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I’ve lived long enough that the films I once watched new, when they were the latest and greatest available, are now being remade. I could probably start listing examples, but I am afraid the result would probably be more depressing than informative. Not long ago I talked about Blade Runner. Technically that was more sequel than remake, but the issues were similar. Today, I’ll move forward a half-a-dozen years and we’ll talk about another Philip K. Dick adaptation.

When Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall came out (1990), it was by almost any measure a big deal. In its time, it was one of the most expensive films ever made. It rivaled the record holder, Superman (1978), although not in inflation adjusted dollars, and was roughly on par with its contemporaries, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Die Hard, and Rambo III. Star Schwarzenegger was then a huge box office draw. Female lead (well, sort-of) Sharon Stone wasn’t really yet, but she was about to become one (in part, due to the exposure she got in Total Recall). The supporting cast sported familiar faces from other popular late-80s action films. Total Recall was both popular and successful; one of the top money-makers of 1990, it earned well beyond its substantial investment. Of course, neither Verhoeven nor Schwartzenegger were (or are) particularly know for serious, or even good, filmmaking (I’m looking at you, Starship Troopers). It may have been a big budget blockbuster (blah blah blah), but we all expected campy, superficial fun.

The screenwriters had purchased the rights to the short story more than a decade before, but had difficulty selling their concept. Instructively, one attempt at getting it on the screen had the original writer (Ronald Shusett) arguing with David Cronenberg, who was brought on board by Dino De Laurentiis. As a dozen different rewrites by Cronenberg were unable to meet with his approval, according to Cronenberg, Shusett criticized, “You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.” When Cronenberg asked, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?” he was told “No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” In the end it came to naught. De Laurentiis dumped the project when Dune turned out to be a disaster.

It was Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately pulled the concept through to fruition. He had been aware that De Laurentiis was working on the project, but was unable sell himself as the lead. When De Laurentiis dropped it, Schwarzenegger talked his Terminator 2 production company into picking the title up as well as giving him substantial control over the production. It was Schwarzenegger who brought in Verhoeven (impressed, as he was, with Verhoeven’s recent RoboCop). Thus history was made.

But could it be remade? In due time, the ebb and flow of the movie biz meant that the rights to Dick’s story came up, again, for grabs. This put a new, modernized production on the table. The result was the 2012 remake.

But why do it? OK, twenty years is kind of a long time and any good-but-twenty-year-old story might seem open to reinterpretation by-and-for a new generation. On the other hand, the technological and cultural shifts between 1990 and 2009 (when the new film went into production mode) just don’t seem, to me, to be that significant.

The obvious answer is, of course, “to make money.” Whatever creative reasons for redoing Total Recall ultimately would have to get approved and funded by a studio with their eye on the bottom line. In this, and we’ll just cut to the chase, it didn’t exactly succeed. The cost of production ran more than double that of the original, although such a monetary figure is considerably less remarkable in the 20-teens, where now a “big budget” is closer to $200 million. By contrast, the domestic box office, at under $60 million, was more like the cost of the original. Fortunately for the money-men, the international take was well beyond the U.S. take, making the overall venture profitable, but hardly the glowing success that the original was. Nevertheless, this may reinforce the idea that remakes and sequels are the way to go if you want to guarantee a return on your investment. Still, let’s think about the creative side.

Is the remake meant to be for fans of the original film who want to see the story updated? Is it meant for a younger generation that would never have seen the original? In some sense, it has to be both, because you need the numbers from both audiences to be successful, right?

One of the reasons I watched it (despite Netflix warning me that it wasn’t so hot) was because of a handful of positive viewer comments I had read. One in particular was written as a counter to all the negative reviews based, presumably, on unfavorable comparisons to the 1990 film. This reviewer said that the comparisons to the Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger version were off-base because this film was based on the original short story, not the 1990 film. In this, his comments seem to be taken directly from some Jessica Biel (the other leading lady – not Sharon Stone’s upgrade) pronouncements made on The Daily Show being interviewed by John Stewart*. The problem is, this explanation is not accurate.

Clearly, anyone working on a 2012 version of this film would have, as reference points, both the 1990 movie and the 1966 short story and so influences are going to come from wherever**. However, one of the main missing pieces – the fact that Mars gets nothing but a bare mention – comes not from the original short story, which is Mars based. In the interview with Biel, Jon Stewart (correctly) states that the short story takes place entirely on Earth. In fact, Dick’s original takes place entirely in either Doug Quail’s (he is Quail, not Quaid, in the book) apartment, the Rekal offices, or a police station. That said, the focus of Quail’s fantasy/memory is unequivocally a trip to Mars. Similarly Biel’s character doesn’t exist in the original story; she comes entirely from the 1990 movie. For that matter, so does the “action” that makes up the bulk of the new film.

