August 6, 2012
This is gonna be long.
Short review: This is a standard sub-standard summer science fiction extravaganza with some beautiful CGI and great action sequences, that everyone will say that you need to shut your brain off to really enjoy. But we all know I can’t shut my brain off.
Seriously though, the movie’s worth seeing as an homage to Blade Runner. Ever want to know what Los Angeles 2019 would look like with modern CG effects? Here ya go. The Colony sequences were just like Blade Runner right down to the lighting and camera angles, the constant rain, and people running around in transparent raincoats. I swear, the bar Quaid goes into must be the exact bar that Deckard is in. This is so much an homage to Blade Runner that when Quaid slouches down at a piano and plunks out a few sad notes, I almost busted out laughing.
Other stuff, good bad and ugly:
- Kate Beckinsale’s hair bugged the hell out of me. I kept expecting it to get caught on something and rip her scalp out, because that’s what would happen to me if I kept my hair down and moussed like that. She’s ostensibly the Sharon Stone character from the original, but she’s also the Michael Ironside character, which, you know, cool. Also, if both your women characters are played by athletic brunettes with high cheekbones, I am going to get them mixed up.
- Everybody was trained to shoot by the Cobra Trooper School of Marksmanship.
- These days, the original Total Recall is nigh unto unwatchable, no matter how many times I saw it when it came out. Trust me, I’ve tried. It’s a candy colored mess, and it turns out Arnold Schwarzenegger is not as charming an action hero as the 80’s seemed to think he was. So I can understand wanting to remake this as gritty cyberpunk. And really, the movie almost got it. I want to take all the neato old school cyberpunk tropes — the implantable cell phones, the glowing tattoos — and put them in their own movie. But there were too many spot-on references to the previous version of the movie. Like the security screening sequence. The tear instead of the drop of sweat. It threw me out of the story. My friend was like, “They have to throw bones to the fans of the original.” And I’m like, “The original has fans?”
- A serious question for someone who saw this one but did not see the original: How obvious was the plot to you? For me, because the plot was so spot-on a remake of the original, I saw the whole thing coming a mile away. The dialog all seemed heavy handed to me. Was it this way for someone who didn’t know the story?
- There was a split second when I thought this version was not going to pull the punch the original did. But no, it pulled the punch. (SPOILER: The story really needs to end with Quaid waking up in the chair, and the technician saying, “So, did you have a good time?” and the look of stark horror on Quaid’s face. Yeah, that’s an ending.)
Writing Workshop 101: Worldbuilding and Suspension of Disbelief
All the real spoilers start here.
So driving to the movie, my friend asked me what my predictions as to the quality of the thing would be. I said, “It’s going to have some really dumb science. Not just bad science, but dumb science. Prometheus levels of dumb science.” Ten minutes into the movie, he leaned over to me and whispered, “You called it.”
The movie completely blew up my suspension of disbelief on a couple of counts — exactly two minutes in, with the opening scroll. (Yes, there’s an opening scroll. They actually needed it to explain the dumb science, because it was just that dumb.) So, I was pretty much finished there. And now I’m gonna talk about it, because it’s just so fascinatingly instructive. (The movie was totally worth it from an academic standpoint, at least.)
Over the last few years in the science fiction writing community there’ve been a lot of discussions about diversity. As in, when you extrapolate your future world, it’s really best to extrapolate the whole world and not just your little corner of it. This is mostly in response to all those quaint space operas of the 50’s and 60’s where space is entirely populated by white people with Anglo-Saxon names. The joke goes that these stories are all set in a future where some cataclysm completely destroyed the entire world except for the US and Europe.
So imagine my terrific amusement when the opening scroll to this movie informs me that global chemical warfare has destroyed the entire world, except for Britain and Australia. I’m thinking, “Holy cow, they actually did that hypothetical future! That’s hilarious!” And then I start trying to figure out how global chemical warfare managed to completely destroy places like Andean Peru and Sub-Saharan Africa while leaving London completely intact. I dunno. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is, because it undermines the entire world the story is built on. The story becomes little more than allegorical.
And then I realize that this is a movie taking place in a post apocalyptic Britian/Australia, filled with British actors, all of whom are sporting American accents. Except for Kate Beckinsale, who switches to a British accent when it’s revealed that she’s the bad guy. MIND. BLOWN.
I haven’t even gotten to the big thing that I just couldn’t get past. So, a big part of writing science fiction is managing your audience’s suspension of disbelief. How much unbelievable stuff can you throw into a story before your audience gets fed up and walks away. Someone like Iain M. Banks can put a million unbelievable things into a story and I’ll buy it because he’s just that good. It all fits in the world he’s created. Star Trek has faster-than-light as a gimme. We know FTL probably isn’t possible, but in Star Trek we just don’t care because we’re more interested in the stories. It uses the unbelievable to tell good stories, so whatever. I can accept — suspend my disbelief — a lot for a good story.
But there comes a point that John Scalzi calls The Flying Snowman — a point when a story has presented too many unbelievable things and thereby loses the reader. People’s thresholds for this is different. The Red Matter in the Star Trek reboot didn’t bug me, but it had a lot of people tearing their hair out.
Total Recall is a story about false memories and identity. So when the movie includes technology that allows for mind-reading, memory implantation, and so on, I’ll buy it. Disbelief suspended. Screw around with people’s brains all you want, I’m right with you.
But I’m not for a second going to believe your giant tunnel through the middle of the earth between Britain and Australia with a regularly scheduled mega-train running between them and weightlessness at the Earth’s core. Not for a bleeding second. Sure, it may be cool, but it threw me out of the story every damn time it came up. And it’s not actually necessary for the story — there are lots of ways a parent nation can oppress a colony without having a giant tunnel through the middle of the earth between them. You know how I know this? Countries have been doing it already for thousands of years.
The cool points the movie was trying to earn with its giant train capsule hurtling through the middle of the earth were completely lost by this running commentary I had going through my mind the entire damn film: So you’re telling me this culture has the technology to build a train through the center of the earth, but doesn’t have the technology to clean up the toxic wasteland in the rest of the world? It would be easier to build a colony on Mars than a tunnel through the earth. You know you’re likely to get the bends traveling through the center of the earth that fast? So what happens when plate tectonics shift either end of the tunnel a few inches away from alignment? They could use suborbital shuttles between the two locations and the movie would be exactly the same, only I wouldn’t be having this conversation with myself. And where the hell did they put all the dirt from the excavation? I mean, there’s your new habitable land right there — the new Australia they’ve built in the middle of the Pacific!
So yeah. When coming up with your really cool eye candy for your science fiction story, make sure it isn’t going to leave your audience scratching their heads through the whole damn thing.