Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Total Recall -- memories and the past

Director: Len Wiseman, 2012 (PG-13)

Total Recall begins with a dream which could be reality. A man and a woman are being chased by futuristic police. Trapped, she escapes while he is captured. He awakes, not knowing what he has experienced. Sounds a little like the audience for this film.

Set in a future earth where the globe has been devastated leaving only two territories inhabitable, Total Recall tells the story of Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell, In Bruges), a factory worker. Or is it the story of Carl Hauser, a terrorist guerilla? Or is it the story of Hauser, a double agent? Such false recollections and convoluted storylines are mashed together in this remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.

Since I did not see the original movie, I have nothing to compare this one to. But Farrell is no Arnie. His lack of mass is made up by his acting muscle, so perhaps it is a fair trade. Regardless, Total Recall is a full-on sci-fi action film that overwhelms with chases and action and underwhelms with depth. It raises many intriguing questions and answers none of them. It just leaves them hanging.

Quaid is married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale, who herself is actually married to the director), a security agent for the United Federation of Britain (UFB). He works in a factory in the Colony, the former Australia (where Britain used to send its convicts a couple of centuries ago). Travel between these two remaining territories is via “the fall”, a subway of sorts that cuts through the very core of the earth (and of course features in one of the major set-pieces). Quaid’s life is dull, and he thirsts for more. He wants to experience things and determines to visit Rekall, where false memories are implanted so the customer can remember experiences he never had.

When Quaid does visit Rekall against all advice, he chooses to be implanted with a secret agent’s memories, vis-à-vis James Bond (as in the book he is seen reading on the fall). But memories cannot be implanted if there is a trace of reality already present in the recipient’s brain. And guess what? Yes, Quaid has secret agent memories locked up inside his head, unbeknownst to him. Cue the alarm, and before you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger, a platoon of USB security forces are shooting up the place, the first of many set-pieces.

Escaping and returning to Lori, he is shocked to find her ready to kill him. She tells him, “It’s true. Your memory was erased, your mind was implanted with a life you think you’ve lived. You keeping up, baby? There is no Dennis Quaid, there never was.” He is in fact Carl Hauser, whoever Hauser really is.

Is this deja vu for us, too? Have we been implanted with these memories? Haven’t we seen this film somewhere else? Since it is inspired by yet another Philip K. Dick short story (“We can remember it for you wholesale”), it is likely we have seen this before. The dark, damp environment of the Colony recalls Blade Runner. The android army brings to mind scenes from various Star Wars films. And the whole plotline of a man whose memory is gone but whose survival skills remain brings to mind The Bourne Identity.

With Quaid/Hauser on the run, hunted by his wife and UFB police, his only ally is a woman who suddenly shows up. Melina (Jessica Biel) is the woman from his dreams, the one who escaped. Her presence triggers a stunning aerial car chase, before she tells him things he cannot accept: that the terrorist leader Matthias (Bill Nighy, Hot Fuzz) is a true freedom fighter and Hauser is working for him.

A crucial centerpiece of the film has Quaid and Melina trapped in a building lobby surrounded by police. Guns pointing at them, one of Quaid’s friends enters to tell him that this is all a dream, and that he can escape by killing Melina. Is it real? Is it a dream created by Rekall? Is this man friend or foe?

Although by then we know the answers to these questions and the suspense of the scene is missing, the questions posed remain. Is a memory real? If chemical stimulation of the brain can create images that seem real, can we trust our memories, our minds? How can we anchor ourselves in reality if we don’t know what that reality is? Certainly, the whole concept of implanted memories was done before, and better, in Blade Runner.  Do memories create a man? If we have no memories are we any less human? What makes a person human?

That brings us to one more key scene. Quaid has a significant interaction with Matthias, telling him: “I want to remember.” When asked why, he responds, “So I can be myself, be who I was.” Matthias tells him, “It is each man’s quest to find out who he truly is, but the answer to that lies in the present, not in the past. As it is for all of us.” Quaid: “But the past tells us who we’ve become.” Matthias replies, “The past is a construct of he mind.”

The film would have us believe that the past plays no role in who we are. In answer to the question, who am I, one character points back to the past (I am who I was) while another character points to the present (I am who I am now, not who I was then). Which is right? Are both right?

Certainly the past plays a role in who we are. That is true. Our upbringing, our education, our choices, our relationships all are critical in where we are, and are formative in our person. So Quaid is right. But, there is also a biblical aspect to this that points away from the past. The apostle Paul talks of our former way of life (Eph. 4:22), of our old self “which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:23). He goes on to say that we must take off this old self and be made new, putting on a new self “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:26). In this regard, it is an act in the present that defines us. We are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) that is now living in Christ. The acts and deeds of the old self are forgotten as we live in the grace of the new and now. Both contain aspects of truth and reality. We must remember this, with a memory that is not implanted!

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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