It is that action that seems to be the primary raison d’être for the newer version. In the 20-teens, films are now dominated by CGI and, shall we say, Matrix-style combat sequences. Ironically, another viewer review comment that I focused on was that the science fiction of the new version was more realistic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Those comic-book style combat sequences which fill the bulk of the film may start out stylish but they quickly end up becoming exhausting. Bullet fly, bodies tumble, but nobody really gets hurt. We see people that are constantly fighting, but the conflict has no meaning since it has no consequences***.

Beyond the superficial action, the fundamental premise is simply absurd from an science/engineering standpoint. The voyage to Mars has been replaced with a giant core-traversing earth elevator that allows a 17 minute transit from England to Australia. It’s so outrageous that we’re probably foolish to even try to analyze the details, but it seems they get every single thing about it wrong.

It may just be me, but this version seemed to be trying to make more of a “statement” in a try-hard fashion. The 1990 original, itself, had a bit of environmentalism and class-struggle politics built into it, but that probably didn’t skew the story for most viewers. In the remake, the philosophical assumptions that underlie the premise, like the math and science, seem wildly off. First of all, this marvel of technology – a machine that can allow near-instant commuter transportation between England and Australia, in the end, has no other meaning except that it is a tool for oppression. Likewise, the destruction of the majority of Earth in a chemical warfare episode is insurmountable by this incredible technology. Despite this, we see hero Colin Farrel traverse the dead zone with nothing more than a black facecloth. In the end, it all seems contrived to create, for story purposes, an artificial scarcity with in the small world of a film universe. That scarcity, unlike the preciousness of oxygen in the original, allows the manufactured resurrection of the WWII bugbears of nationalism and ethnic conflict projected onto the future.

Finally, after having now seen both versions, I elected to at last read the original story. It was published, in April 1966, as a short story in a magazine. Over the years, it has been included in anthologies. Fortunately, for me, it was released as a stand-alone ebook, presumably as a tie-in for the 2012 Total Recall film promotion.

It being a short story, it does not have, nor should it be expected to have, a lot of depth. The magazine submission origins emphasize something of a one-note composition; the story is all build up to the one big twist at the end. That’s OK, of course. The simplicity should only be a disappointment to those who sought out the “book” to find more depth behind the action-focused movies.

Most interesting to me is what the content of the various stories have to say about the contemporary society in which they were created. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale comes from a time when humanity was on the verge of escaping the bonds of Earth. We were about to go to the Moon; unmanned tests of the lunar mission vehicles were taking place and we were less than a year away from the deadly Apollo 1 mission. Space-wise, it was a time of eager optimism. After the Moon, the solar system and perhaps the galaxy was sure to open up to human exploration. But with these things still just over the horizon, the fantastic potential of alien life – around other stars, on Mars, or even on the Moon – had yet to be quelled. Thus, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale is full of alien encounters and extra-terrestrial life.

By 1990, the Space Race had come and gone, but a new era of more modest exploration had begun. NASA was pushing its robotics missions to Mars which, while still a few years out, were also beginning to peek at us over the horizon. Talk about a renewed man space program and manned colonization of Mars was not entirely unheard in politics. While the fantasy of “little green men” on Mars was known to be just that, there remained (and still does, despite a lack of evidence so far from the completed Martian missions) the possibility of finding evidence of past life on Mars, perhaps during and earlier era of a warmer climate. Thus, the 1990 film cleverly combines a plausible view with wild, speculative fantasy about what a Martian colony might look like.

So what does the 2012 version say about us today? The post-apocalyptic setting contrasts with the reach-for-the-stars future of the originals. The political structure of oppression and genocide completely overwhelm any sense of wonder at the future tech (what was there besides fancy cell phones?). Even the extreme emphasis on cartoony action and violence – completely absent from the original story and considerably less prevalent in the original movie – surely makes a statement about how we view ourselves as a society today. Let’s leave that out, though, as a exercise for another time.

*Here I thought 1990 doesn’t seem that long ago. Since Total Recall became a mainstay of the home video rental market, Jon Stewart has come and gone as host of The Daily Show.

**Personally, I see an attempt to work in The Time Machine‘s construction of a bifurcated civilization which then attempt to dominate each other.

***This isn’t a problem with this movie in particular – the comic book world is taking over the film world and bringing with it “superhero” -style combat.