The bones of this remake of the Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger indulge-athon are identical to the original. Douglas Quaid is a construction worker who dreams of a better life, goes to Rekall to have those memories implanted and finds out he's been there before. Hunted by the villainous Cohagen and pursued by a wife-turned-assassin, Quaid frantically tries to uncover the truth as the fate of two cultures hangs in the balance. Add in Arnie, the odd bonne mot or two as people are brutally killed and a dash of ambiguity and laugh all the way to the bank.
Or not. Because whilst the bones of this remake are the same the muscle structure is very, very different. Mars has been replaced by a broken Earth where only two countries are habitable; Arnie has been replaced by Colin Farrell; and the sprawling American sci-fi feel of the original has been replaced with an information-dense, dark, brutally beautiful world that wouldn't look out of place in Metal Hurlant .
The scary thing is, it works. Mostly.
Farrell is an instantly more plausible action hero than Schwarzenegger, the Austrian tank replaced by a small, wiry Bourne-alike who isn't quite in control of his abilities and is clearly reacting from adrenalin and subconscious memory as much as training. Farrell's great in this, consistently frantic, panicky and always appearing both mortal and dangerous. He's particularly good in the scenes he shares with Kate Beckinsale as Lori, the character best-served by this remake. Sharon Stone kickboxing in lycra has been replaced by a woman who's a trained security industry professional, disgusted at having to prostitute herself to a man she's constantly compared to and found wanting. Beckinsale attacks the role with a gusto no one else in the movie comes close to and she's both a strong physical presence and clearly an immensely dangerous one.
The chase sequence across the roofs of The Colony is beautiful to watch and fraught with tension and her fight with Melina, in stark contrast to the original choreographed bout, is scrappy, brutal and evenly matched. She's the most fun element of the film by a mile, not just a female credible action star but a female credible action villain and arguably the first since Kelly Hu in X-Men 2 . Unfortunately, the rest of the cast fall largely by the wayside, with Biel wasted in a nothing role as Melina, Bill Nighy and Bokeem Woodbine both doing typically great work in cameos and Bryan Cranston not used nearly enough as a preening, plausible Cohagen.
The real star here is the utterly beautiful design work. The Colony is a disaster of crowded prefabs, buildings growing through accretion as much as need as people are stacked on top of one another, creating a world that combines Blade Runner -esque sprawl with South American urban architecture to create something unique. The UFB capital, which is clearly London, couldn't be more different: recognisable landmarks and more space balanced with vast, multi-surface highways and more glass and clean, precise lines. There are some fun bits of tech too, including a subdermal phone and a neatly handled callback to the original's famous mask. There's real wit and elegance in the design work here, and it grounds the world nicely.
Which, frankly, is needed, because the central maguffin here isn't Mars, but the Fall, a mass transit elevator through the centre of the Earth that connects the two nations. It's a startlingly goofy concept, but if you can get behind it (no easy feat) then the rest of the film is clear sailing.
Different in tone but almost identical in structure, this is a remake that manages to honour its predecessor whilst still breaking new ground. It's not perfect, nothing is, but if you're looking for a smart, inventive SF b-movie with a surprising sense of scale, this is for you.