I will go see almost any science-fiction, no matter how cheesy (or ESPECIALLY if it's cheesy), so I started to get pretty geeked to see this movie, despite the lame reviews it was getting. Turns out to be every bit as lame as they say, and not really all that fun, though pretty. Then I re-watched the original the next day, which makes this one look like a totally misguided turd.
We open with some exposition. The Earth has been poisoned by chemical warfare, and now the only habitable places are Britain and Australia. There's no Mars, and there's no mutants. The two places are divided by class, with Britain being where the rich people live, and Australia, now called 'The Colony,' where the lower classes live. The lower classes commute to Britain each day via a giant elevator that passes through the core of the Earth, called 'The Fall.' So the you are.
Like the original, we open in a dream in which Colin Farrell and Doug Quaid is escaping with lovely Jessica Biel. Then he wakes beside his wife, Kate Beckensale as Laurie. He's had the same bad dreams for a while now, and always dreaming of the same woman. He goes to work--giving us a chance to demonstrate The Fall (notice that Quaid is the only one reading a book, 'The Spy Who Loved Me') and see life up top, where he works assembling robots. He talks to his friend about being dissatisfied with life. There are constant news reports about a government leader, Cohaagen, and the resistance, led by Matthias and his operative Hauser. He considers going to Rekall, which is this service in which they implant memories in your brain, so whatever your fantasy is, you can remember it as though it happened to you. He is warned that it messes with people's heads, and some have ended up lobotomized.
Blah, blah, Quaid goes to Rekall, and asks for the 'Secret Agent' fantasy. He is half hooked up when they freak out because he IS a secret agent, and suddenly a SWAT team is at the door. Quaid kills them all using powers he didn't know he had (a la Bourne Identity), and we have the first of innumerable chases. He goes home, and his wife tries to kill him, because she's actually an undercover agent assigned to monitor him, and his life with her was a memory implant. He escapes during the second of innumerable chases. He gets a toolkit and message from his previous self, offering a few more clues, then we have the third of innumerable chases, in which he is rescued by Biel, the woman from his dreams, which were actually repressed memories.
By now we've noticed that the majority of the budget was dumped into creating the two cities, and a nice thing is that it looks like it. They look good. The Colony is a gloss on Blade Runner, that is, grim, dense, rainy, and populated by Asians. Britain is similar, but with an emphasis on luxury. Both are built way up vertically, leading to what they apparently hoped would be fascinating chases in these four-dimensional spaces, and which almost, kind of, works. Especially during a freeway chase, and later an elevator chase, in which things get kind of fun as they're racing up and down through these maze-like spaces far above the ground. I thought this movie was going to be in 3-D, and it's kind of a shame it isn't, because there are numerous shots with enormous depth of layers, and the 3-D could have used that well.
But very soon it falls into an extremely repetitive pattern, wherein there's a quiet scene, some new tidbit of information is discovered, then the enemy bursts in violently, we have an escape and another chase, and then repeat. It gets so that when there's a quiet scene, you just start waiting for the enemy to suddenly burst in. It takes a while to notice this pattern, but once you do, the movie is pretty much dead.
What has been dropped, as with most modern remakes, are the ideas. As I said, I watched the original the next day, and, cheesy as it is, it drops some pretty fascinating sci-fi ideas every few minutes, that make you think about identity and technology and reality and economies. Here the ideas are watered down--the two locations serve as the economically-disparate Earth and Mars of the original--and the questions of identity and reality are lost in all the action.
Then there's one massive screw-up. We learn that the bad guy is going to kill everyone in the Colony and "replace them with synthetics." Oh, okay. Except the movie has NEVER DEFINED WHAT SYNTHETICS ARE. I mean--I guess they're robots? Although I can't recall the robots of the film ever being called synthetics. So it's hard to get behind a fight to topple an evil dictator when you really don't fully understand what's at stake.
Ultimately, there's also just a misunderstanding of the importance of scale and spectacle. In the original, you had the mutants, who were visibly different and, since we got to know a few of them, we have some emotional connection and sympathy. Also the bad guy's plan: charge people for air, is quite easily understandable and we know what's at stake. And finally, the movie ends with a big spectacle with huge ramifications, so it seems like there was a good reason this story was told in the first place. In this remake, the economic disparities are a bit more intellectual, less visceral, and thus we don't have a FEELING about who is being wronged or what the stakes are. The ending depends on your involvement in this make-believe world, and sense of some injustice being committed, and for one, it's difficult enough to set up a whole imaginary world and imaginary politic enough to get in engrained to the point where one is emotionally involved in it being toppled by the end, and secondly, life in the Colony just never seems that bad. So when the giant elevator is destroyed at the end--come now, you can't seriously consider that a spoiler--it's just like "Huh, so I guess they lost their elevator." The movie is straining for us to see that as significant, but there's just not enough emotional involvement built up. As for spectacle, with CGI and the lack of any emotional stakes, we're still essentially watching a very detailed screensaver.
This won't kill you, and it does indeed look like a lot of the (ludicrous amount of) money spent is there on the screen, but it's just not fun, and has no ideas. The best reason to see it is to appreciate all the things the original, cheesy as it was, got right.