The theatrical cut of director Len Wiseman’s Total Recall has the distinction of being 2012’s worst science-fiction blockbuster.  It isn’t that it’s a bad movie, per se (though Bryan Cranston’s uncharacteristically hammy turn as the Big Bad ranks as terrible no matter how you cut it); it’s just so frustratingly there.  Barring a lovely lead performance from Colin Farrell and some great effects/stunt choreography, nothing about this new Total Recall delights or thrills or surprises.  It’s By-the-Numbers Blockbuster Filmmaking, and to say the film lacks the subtlety of Philip K. Dick’s source material (the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) or the manic, crazed invention of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall iteration doesn’t quite get at the real problem: this new Total Recall is a studio calculation, a collection of images and pixels designed to separate your money from your wallet.  No more, no less.

And then there’s the Blu-ray extended cut.

Here’s the thing: no matter which version you see, the 2012 Total Recall will never be a great movie.  Mark Bombeck and Kurt Wimmer’s script was flawed from the jump; what a surprise that the “creative” minds behind Live Free or Die Hard and Salt, respectively, would favor action excess over ideas and insinuations (Looper, this is not).  However, this longer director’s cut represents a dramatic improvement over what you may have seen in theaters last August.  To his credit, Wiseman has restored over ten minutes of key character and narrative beats, all of which help to create a more cohesive final product.  The movie is still junk food, but you won’t hate yourself (too much) after consuming it.

Most of the director’s cut’s major additions occur in the first half.  It’s now almost a half hour before the film’s first big setpiece – the moment when beleaguered everyman Doug Quaid (Farrell) is “activated” and takes out an entire cadre of government agents, much to his own horror – and we spend the extra time immersing ourselves in Wiseman’s futuristic Earth.  The theatrical cut depicted a world ravaged by disease and war, one where the survivors live in either the United Kingdom or Australia (and, in the movie’s neatest/most ridiculous conceit, people can travel between the two locales using an advanced subway system that runs through the Earth’s core), and the director’s cut fleshes out this virtual reality with numerous digital extensions.  We get a better sense of the squalor, and that situation, enhanced through added beats with Quaid’s wife (Kate Beckinsale, whose cackling villainess remains the film’s chief pleasure no matter what cut you view) and best friend (Bokeem Woodbine, oddly enough) helps us understand why our hero yearns for something more.

Again, none of this new stuff is revelatory, but I appreciated the director’s cut’s willingness to slow down the pace rather than to speed from action scene to action scene.  It ups our investment in Quaid’s journey, and it gives Farrell more time to shine.  His unforced, natural charisma was one of the theatrical version’s saving graces, and he’s even better in the longer edit.  We now see the little connective moments he brings to his character, how he mentally transitions Quaid from average schlub to confused superman, and this work elevates Total Recall to a level of credibility it probably doesn’t deserve.  Very few movie stars are as good as thinking on their feet as Farrell is – a late scene where he scares/delights himself with some newfound piano playing skills displays more nuance than these types of films usually get.

Other changes create a more pervasive air of menace.  In the theatrical cut, Wiseman and his scriptwriters paid lip service to the notion of reality versus illusion, but here, they toss in lots of ambiguous fragments that cast doubt on Quaid’s grand adventure.  Better still is the restoration of a major character played by Ethan Hawke; Hawke’s presence adds a whole layer of narrative complications while helping to ameliorate the theatrical cut’s biggest lapse of logic.

Would that the new cut fixed all of the theatrical version’s logistical gaffes.  I don’t want to overstate the value of this Total Recall re-do; much of what didn’t work in August still doesn’t work here.  The second half jettisons most of the first half’s character development for hollow thrills – don’t even bother trying to apply silly concepts like “realism” or “physics” to the end action blowout, or else your brain will ache and you’ll pass out – and any flick that makes Jessica Biel look more talented than either Bryan Cranston or Bill Nighy deserves a little more than a slap on the wrist.  Furthermore, the movie keeps throwing in references to Verhoeven’s Total Recall (the three-breasted prostitute, Quaid’s duplicitous wife, an attempt to convince Quaid that’s he actually in a coma), and all they do is remind you of how much better that earlier version is.  But taken as a whole, the changes in the director’s cut suggest a movie with aspirations greater than your normal, explosion-y thriller.  Even if Total Recall never fully realizes those ambitions, I give it points for trying – so few movies do.

Sony’s Blu-ray/UltraViolet combo pack presents the film in a stunning HD transfer – even on a relatively small screen, the level of detail and depth of field is impressive.  As a bonus, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track is immersive and robust, especially in the many action sequences.

The Blu-ray also comes loaded with supplements.  Wiseman contributes a great commentary on the director’s cut, and the theatrical cut gets a PiP “Insight Mode” that offers production featurettes concurrently with the film.  Disc two has nine behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Colin Farrell,” “The Tripping Den,” “Destroying Rekall,” “Kate Beckinsale,” “Lobby Escape,” “Jessica Biel,” “Quaid vs. Cohaagen,” “Designing the Fall,” and “Science Fiction vs. Science Fact”), five pre-viz sequences (“Apartment Waterfront Chase,” “The Fall Fight,” “Flight and Tripping Den,” “Elevator Chase,” and “Car Chase”), a gag reel, and a Playstation 3 demo for God of War 3.

While no one’s idea of perfect, this Total Recall director’s cut is watchable, and that’s far more than can be said for the lame theatrical version.

The extended director’s cut of Total Recall is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: Director’s Cut of TOTAL RECALL Improves on Its Unsatisfying Theatrical...