Better Dreams; Memories of Cyberpunk

“Don’t think of it that way” McClane said severely. “You’re not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all it’s vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best”

Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale

I recently, for whatever reason, decided on a whim to watch the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger starring action blockbuster Total Recall, itself an adaptation of the Phillip K Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While in some respects it is slightly less distracting than the Verhoeven film, Colin Farrell being slightly more believable as an everyman than the over-the-top action juggernaut of Schwarzenegger, in many other respects it is a pale and flaccid regurgitation, lacking both sci-fi heft and action effervescence.

In many of its tics this Total Recall feels like it belongs in the early 2000s in a kind of post-Blade Runner, post-Matrix continuum, seeming to ape both films in the appropriating of a cyberpunk dystopia now as well worn as the action-structure of its plot, and the paper-thin philosophical dallying worked into its themes. In this, however, it could exist no other time but now, a blockbuster trapped in its own PoMo referential purgatory, finding itself unable to muster any kind of modernist impulse besides a copy-pasted hall-of-fame, even giving into the screamingly obvious impulse of referencing the original Total Recall.

It becomes difficult to buy the typical PR spiel at release that it is more of a re-interpretation of the source material than a remake of the adaptation, especially when if anything the film generates yet more stages of removal from the story itself with its piecemeal appropriation of sci-fi cinema visuals, and even takes the disentangling of ambiguities of the political themes in the Verhoeven film further, really driving home our main character Quaid [notice that again the name Quail, much less forgiving on the male ego of our protagonist, is yet again hardened into the much more action-hero-suitable denomination applied to Schwarzenegger] as a heroic [flawed of course; “he can be a real ass”] political freedom-fighter, starkly set against Bryan Cranston’s Chancellor Cohaagen, who in his enthusiasm for international conflict and torture seems to be a rough caricature of bush administration neocon politics, missing the essential component of smiling “likeability” that accompanied it. Something that Hollywood films often seem to miss when presenting their neoconservative archetypes is the banality of their warmongering, that sense of thumbs up and a smile as the meat-grinder kills a few hundred people somewhere else in the world bonhomie. This duplicity would never have conceivably worked given the explicitly authoritarian visage of Cohaagen in the film.

The kind of warmed over political simplifications we receive here only become more notable when set against the Phillip K Dick story, which in contrast keeps the actual political motivations for any of its developments almost entirely ambiguous. Indeed the main question we are intended to take away from both Total Recalls [and I say intended as I’m not sure either really succeed in the reality-questioning they supposedly reach for.. it all comes across as far to telegraphed and obvious], whether the whole thing is simply an implanted memory itself, really doesn’t factor into the story at all in such a fashion, somewhat ironic as these are the main pretences both films make towards sci-fi credentials. Instead the focus is on the nature of memory and fantasy itself, the “Vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions” inherent to remembering something, and, by implication, inherent in how we experience the world.

This ambiguity, the partial nature of memory and experience, is something lacking in both films not in theme but in form. Just as one could say that Inception is a film that’s good at talking about dreams but not at representing them, Total Recall is good at mentioning the fallibility of memory without actually showing it meaningfully. The rote action film structure, built on the bare bones of a very short story indeed, forecloses any meaningful sense that what we are witnessing may not be real, the confusion simply acting as an explicit hint rather than an implication of the film itself. Dick’s story explores in many respects the unsettling idea that our memories are simply a simulacra, that is to say, that they an unreliable patchwork constructed of approximations, and that an actually imposed, artificial memory may be better than the real thing as it were. This is at least hinted at in the newer film, but this hint is immediately frustrated by the film’s need to throw us headlong into rather unexciting action set pieces for the rest of its duration.

“We need to get you some better dreams” says Quaid’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, towards the beginning of the film. The ultimate irony is that the film has nothing to offer in this regard, the dreams it offers are the same old dreams we’ve become used to, clad in the same old monotonous fabrics. Of course, Phillip K Dick was in every sense more than a simple sci-fi writer, his work toeing the line between speculative futures and psychedelic subversions constantly, even if the interests of commodification drive his work, much like J.G Ballard’s, out of its un-definition to be crammed into the sardine tins of bookshelf conformity. This is precisely what we see in this ultimate repackaging of the old cyberpunk standard, a tinned, vacuum packed reiteration with as much life as a nuclear desert. Its appeals ultimately rest upon our perception of culture becoming so fuzzy that the Blade Runner-Matrix dynamic just beds in as the best we can expect. This is particularly noteworthy when if anything the actual sequel to Blade Runner explored the theme of artificial memory much more effectively and, while not entirely empty of its past more often than not broke free of the cyberpunk-noir shackles of its legacy. Striking at something quite different in terms of theme and focus, it became that wonderful thing; a sequel that manages a re-imagining, a complete shift in perception within the same space. Total Recall on the other hand only musters a gutted out, empty vision of a future we’ve already seen.

We need to get ourselves some better dreams.

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