PAUL Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL (1990) was not exactly memorable except for one violent fight that saw Sharon Stone come close to beating the virtually indestructible Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was lucky to survive and deliver one of his trademark one-liners.
The current version features a similar marital battle, albeit without the same conclusion, and striking visual effects, but is likely to last for an equally short time in memories. Worse, it is as much a departure from its source — We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, by Philip K Dick, one of the most imaginative creators of relevant, cautionary science fiction — as its predecessor was.
The late 21st century is the setting: it is a time when chemical warfare has devastated Earth and left it with only two inhabitable places, one being the United Federation of Britain, the other The Colony, an antipodean land mass filled with human drones.
Among the thousands of workers travelling daily from the dormitory continent to jobs in the north is Quaid (Colin Farrell), who toils in a factory making robotic law-enforcers. As if the underground commute was not enough to unsettle him, Quaid is also disturbed by nightmares in which he is in mortal danger and with a woman he does not recognise.
Dissatisfied with being stuck in a monotonous, repetitive job, Quaid decides to try Rekall, a company that promises vicarious adventure and a temporary escape from drudgery and, it must be said, from his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who may not be as selflessly loving as she appears.
The procedure malfunctions and Quaid discovers he has many of the attributes of a trained special agent, including Melinda (Jessica Biel), the requisite female counterpart. Is this wish fulfilment or a reality that has slipped his mind?
The vicious, uncompromising clashes between Lori and Melinda are big highlights, while the production design manages to impress even in an age when spectacular effects have become the norm.
Of particular interest is a London wrecked by war or neglect, yet not completely fogged up, while the humanoid cops — all synthetic, although some are sympathetic — seem to have been borrowed from a Star Wars episode.
In another nod to its betters, Len Wiseman’s movie has scenes reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (also loosely based on a story by Dick) while the use of no fewer than five writers echoes the quintet who, 22 years ago, mangled and sacrificed Dick’s message to create an action-packed, incomprehensible plot that is hardly worth trying to follow.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a peculiar, modest film that seems to be going nowhere until, halfway through, it finds a purpose and repays the audience’s patience by providing a point to its earlier meandering.
Sean Penn offers a strange yet apposite performance as Cheyenne, a rock star who retired after one of his songs caused the suicide of two young fans. Now living in Ireland with his wife (Frances McDormand), he looks ready to join a Black Sabbath-type group: he wears make-up; speaks in a measured, soft voice; has unkempt hair that has to be blown off his face; seems always to be pulling a trolley of some kind; and drinks everything through a straw.
Cheyenne comes across as strange and lost but is then set a task which, for this aimless melancholic, is truly odd: his estranged father had wished that his son would find the man who, decades before, had tormented him and hundreds more in extreme circumstances.
Paola Sorrentino’s film then becomes a road movie as Cheyenne traverses the US, the changed setting allowing the Italian writer-director the opportunity to give a European’s insight into America.
Cheyenne’s quest is aided by Mordecai (Judd Hirsch) and enlivened by encounters with eccentrics — a secretive woman, a lonely boy and a goose — most of them being of a piece with Sorrentino’s apparent, yet unconvincing, intention to portray the US as a land filled with strange people.
Off-beat and rambling as it may be, this eventually absorbing film is worth seeing for Penn’s quietly compelling creation of a personality whose presence transcends its surroundings.