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From left, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel, the director Len Wiseman, Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale from the film Total Recall. Invision / AP / Matt Sayles
From left, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel, the director Len Wiseman, Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale from the film Total Recall. Invision / AP / Matt Sayles

Stars of new Total Recall weigh it against the '90s cult favourite

The remake of the classic 1990 film opens in UAE cinemas today, and audiences will be watching to see if it measures up. James Mottram speaks with the cast to get their opinions.

Remakes are a dangerous game, particularly when the film in question was a game-changer. Violent and visionary, Paul Verhoeven's 1990 sci-fi Total Recall, set in 2084, remains an intoxicating look into our future, a world of memory implants, mutant females and Martian colonies based on Philip K Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. And if you factor in the might of its Herculean star Arnold Schwarzenegger, re-tooling Total Recall looks to be a titanic task.

So you have to admire the chutzpah of the director Len Wiseman and his leading man Colin Farrell, the man charged with taking over Schwarzenegger's role. The Irish actor, whose last sci-fi film was another Dick adaptation, 2002's Minority Report, is making no claims that he's following in Arnie's footsteps. "There's just no comparison," he says. "There's no world where we share any strain of DNA. He has me by like four inches and about 110 pounds of pure Olympian muscle."

With Farrell reprising Schwarzenegger's character Douglas Quaid, this new version follows the basic premise of the original: desperate to escape his mundane life, Quaid visits Rekall, a facility that offers "fantasy" memory implants. But then comes the twist as he discovers he already has implants - false memories making his entire blue-collar existence fake. In reality he's Hauser, a rebel spy working for an underground rebellion. But while Verhoeven's film jets off to Mars, Wiseman's version remains rooted to planet Earth, where war has left only Britain and Australia habitable.

That the script (co-written by Kurt Wimmer, who made his own dystopian sci-fi Equilibrium a decade ago) has the guts to not take the fans to the Red Planet, so much a part of the original, is to be applauded. It was this that kept Wiseman reading when a remake was first proposed. He then set out to write a list of everything he thought was cool from Verhoeven's original. "I'm drawing from a lot of things I really liked about the film as a teenager, as well as the short story," he says. "At the basic level of it, I'm selfishly making the movie for me - you have to."

Nevertheless, Wiseman smartly avoided comparisons by dropping many of the signature moments that made the original so unique. Rather, he's created his own vision - from a high-speed shaft known as "The Fall" that connects the two continents to built-up cities where concrete freeways and hover-cars compete for sky space. "I wanted to create something that was different," he notes, confessing he looked at films like I, Robot to ensure he veered away from what had gone before.

If anything distinguishes this Total Recall from its predecessor, it's that the female characters are much stronger. Wiseman cast his real-life wife Kate Beckinsale as Lori, Quaid's spouse (played in the original by Sharon Stone) who - we soon discover - is as fake as those memory implants. When Quaid goes on the run to try to reclaim his old life, she goes after him - again and again. "I liked the fact that all the stuff my character does is crazy," says Beckinsale. "And she is. She's relentless. She has this Terminator vibe. And it's all from hatred."

For Beckinsale, it was another chance to work with Wiseman after he turned her into an ass-kicking vampire in his 2003 film Underworld. Not that she was initially very pleased with the offer of playing Lori. "When Len started working on the movie, he said, 'I've definitely got you in line for the villain wife'. I was like, 'Oh, that's really insulting!'" (Still, it's better than an early idea he mooted; when it looked like Beckinsale's schedule might only permit time for a cameo, Wiseman, in a rare direct nod to the original, wanted her as the three-breasted mutant lady.)

The director admits it was "fun" to cast his wife as the villain for once. "Everything we've done has been fighting for truth and justice, and it's very earnest! So to be able to have the freedom Kate will say it: it's much more fun destroying the world than trying to save it." More fun, perhaps, than Farrell had: not only did he have to slap the director's wife on camera, but he also had to kiss her, with Wiseman watching on. "That was tougher," he groans.

Also cast is Jessica Biel, the The A-Team star who plays Melina, the freedom fighter that Quaid joins up with once he realises his true identity. She was put through a rigorous training regimen - weapons, boxing and parkour - in preparation for a huge fight with Beckinsale. "It was really different to fight with a woman," she says. "It was not what I normally do. That's Kate Beckinsale! I don't want to hit her. I don't even want to touch her. It was very funny. It was a very polite fight, as Len and Kate were saying. It was just constant apologising!"

The film has so far grossed US$76 million (Dh279m) globally, so audiences have clearly been willing to embrace this new vision of an old classic. And if Wiseman does rely on spectacular explosions to bolster the plot, it's not all pyrotechnics. As Farrell puts it, the film's "existential" themes were there to be wrestled with. "The whole film is a journey from this man awakening to the ideas of identity and past and being robbed of everything you were and everything you believed, without even knowing what these things are." Try getting your head round that.

Five Total Recall moments the remake can't touch:

1. The eye-bulging finale

A glorious horror moment to rival the face-melting Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. After Quaid inadvertently explodes a planted bomb, Cohaagen is sucked out into the Red Planet, his eyes bulging as he begins to choke from lack of oxygen.

2. The nose-yank

Not one for the squeamish. Eluding his pursuers, Quaid is made aware that in his head is a tracking device. Wrapping a towel around his head like a turban, he inserts a rather nasty-looking prong up his nose, pulling something the size of a golf ball out through his nostril. Ouch.

3. The chest-baby

One of the film's most memorable reveals, on a planet full of mutants, Quaid's Mars contact, Kuato, turns out to be not a man but a deformed humanoid conjoined to his brother's chest. Creepier than anything David Cronenberg has ever dreamt up, even Arnie looks shocked when he has to approach the freakish man-child.

4. The "old lady" mask

Even now, this scene is still jaw-dropping. A rather ample-looking lady passes through the security pre-boarding for Mars. All of a sudden, her face twitches. Backing away, she pulls at her mouth, her wig falls off and her face splits apart to reveal Arnie in disguise. Surprise!

5. The Johnny Cab

One of the more bizarre notions, typical of the film's surreal, sly humour, future Earth has cabs driven by "friendly" robots that don't stop talking. Which, when you've just woken up from an aborted memory transplant and been dumped in a Johnny Cab, must be a little disorientating.

Total Recall opens in UAE cinemas today.

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