. You just saved me 12 bucks.