18 Nov 2013

The New Total Recall, the Old Wicker Man

By Rupert Read

Total Recall, dir. Len Wiseman (2012)

The new Total Recall is quite a ride. I saw it a couple of years back when it came out, on an IMAX screen, with my thinkingfilmcollective colleague, Emma Bell. It was shown quite a lot on IMAX — possibly a clue to its genre: an action movie; a thrills, spills and effects vehicle. To those of us who found the original 1990 Total Recall, which was based of course on a Phillip K. Dick story entitled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (and Dick is the unpleasant conceptual genius of modern sci-fi), a profoundly philosophical work, the remake is inevitably disappointing.

And indeed: at all the points where the first film showed its deepest philosophical illumination, this one fell short.


  • Hauser’s video-recordings for Quaid are less philosophical in content, less interesting personal-identity-wise, than in the original. Furthermore, we see Hauser speaking to Quaid, but what is missing is the beautiful symmetry of these video-recordings present in the first version of the film. We miss seeing Hauser telling the Hauser/Quaid who is about to be turned back into the original Hauser about this re-turning: the laughing Arnie at this point in the original film is replaced in the new version by a boring one-dimensional Cohagan. 

One of many moments in which the original Total Recall (1990) facilitates the audience's reflecting on the nature of identity. This one was 'copied' in the remake; others were, unfortunately, abandoned or bungled.

  • The original film’s multiple investigation of the philosophy of personal identity — beautifully via Kuato [see the images below], also via the endless interest in mirroring, and via the robot-taxi-driver, and so on and on — is mostly missing. There is some nice new inclusion of doubles, but this is mostly put to poor use — as in Kate Beckinsale’s final appearance ‘as’ Jessica Biel at the end, which amounts to little more than an arbitrary Glenn-Close-still-coming-out-of-the-bathtub, still-not-dead attempt at a breathtaking twist at the end.

Pictured: a moment when the rebel leader Kuato is revealed to be a hidden, feotus like, in the body of  one of the [in this case, male] rebels. Total Recall, dir. Paul Verhoeven (1990)

  • The new version has much less of the paranoid 'P.K.Dick' feel about it. It doesn’t do an effective job of leaving one with nagging quasi-Cartesian doubts about whether one actually has come out of Rekall. The original did; for instance, in having the same actress be the ‘sleazy’ secret agent image that Quaid chooses at Rekall as the one who plays his secret agent lover. One film worth comparing (the original) Total Recall to is then of course The Matrix. My interest in and admiration for (the original) Total Recall over the years has kept growing; I think that if you are looking for a great paranoid work that takes scepticism (and also of course questions of personal identity) seriously, then Total Recall is your best bet. The crucial difference between Total Recall and The Matrix is this: that The Matrix settles the question of which is the dream and which is the real world. Which makes the second half of it less interesting than the first half. Whereas Total Recall keeps the question alive... In the scene in Total Recall where the protagonist is offered a pill which would 'return him to reality', the question of which is reality is of course not quite settled (For, if one stares hard and paranoidly/schizoidly at the forehead of someone in one's dream, one could surely/probably strain enough to see a drop of sweat there...). Doubts keep returning in Total Recall, unlike in The Matrix, just as they ought to do for anyone inclined to (try to) take Descartes seriously...

  •  Perhaps most crucially in this connection, the scene where someone comes in to ‘talk Quaid/Hauser down’ is a real failure, compared to the original. The psychiatrist with that little bead of sweat on his forehead was so, so, much subtler (and yet of course: hardly decisive of one not being in a dream) than what happens in the new version, where his workmate goes in to talk with Quaid and his lover.
The new version, like the original, argues that, while being deprived of one’s past is a terrible, terrible, thing, what is even worse is to be unwilling to be who one is in the present. To become who you are, as Nietzsche put it. Total Recall is about not being over-attached to the past; the choice that Hauser-Quaid makes, of not allowing himself to become his former self again, is profoundly the right one. Implicit in the bullet-points above (especially the first bullet-point) is that the original, on balance, provides a better setting for this philosophy of action-in-the-world (as opposed to: of action-flicks), of Total Recall. 

