Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Imperfect Recall

I'll always look back fondly on the 1990 Total Recall movie, if for no other reason than it was originally something I shouldn't have had. I was just a lad of ten or so, and nevertheless my mom allowed me to watch the hand-labelled VHS tape of it we recorded off some station or another, and I did--again and again. It was one of my first tickets into the world of grown-ups, one of the first hints of what was beyond the everyday, and despite its technical errors--Mars is not in a vacuum, and real-time two-way communication between Earth and Mars is impossible, just to give two--it'll always hold a special place for me.

As for the 2012 Total Recall movie? Less so. I went and saw it last night, and to be honest it's the sort of thing that would prompt a visit to Rekall for some synthetic memories to replace it. Once again, in the new Total Recall we have a purportedly "science fiction" movie written by people who are not science fiction writers debasing the concept of science fiction on the silver screen.

If you haven't seen it yet, the plot hits all the same points as the 1990 movie, although not quite in the same order. The biggest difference is that Mars isn't in the picture; the setting is Earth, after global chemical warfare has rendered most of the planet uninhabitable, save for a chunk of Europe ruled by the United Federation of Britain as well as Australia, referred to in dialog exclusively as "the Colony" and in signs as "New Asia," for some reason. These two bastions of civilization are connected by the one of the most over-engineered transit systems I've ever encountered: the Fall, a gravity train that falls through a tunnel dug from one side of the world to the other.

Incidentally, this is where one of the 2012's films first errors appears. The British side of the Fall is established to be in the center of London. On the opposite side of the world, you'll find... the Pacific Ocean, a few hundred kilometers southeast of New Zealand. This took me thirty seconds to find and verify. I don't know what excuse the scriptwriters have. But it's hardly the most ridiculous aspect of building your movie around the idea of a tunnel through the world without it actually being about the tunnel through the world.

Mars: because you've got to get your ass somewhere.

The Fall, to me, is a good representative of just what's wrong with this movie. It's not so much a movie as it is a flurry of individual elements--elements like the Fall, the three-breasted woman, the skycar chases, the no-go zones left over from chemical warfare, and so on--and while some of those elements can be compelling on their own merits, when assembled they do not form a coherent whole. They do not make sense. For instance, why is the three-breasted woman even there? Outside the story, it's so they could have that connection to the original movie and have a callback to put into the trailer, but in-story? There's no reason. In the 1990 movie, it was simple enough--she'd been mutated by radiation that the cheap domes didn't stop. There's no reason given in the 2012 movie. She's just presented to us, and we're supposed to accept it.

It's the same deal with the Fall, and though the scriptwriters may not have realized it, the thing compromises the entire movie for me. Since there's no Mars here and no alien reactor, the motivation of our big bad Cohaagen has been changed to invading the Colony with his army of robots to provide living space to the overpopulated Federation, and the Fall is his troop transport. Think about it, though--this elevator just happens to connect what we are explicitly told are the only two centers of civilization left on Earth. How believable do you think it is that the war would bypass them? No, given the evidence presented to me in the movie itself, I have to conclude that the Fall was specifically built to link the UFB and the Colony.

Except that if that's the case, there's one big problem. This is a tunnel that is more than twelve thousand kilometers long, that goes through the center of Earth. Even a movie as ridiculous as The Core knew to add some technobabble explaining how its terranauts could survive the fantastic pressures down there. In Total Recall, there's nothing. Nothing except the scriptwriters' silent request that I actually suspend my disbelief over this shit. To put it simply, it's unbelievable. I cannot believe that a civilization with the technical know-how, resources, and manpower to build a gravity train would be troubled by overpopulation. Think of how expensive the maintenance alone would be for a setup like that. Sure, maybe for some reason they can't get rid of the lingering chemical contamination in the no-go zones--chemicals which can effectively be protected against with a simple face mask, even though actual chemical weapons like VX and sarin are absorbed through the skin--it would literally be cheaper to colonize Mars.

Don't even get me started on the garden-variety plot holes. To me, the new Total Recall movie is a failure--spectacular, in that it's a hell of a thing to look at, but it fails as a story. As a movie, it's like the Calvin and Hobbes comic with tyrannosaurs in F-14s: "this is so cool!" versus "this is so stupid."

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