A weird thing happens in your head while you’re watching the new, so-very-21st-century reboot of the lovably tasteless Paul Verhoeven chestnut Total Recall. It’s not a pleasant thing, more like the onset of cognitive disassociation that sometimes precedes a full-on migraine. Taking in Len Wiseman’s superslick, hyper-edited, serious-as-a-13-year-old-boy-just-teased-for-his-Mutants & Masterminds-t-shirt action splooge within the dispirited funk it musters in any attentive viewer, one can be at a loss as to why it’s such a dismal experience. What’s the problem? The story has a dash of Dickian trickery to it, the action is flawlessly and digitally crazy, the look is semi-monochromatic grim, the visualized future is straight out of Blade Runner, and Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale are hot as habaneros. Colin Farrell can even act, a little, which is more than anyone could say about Ahnold all those years ago, or, really, since.
Then it hits you as you wait out the umpteenth pointless (and consequence-free) fight scene or chase, and try to remember the barely mentioned bits of supposedly relevant plot information as the dance-club-beat soundtrack hammers at your temples. It’s not simply the sorely-felt absence of Verhoeven’s raucous sarcasm and outrageousness, which is what most stymied critics offered up. The problem is actually state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking itself, which while in pursuit of relentless video-game-style cool and nonstop action no longer has room or time for ideas or story or character or even other kinds of tasteless sensationalistic impact—the kind that Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier, for example, have trafficked in without always resorting to chases and punching, chases and punching, and then some shooting.
Everything Total Recall thinks it’s doing right is exactly what’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood movies. The minute-to-minute insistence on “action”— supposedly, according to the marketing departments, “what we want”—is what makes it stupid, which everyone who sees the film knows even if they’ve had a hard time articulating it. Total Recall is structured in one-second bricks—that’s exactly as long as you get, and not one microinstant more, to let your eye rest on an image, contemplate a character’s feelings, or piece together a narrative sequence’s logic. What movies traditionally basked in now comes at us in strobe-rate splotches. The effect is not unlike those sleep-deprivation experiments psychologists have always enjoyed subjecting people to, the ones that eventually end in psychotic episodes. You watch the blip-blip-blip of Total Recall‘s trite ingredients speeding by, and your abandoned craving for context and contemplation and substance—any substance—quickly turns into irritation and then disgusted rage. Lab psychologists could, in fact, do worse than use Wiseman’s movie as a kind of cognitive-input deprivation test: how long into it does one’s gamma waves begin to wilt, and how might that measurement correlate with one’s age and education? Of course, sleep deprivation is also considered torture by the UN, suggesting that the use of movies like Total Recall may be a path forward for enterprising firms like the erstwhile Blackwater USA when confronting a new population of would-be evil-doers, particularly if the victims in question have the patience and focus for lengthy bouts of prayer. Just two consecutive screenings of Total Recall could make any devoted meditator weep with misery.
Genre movies can certainly be cheesy and brainless, but they’re not supposed to be torture. But as I’ve said, Wiseman and his team did nothing wrong—that is, nothing that the contemporary Zeitgeist of hyperattenuated style didn’t insist that they do, as fast as possible. Movies have changed, there’s no denying it. In his new book “In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema” (Verso), writer and professor Gabriele Pedulla builds a cogent case for how much change we’re actually talking about. Pedulla’s concerned with how we watch film, and the ways cinema has been and is now produced to accommodate that process. In the beginning, movies shared space in vaudeville houses with all manner of ephemeral entertainment, along with drinking, eating and conversation, and so the earliest films were brief, simple, single-minded, purely sensational, and aimed only at catching your eye and tantalizing you one patch at a time. If a dog-acrobat act or a newly delivered pitcher of beer or a vomiting hooker distracted you, that was OK—a new movie would distract you right back.
Eventually, by the mid-teens, the “black box” of dedicated movie theaters established film, like classical theater, as something we partake in conscientiously, with patience and silence, in similarly reverent community, and with interference from the outside world reduced to nothing. In order to watch a movie you had to accept the venue’s norms. All the better, the great theorist Stanley Cavell points out, to experience movies like classical audiences enjoyed Shakespeare, “paralyzed” by decorum and therefore forced to share the characters’ fates, empathize with their sufferings, and fully engage in the emotional moment. Cinema-going was a kind of willful hostage status, and helplessness was an integral part of the dynamic. That’s how performed narrative art works; without helpless empathy on the viewers’ part, you’ve got bupkis. The drama of any play or film is inherent in the fact that we cannot stop it or change it. “We can care about Ophelia or Juliet,” Pedulla writes. “But we will never be able to save them.”
Of course, in the last decades, with the proliferation of TV channel-surfing, home video, Internet connectivity, streaming, smart-phone convenience and so on, we are no longer paralyzed, and our control over what we see and how long we see it means the connectedness we had to the dramatic experience and to what it means is dissipating, dissolving. Anybody familiar with movies made before, say, 1985 knows what Pedulla is talking about. David Thomson once compared, brilliantly, the difference between watching a movie on TV and watching it in a full-sized theater as the difference between looking at an aquarium and watching a whale swim past you underwater. The comparison begs refinement: today it’s the whale versus not a tank of fish but a video of a tank of fish, which we can turn off or speed up at will.
Having adjusted to the new, solipsistic modes of watching, the movies everyone sees today—”blockbusters” like Total Recall, now a genre unto itself—are different in form. They do not require empathy, just awe, or at least distraction, which are the emotions of small forest animals. New Hollywood movies are not unlike nervous, beaten children, juggling and serving us drinks and jabbering nonsense, in constant fear of being slammed—that is, switched off—one more time. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone not channel-flipping to The Weather Channel over Total Recall‘s shrill and jittery annoyances—I’d slam the kid, and hard—but generally this anti-movie strategy seems to be working across the board. Movies that cost nine figures routinely double it in ticket-sales and ancillary streams (though it doesn’t appear that Total Recall will ever recoup its $125 mil budget).
This is not, I’d guess, because audiences “like” these movies, but because we may not be really talking about movies anymore at all, but rather of vast overproduced video games you can’t play, or some new sort of all-binary visual spectacle made entirely by machines, for machines. For now we’re allowed to watch, and the artificiality of the whole enterprise feels weird and interesting, like the spangly clothes aliens always wore on Star Trek. But the interest won’t last long, if movies keep going in this direction. What the machines make will eventually just bore all of us. And that’s when the revolution will come. Can’t hardly wait.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.