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.


  1. 'Abstract': I argue that these two very different films have something profoundly in common, and yet that in the end that doesn't make one of them (the remake of Total Recall) good, even though it makes the other (the original of The Wicker Man) brilliant. I seek to pinpoint precisely why The Wicker Man is brilliant: because it fools one into thinking it is a bit empty and silly. Whereas the Total Recall remake is merely a hollowed out version of the original. It is merely empty, merely a trick. ...Whereas a trick, a hollowed out empty space, can be genuinely awesome, deep. The Wicker Man shows us this, by placing us in this space.

  2. [Another connection one might make is to the superlative recent C4 series, UTOPIA. At times, this too seemed to have plot-flaws, sillinesses, etc. that let it down. When one reached the end, the final twist revealed that one was wrong: the whole thing now made complete sense. What THE WICKER MAN does so magnificently, though, as I've emphasised, is to effectuate a more therapeutic dimension to the trick it plays on the audience: somewhat unlike UTOPIA, it places _you_ as viewer more essentially in the place of the one being fooled, the one being a bit complacent and superior.]