Moreover, what is completely missing in the new version (it is subjugated by a worshipping of machines) is the profound sense, incarnated in Kuato (the new version’s rebel leader, Matthias, is by contrast nothing more than a cipher), of how it might matter in this (future-directed) quest, to get everything one can from the accumulation of experience that is one’s past, without being subjugated by that past. In other words: to achieve a meditative presence. And thus, if necessary, to achieve total recall. To remember what needs to be remembered.

This is the new version’s greatest failing of all. In the crucial scene where Quaid/Hauser is to achieve recall of the vital (to the rebellion) experiences that he can’t remember, the new version offers us nothing. It turns out that there is nothing of this nature in Quaid/Hauser’s mind to recall; he was, in this sense, only a trick. A booby-trap, in which to trap Matthias and the resistance.

In the original, the marvellous scene in which Kuato, together with Quaid/Hauser (an experience of meditative communion; like the joining of viewer and film), enable Quaid/Hauser to achieve total recall justifies the film’s title. In the new version, nothing does. The film itself is in this sense a trick, an empty vessel. 

In other words: There is no good reason why this film has the title ‘Total Recall’. The only reason it has this title is that it is a remake of the earlier film. 

That isn’t a good enough reason. 

And now we can safely say: it is an inferior remake. It is nothing more than a — flawed —copy of the original. 

Consider now, by comparison, the original (and best) version of The Wicker Man from 1973 rather than the 2006 remake. The original Wicker Man is a film that, like the new Total Recall, centres upon a trick. There is an empty space, where one was expecting to find something. But in this case, the way in which the trick is practised upon the central character and upon the viewer alike is a triumph. 

The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)

I love films as clever as The Wicker Man. For the first hour of the film, I was greatly enjoying it, but saw it very much as a slightly-hokey period-piece. I watched with pleasure, especially enjoying the ‘musical’ scenes, but I watched nevertheless with some detachment: I kept being surprised by the over-the-top cheese, by the plot-failures, by apparently having to subscribe to a belief in transmutation of bodies in order to be able to follow along with the film’s plot, and above all by the silly, weird and rather naïve way the island’s inhabitants were behaving. I was shocked and gripped when, with fifteen minutes of the film to go, I suddenly realised how I had been fooled. I had thought that the actors playing the villagers had been slightly over-acting / acting badly; and then I suddenly realised that it was the villagers who had been (so) acting, not the actors.

The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)

The way I had been fooled (and I assume that this is the experience of the vast majority of film-goers to this film — those who have read/heard spoilers before seeing the film will unfortunately be drastically deprived of this effect) of course mirrors the experience of the protagonist, the police-officer. Thus one is subtly placed in his position, even while one might think one is resisting or superior to his position. For example: to his moralism and his Christian dogmatism. It doesn't matter that one feels distant from him: one is still forced to identify with him at the moment of revelation and thereafter. In fact, the film’s therapy could even work better if one is at a distance from him for most of it! This makes the experience of the closing portion of the film very sinister and disturbing (as of course befits a truly great horror film). For, even without consciously identifying with him, one is necessarily sucked into his point of view and his peril, by the sudden switch in what one understands to be happening, in the film, near the end. This alone is enough to make the film a potentially transformative / therapeutic experience. I found myself, for example, feeling surprisingly viscerally the pain of the character who is then about to be sacrificed.

The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)

The one who is to be sacrificed goes rapidly and persuasively (but of course completely unpersuasively, to the rest of those present) through the whole gamut of arguments as to why they should not be sacrificed. Almost like a philosopher or a politician. The failure of these arguments to make any impact whatsoever (except to elicit a marvellous speech from Lord Summerhill (Christopher Lee, in a charismatic performance as one would expect from him in this role: going suddenly from seeming-naïf to chilling-invoker[1]) about the glory of being martyred[2]) feels like a kind of slap in the face of the viewer who sat complacently through the first hour of the film feeling “This is lovely/interesting, but has nothing to do with me.” 

Not to put too fine a point on it: I felt that the film was speaking to and of me, suddenly; that I was placed in it. (Exactly the feeling that is missing, from the new Total Recall, no matter what thrills, spills and special effects it shoves at one.)  This is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling, especially given where one then is getting placed.  In this way, the shocking reorientation of the viewer, when they learn suddenly the true nature of the sacrifice — and learn therefore that virtually all their criticisms of the first hour of the film were simply mistaken —, and the true nature of the plot (using the word now in its double-meaning, as both story and plot (as in,  ‘conspiracy’), reminds me powerfully of the shock of recognition one experiences in the final three minutes of Apocalypto, as discussed by me here.

