Total Recall (2012)
04 Sep 2012
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the transformation of things.
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher far removed from the Taoist Zhuangzi, but he was likewise concerned with this transformation of things. He sought to establish a philosophical groundwork based only in absolutely certain principles: Cartesian doubt. He posited that since our beliefs are malleable and they change over time, they can not be used to reliably determine truth; he further suggested that our own senses, despite seeming definitive and true, cannot always be trusted to be a measure of the real world; and because there were situations wherein our experiences were false, he wanted to remove experience from the realm of philosophy. To do this, he suggested the existence of an insidious demon capable of filling our minds with dreams that appear with all the vividness of reality.1
All of the best science fiction is allegory. The canon is filled with carnival mirrors that reflect distorted versions of ourselves, stories that tell us how to live through the lenses of possible tomorrows.
Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead is a parable for our own relations to each other, but explored as a question of xenology — beautifully told through the paired narratives of the alien Pequeninos and the all too human Rebeira family.
The symbolism in Frank Herbert’s Dune brings forth questions about resource economics, about hero worship, about destiny and free will. His universe was separated from ours by both time and distance, but characters were faced with problems that spoke to the humanity that we shared with them.
Paul Verhoeven’s original Total Recall is an exercise in epistemology that reminds us of Descartes’ demon, the imagined creature able to fill our minds with dreams that had the appearance of reality. But where we may have trouble admitting the possibility of Descartes’ demon, there is little such difficulty for Quaid as he is quickly made to accept the reality of Rekall’s claims. So the film becomes an excellent thought experiment where the character is forced to make choices that would make sense if one reality is true and be absolute lunacy if it is not. To this day, there is still debate over whether Total Recall’s final moments2 are an admittance of unreality or a decision to accept that the truth of the situation does not matter — Quaid is, for the first time, perfectly happy and how important is it that his happiness be brought about from actual events instead of a virtual reality.
Total Recall (2012) is a reflection of Verhoeven’s movie bounced off a pair $500 Ray-Bans. At times, there are horrible, hideous shades of the original film, but they pale in comparison. A remake should take elements and inspiration from its predecessor to craft an updated story that speaks to the new audience watching it. Total Recall (2012) is an action movie that barely succeeds at that genre, let alone living up to the science fiction elements or the philosophical questions of the film that birthed it: at no point are we made to question which reality the character is living in; at no point do we marvel at the vastness of the constructed film world; and at no point do we actually care about any of the characters, the situations that they find themselves in, or the grand narrative themes of the film.
Total Recall (2012) is a failure as a film and the only reason that you would choose to watch the Wiseman remake over the original is if you had an affinity for Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel or, I suppose, if you had an entire hemisphere of your brain violently removed.
Decartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy:
I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds an all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.
MELINA (overwhelmed) Quaid, I can't believe it... It's like a dream.
On hearing her words, Quaid’s expression turns grim and confused.
MELINA (CONT'D) What's wrong? QUAID I just has a terrible thought... What if this is all a dream? MELINA Then kiss me quick... before you wake up.