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Past and present, memory and dream

"Total Recall"


The remarkably productive and inventive Phillip K. Dick explored some of the most unusual territory in all of science fiction, blending futuristic technology with complex inquiries into brain chemistry, the process of cognition, and the very meaning of reality. His ingenious work inspired some highly unusual movies — "Blade Runner," based on the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," "Minority Report," and "Total Recall," based on the story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." (He also obviously liked quirky titles.)

Although employing many of the same materials, the remake of "Total Recall" — the original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, appeared in 1990 — adapts the story rather differently. A rapid flash of prose on the screen identifies the temporal setting as the end of the 21st century, when chemical warfare has poisoned Earth, with the exception of something resembling a new version of the British Empire. In this dystopian future, The United Federation of Britain rules the world, exploiting the citizens of Australia, now known as The Colony; the Federation is one of those featureless, streamlined wonderlands beloved of Hollywood, while The Colony is a crowded, squalid slum where the sun never shines and the inhabitants dwell in misery.

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in a dreary apartment with his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), in The Colony, commuting to work in a preposterous elevator/subway that runs through the center of the planet from his country to the Federation in an astonishing 17 minutes (really!). Haunted by violent, inexplicable dreams, bored and frustrated with his job, he takes a chance on Rekall, a place that implants in the brain presumably happy memories of events and places that the client never actually experiences. Once the technicians hook him up to the Rekall apparatus, all hell breaks loose — a squad of armed policemen break in, shooting everyone in sight, except Quaid, who disarms and kills the whole bunch. And then the fun begins.

From that moment the movie proceeds in slam-bang fashion, essentially turning into one long, complicated chase. Quaid, who gradually discovers another identity beneath the surface of the person he thought he was, flees the forces of the Federation, running toward a destiny that reveals itself through danger and violence. Along the way he finds that his ostensible self is a creation of the technology of Rekall, that he actually is a man named Carl Hauser, a brilliant agent who worked for the Federation, then joined the rebel forces in The Colony fighting for freedom from their oppressors in Britain.

In the process, he finds that he must question not only his identity but the true nature of reality, as all his assumptions about his life, his marriage, his whole world dissolve into illusion. In a series of philosophical conversations strung out along the hectic path of his adventures, Quaid debates the sources of identity, arguing that a person's personality derives from the sum of his memories, while others tell him that the past is only a construct, even a fantasy, that only the present exists, a kind of existentialist argument for a continual initiation into reality, a continual creation of the self.

The movie's incessant action proceeds at a terrific pace, with innumerable gun battles, pursuits in vehicles that hover above the highways, helicopter chases, and confrontations with robot soldiers called synthetics. Quaid and a new ally, Melina (Jessica Biel), climb, jump, vault, and fall all over the scenery, with repeated sequences of races through a maze of alleys, corridors, and tenements, and leaps in and out of a series of elevators. Although excessive and prolonged, the complicated flight nicely reflects the labyrinth of Quaid's own confusions and perceptions.

Unlike most contemporary science-fiction blockbusters, "Total Recall" at least provides something like an intellectual basis for its frantic action and bang-bang pacing, no doubt inherited from the original story. Its questioning of reality, its discussions of the existence and meaning of personal identity, its inquiry into the power of the mind, its deliberate fusion of memory, dream, and fantasy all reflect the influence of the author's unusual vision. It belongs with movies like "Blade Runner" and the first "Matrix" in considering some intriguing subjects that rarely trouble all those geniuses and wizards in Hollywood.