The Wicker Man: Finally, you are literally placed within it. What a great conceit. What a fine, fine, film, that in this way closes by commenting upon its own spine-chilling effectiveness...

And thus justifies its otherwise somewhat-strange title. After all, the giant ‘man’ made of wicker only actually appears to the plot and to our eyes in the final several minutes of the film. But what I am saying is: The wicker man symbolises the very device that the film is, the very trick that is played on the protagonist and the viewer alike. The wicker man is empty. One is placed inside it. And: destroyed, nihilated.

This is just what the film The Wicker Man does to one (at least, in visceral imagination), via the deep trick that it plays.

The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)

The original version of Total Recall was, in a similar fashion, a marvellous meditation on what it is to watch a film. It counterposes the reality of going on a physical journey that is also a journey of quest, of self-discovery, with the banality of tourism, and the uber-banality of implanting false memories into oneself of a ‘trip’ ‘better’ than tourism or than real life. It implicitly questions the very industry, Hollywood, that it instantiates. (Recall the scene in the original Total Recall that, via adverts, juxtaposes going to Mars with going to Rekall, and that implicitly compares the ‘escapism’ of the latter with the escapism of the movies, compared and contrasted with the reality of real life, even as a ‘tourist’, and contrasted with the reality of what gets faked for us in the movies.) Like Avatar,[3] like any good philosophically ‘therapeutic’ film, it thus ‘forces’ the attentive viewer to question their own potential complicity in escapism. You fail to rise to the challenge of a good deep film, if you fail to see that it calls for you to act (for instance: to rebel, against colonialism). 

The new version of Total Recall loses the sense of a physical journey, and loses some of the sense of quest. It misses completely the comparison with tourism. This ill-fits it for being a therapeutic work that ‘forces’ the viewer to achieve an autonomy beyond their own manipulation at the hands of film-makers. It tends, rather, to encourage complete immersion (e.g. the Imax, again), and to function, therefore, as pure escapism. True, it delves slightly more deeply than the original into colonialism, and the invention of ‘The fall’ is clever. But cleverness is not enough: the depth of the original is missing. Moreover, in being a Schwarzenegger vehicle, the original Total Recall signalled to its audience that they should rise above the escapism portrayed in, but not recommended by, the film. The new version doesn’t. 

I have argued that, in this new version of Total Recall, there is no total recall. Worse: there is nothing to so recall. But: that very — devastatingly critical — point is the axis about which one might conceivably construct what I think would then be the only charitable way in which to see this as a philosophy-as-therapy film. For there is I believe one devious possible way to read the new Total Recall, on which it might come up trumps.

Is there a way after all to achieve the sought-after engagement with this film, for one as viewer to be more than merely escapist spectator? Does the lack of there being anything there to (totally) recall, in the new version, offer the requisite blank slate for the viewer to start to write what needs to be there? Does the film thus empower the engaged-viewer to see beyond it and its ilk, and into one’s own presence, and non-vacuity? 

If you watch this film clued in to its almost-complete emptiness, willing to accept its failure even to justify its own title, then I think ‘therapy’ becomes possible again...

There is one way then in which the new Total Recall can be understood as, if you like at the meta-level, not a disappointment. For, in its very disappointingness, in its being nothing more than a copy (of a copy?), in its being empty of meaning, in its not justifying its own great lineage and title, we might, ironically, find salvation. When we recall the original Total Recall (as, in a charming and funny series of homages, the new version explicitly and repeatedly invites us to do), when we see it more clearly in the light of its nihilistic and philosophy-lite successor, when we see that successor in all its barrenness, then again we are freed up, perhaps better than ever, from being captured by the attractions of our own Rekall-lite industry: Hollywood. Perhaps the great achievement of the new Total Recall is in taking the critique of escapism manifest in the original version to a new level. Perhaps the proper way to understand the new Total Recall is: as an antidote to itself and to all films in the genre. As a device engaging the audience, involving one and all of us, therapeutically after all, in the complete — the total — unmasking of the manipulation that special-effects-vehicles, action-flicks, sci-fi spectaculars, thrillers, love-stories, etc. routinely practise upon us. 

Total Recall, dir. Paul Verhoeven (1990)

So: two films. One a wonderful original, one a pointless remake — unless re-read in the devious hyper-charitable fashion I’ve just proposed. Both having profoundly in common a void at the heart of them, a deep trick played on the movie’s protagonist, and by extension played on you, the viewer. This deep commonality making The Wicker Man a work of genius, and the new Total Recall a failure whose only possible deep virtue lies ultimately in the point that one can see as being made by that (virtually total) failure.

[Thanks to Phil Hutchinson, Jessica Woolley, Alan Finlayson, Ruth Makoff and Emma Bell for conversations that have helped shape this piece.]

[1] Here one might think of the following quote, from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’: “If I see such a practice, or hear of it, it is like seeing a man speaking sternly to another because of something quite trivial, and noticing in the tone of his voice and in his face that on occasion this man can be frightening. The impression I get from this may be a very deep and extremely serious one.” Wittgenstein is of course discussing practices precisely similar to those shown in The Wicker Man. He might almost be discussing Lord Summerhill, as portrayed by Christopher Lee…
[2] A speech that, in this regard especially, reminded me of the finely-balanced – often sympathetic - attitude of the pagan protagonists of The Mists of Avalon toward the religion of their Christian usurpers.

5 Nov 2013

An Introduction to 2001: A Space Odyssey

By Peter Krämer

2001: A Space Odyssey was the result of a collaboration between the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and the Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. This collaboration started when Kubrick wrote to Clarke in March 1964 to suggest that they work on a Science Fiction film together. Soon thereafter they decided that they would first write a novelistic treatment which would then serve as the basis both of a script and of a novel to be published under Clarke’s name. The novel was published by New American Library a few months after the film’s release in April 1968, and it offers explanations for much of what remains unexplained in the film.

For most of its long production history, the film itself was meant to contain explanatory material, including a prologue consisting of interviews with scientists, extensive voice-over narration throughout the story as well as a lot more dialogue. Only a few weeks before the release of 2001, Kubrick decided to remove all of these so that the film became very mysterious indeed – much like the alien monoliths in the film. 

Kubrick had embarked on his collaboration with Clarke with a view of offering an optimistic alternative to the pessimism of his previous film, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which ends with the explosion of a nuclear “doomsday” device that will destroy all life on the surface of the Earth. One might say that, having produced a black comedy about how humanity will destroy itself on Earth, Kubrick was now looking into the heavens for a non-human force that could save humankind. Other people might call this force “God”, but for Kubrick it was extra-terrestrial intelligence. 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey the extra-terrestrials act upon humankind through monoliths, which means that, by turning the film itself into a kind of monolith – a perfectly designed and beautiful, yet utterly opaque object -, Kubrick suggested that the film might have transformative powers with regards to its audience. Amazingly, many viewers did indeed experience the film precisely in this way (as is evidenced by the letters people wrote to Kubrick after the film’s release). 

'The Monolith' in 2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Let’s take a closer look at the unique qualities of this monolithic film. Except for the absence of a huge curved Cinerama screen, today’s DVD versions of the film present it in the same way as it was presented during its initial, so-called “roadshow” release in spring 1968. There is a three minute musical overture, an intermission (once again with some music), and additional music (for about four minutes) after the conclusion of the end credits. This was typical for the initial release of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters until the late 1960s; they were staged as special events, modelled on a night out at the opera or musical theatre. While this presentation was typical, the film itself was not. It departs from the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in many ways. Instead of following the actions of a main character or group of characters, pursuing a well-defined set of goals, the film tells three different stories, each with their own protagonists whose goals are not always obvious.

First, there are ape-like creatures – or hominids – who can be difficult to tell apart from each other and whose behaviour can therefore be puzzling. Then there is a scientist travelling to the moon, whose motives for doing so are revealed only towards the end of his journey. Finally, there are two astronauts on a spaceship to Jupiter, one of whom goes on a further, utterly mysterious journey after reaching the planet. 

3 'stories' in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Instead of outlining clearly how one thing leads to another, 2001 breaks down the cause-and-effect chain of events. It does so at the level of the film as a whole; it is, for example, difficult – but not impossible - to determine how its three stories are connected to each other. And also at the level of individual scenes. It is often unclear how the events of one scene arise from those shown in earlier scenes. This applies especially to the final sequences of the film. 

What is more, instead of selecting only those parts of an action that might be deemed relevant for the on-going story, much of the film consists of shots leisurely and meticulously depicting earthly landscapes or celestial formations as well as the often very slow movement of people and spacecraft through these with little or no concern for moving the story along. 

Landscape in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

So what is the best way to relate to this unusual film? Of course, after seeing it, one can go to Clarke’s novel so as to get some explanations. But while one is watching it, one might want to pay attention to the implications of its title – “2001: A Space Odyssey” – and of the title shown at the beginning of the pre-historic sequence: “The Dawn of Man”. One might want to ask: what is a 'space odyssey', and who is going on an odyssey through space in this film? What is the dawn of man, and when does the rise of man begin? When is it completed?

With regards to these last questions, we could say that the pre-historic sequence shows hominids being transformed into proto-humans, while the bulk of the film concerns modern humans, and the final sequence shows the transformation of one of these humans into something else, something post-human. Or we could say – as Kubrick himself has indeed suggested – that the humanity that “dawns” in the opening sequence is only fully achieved at the end; what we call “humanity” is merely a transitional stage between animal and the rise (in the shape of the Star Child) of that which is truly human.

What are the characteristics of the “human” in both readings? The first reading suggests that, in contrast to their herbivorous, non-violent and rather ineffectual predecessors, humans can be defined as highly effective carnivorous and murderous tool-users. Since their first weapon in the film is a phallic bone, we can also say that humans are strongly associated with maleness here. 

'Murderous tool-users', the hominids turn in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Perhaps the project of human civilisation can, in this reading, be defined as sublimating (male) violence: The film’s space sequences would appear to suggest that in the 21st century such pacification has been achieved. The encounter with the Russians on the space station is perfectly peaceful (despite underlying political divisions and tensions), and space food is merely meat-flavoured, most likely without animals having been killed to produce it. 

The 'Hilton' Space Station in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

At the same time, humanity’s most advanced technology – the supercomputer Hal – turns out to be a murderer, and women are still marginal in this world (although the presence of female Russian scientists hints at potential equality). It is only after David Bowman’s transformation into the post-human Star Child that gender is finally left behind, as is, for all we know, the use of technology. However, we can’t know what the Star Child’s intentions are; could they be murderous?

Let’s go back now to the idea that what we call humankind is merely a transitional stage between animal and genuine humanity. In this reading we might say that what we know as “human” history is fundamentally flawed due to our killing of animals for meat, the murder of members of our own kind, and our dependence on technology. We might go further by noting that, both in the space sequences and in the few scenes set on Earth, 21st century “humanity” is completely divorced from nature as it was experienced by its hominid predecessors.

And the life of 21st century individuals is characterised by increasing separation from each other. In contrast to the band of hominids forever huddling together and cuddling and grooming each other, “human” families are dispersed and there is hardly any physical contact between people at all. Indeed, the film shows how Bowman’s journey finds him ever more isolated – millions of miles from Earth, his fellow astronauts being killed, his only companion – a computer – being switched off. 

Isolation,  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

It is important, in this reading, that at the very end of the film the Star Child returns to Earth (thus Bowman completes his odyssey). As far as we can see, it is no longer gendered, no longer dependent on killing animals or on technology. Should we understand the final images as saying that true humanity is in fact spiritual? Without need for food or sex or a real body, without physical companionship or interaction with natural surroundings? Or should we concentrate on the similarity between the bubble containing the Star Child and the Earth floating in space next to it, and on the fact that the Star Child at the very end turns to the camera to look at us? Does this imply that the Star Child recognises itself in the life-filled planet Earth and therefore that full human consciousness encompasses the planet as a whole? At the same time, is the Star Child not looking for companionship in the auditorium?

'Starchild' in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

While asking ourselves such questions, we must not forget the very last words spoken in 2001: a Space Odyssey, which state that “the origin and purpose” of the monoliths “remain a total mystery”. Rather than trying to solve the film’s mysteries, we should perhaps accept that its mysteriousness is among its greatest qualities.

You can hear more of Peter's thoughts on 2001 here or read his 'BFI Film Classics' book on the film