Spoilers for Total Recall new and old to follow.
The ending of Total Recall, the 1990 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We’ll Remember It For You Wholesale,” doesn’t leave too much room for speculation. Although Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character Quaid is pulled back and forth over the course of the film between his understanding of who he is, who he was, and who he can become based on his choice, there is nothing at the end of the film that suggests that what we have seen on screen hasn’t actually happened in the world of the film.
But the possibility lingers. The action of Total Recall is incited when Quaid chooses to have fake memories of a past life as a super spy implanted into his mind, only to realize that those memories already exist. Theoretically, everything that happened after Quaid was locked and loaded into Rekall’s brain chair could be a series of artificial manifestations. We don’t see Quaid wake up after he’s activated the alien technology that terraforms Mars into an inhabitable planet, saving the planet’s entire human population, but it’s possible those moments are minutes away off-screen. That’s too much digging to really make sense — if director Paul Verhoeven intended us to question Quaid heroic adventure, he would have shown us something at the end. (Although many believe hints at the beginning are enough to call the events in to question, pictures of Mars and actress Rachel Ticotin evidence that the whole shebang being a dream). Either way, Verhoeven’s Total Recall feels like a story of a man gaining back his memories and deciding to pass them over in favor doing the right thing. Mind-bending, but rather straightforward.
When the idea started brewing to remake Verhoeven’s kooky sci-fi classic, people immediately picked up their pitchforks in riotous protest. Surely there was no way to improve upon the glory of Total Recall. In honesty, this fanboy felt the same — but further, tempered thinking did see one opportunity. Verhoeven loved toying with the Dickian ideas in Total Recall, but he also loved the imagery, the action, the violence. If someone was going to redo Total Recall, they could tip the balance, and when Hollywood.com visited the set of the 2012 remake, that’s what director Len Wiseman sounded like he intended to do. Take the terrors of ambiguity by the reigns and leave the audience asking questions (even while being whipped around in blockbuster action scenes).
This weekend’s Total Recall does not do that. As I pointed out in my review, the modernization is more of a rehash than remake, sticking to the major beats of the 1990 Total Recall while cranking the action up a few notches (and actually sacrificing the heady stuff in the process). Perhaps there are scenes on the cutting room floor, but Wiseman’s original vision as described on set (“There’s going to be a lot of speculation. I would think — I would hope! — some people are going to absolutely think one way, [other people] may think the other.”) doesn’t fly with the ending at hand.
In the final moments of 2012 Total Recall we get a bit of a tease: the grand finale set piece — a wrestling match between Quaid (Colin Farrell) and Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) atop the imploding Earth elevator “The Fall” — segues to a black screen, the voice of Rekall’s McClane (John Cho) alluding to the implanted memories. Perhaps this is all a dream? He wakes up in an EMT van, Melina (Jessica Biel) by his side. But there’s something different: she’s missing her identifiable scar from when the two were shot while holding hands. Quaid snaps into action and rips a face mask doohickey off her neck. It’s actually Lori (Kate Beckinsale), attempting one last time to slay her fake husabnd. Gotcha!
The moments plays with our expectations — since this Total Recall didn’t stray far from the original’s path, it seems reasonable to think it will wrap up nicely in the same fashion as its predecessor. The last second twist isn’t more than one more excuse to have a brutal scene. Quaid takes Lori down no problem, reunites with the real Melina and everyone lives happy ever after while the towering symbol of oppression burns underneath them.
As I describe in my review, the new Total Recall isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a failure of a remake. The creative team behind the picture had an opportunity to take their version into new territory by playing up the ambiguity of the ending, that would also speak volumes to a great theme at play in the film. Quaid is desperately trying to escape his blue collar life with the future equivalent of a “get rich quick” scheme. Implant a few memories and everything will be better. Even though his journey ended with a few cuts and massive city destruction, he succeeds by cutting corners. He’s escaped the life of a factory worker. He gets the girl of his (literal) dreams. He’s a hero. That’s unfulfilling when reminded of how Quaid got there in the first place, as the Rekall callback in the final moments of the movie boldly do. By blurring the reality ending, actually embracing the ambiguity of the situation, Total Recall would have deviated from its blueprints in a bold fashion while playing directly to its overarching themes. It feels like Wiseman and his pair of screenwriters, Mark Bomback and Kurt Wimmer, intended it, yet that feeling of uncertainty never emerges.
There’s even a precedence for taking the ambiguous route. Recent indie films have sent audiences into a welcome tizzy with open ended conclusions (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter); Christopher Nolan — an indie-spirited man himself — as kept the door open on many of his blockbusters (Inception and some may argue the ending of The Dark Knight Rises); and even while he gets a lot of hate, M. Night Shyamalan has proven a great twist goes a long way in keeping people talking (for or better or worse: see The Sixth Sense and even Lady in the Water). No amount of action can ever bury a film’s core ideas. Total Recall could have made a hard left at the gate before cutting to the credits, but it opted to follow the suit of the other Total Recall. I love that movie, but a fresh memory would have been preferred for the remake.
What did you think of the ending of Total Recall? Suitable or was there a better way to wrap it up?
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures]