EDITORIAL: “Total Recall: Lessons to be Learned from the Sci-Fi Remake’s Poor Performance at the Box Office”

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Somewhere in California, Arnold Schwarzenegger is having a good laugh. This weekend’s remake of the action star’s 1990 sci-fi flick Total Recall opened to a so-so $26 million across 3,601 screens, a result that only slightly outperformed the original’s $25.5 million first weekend gross, and that’s before ticket price inflation is taken into account. For a production estimated to have cost between $125 and $200 million (not including marketing costs), the results spell certain doom in the profit department. Distributor Columbia Pictures is banking on a strong international performance to revive Recall but the movie now appears likely to join Battleship on the list of the biggest domestic flops of the summer. Here’s why Total Recall floundered at the box office:

1) Too soon for the old fans, not enough excitement for the new ones

Perhaps it’s just the ‘90s kid in me feeling grumpy at getting old but is 22 years enough time to warrant a remake? It’s one thing to reboot a franchise with a new story (see last year’s successful Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or attempt to cash in on a property’s existing popularity with a new actor (next week’s The Bourne Legacy) but a full-fledged remake two decades after the original seems increasingly desperate, even for Hollywood.

What likely made Total Recall appealing to studios was the advancement in visual effects since the original release. There were higher-grossing pictures in 1990 – Home Alone, Pretty Woman, and Ghost – but none that offered the freedom to stick a bunch of explosions, chases, and gunfights into a high-budget production.

Some may argue that technology is just as valid a reason to redo a flick as retelling a classic story through a modern lens. After all, George Lucas was willing to delay the Star Wars prequels until the special effects wizards could recreate the vision in his head.

The problem was that Total Recall was not just a mindless action extravaganza that lacked the technology to effectively convey director Paul Verhoeven’s vision. The movie spent just as much time dabbling in story and atmosphere as it did dishing out heaps of hyper-violence, and even those sequences focused primarily on clever gunplay and chase sequences rather than big-budget spectacles. Total Recall wasn’t hindered in the first place by a lack of computers. Some of the movie’s best sequences, masterfully choreographed and directed with taut tension, remain thrilling to this day.

Even if the new Recall existed as an unnecessary modern remake, surely it would have evoked enough nostalgia in old fans to come out to support the new picture. Judging by its audience makeup (53% of moviegoers were over the age of 30), the strategy worked somewhat but not as well as Columbia expected. The blame for that goes to the film’s trailer. Save for the similar story, the original’s film’s best points – the action sequences, the cinematography of Mars, and the sense of mystery – were all absent.

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Marketing was clearly going more for the teenagers than the old fans, and it explains why the new iteration opted for a friendlier PG-13 rating. But the aforementioned attendance numbers suggest that young audiences weren’t that interested the new Recall. The reasons for this are plentiful: exhaustion after a long summer of sequels, competition from the equally action-heavy The Dark Knight Rises, and decreased theater attendance following the Aurora incident.

In short, Total Recall didn’t enthrall old fans and bored new moviegoers.

In an ironic twist of fate, the derivative remake had to be perhaps the first movie to tackle marketing to both the ‘90s generation and the present one. Recall may be the first big-budget ‘90s remake but it won’t be the last; Point Break, The Crow, and Starship Troopers are all in various stages of development. Let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t erase the memory of Recall and learns from its mistakes.

2) The Farrell Factor

The casting of Colin Farrell in the lead role was confusing from the start. A string of successes followed the Irish actor in the early 2000s but the last few years have been marked by tepid performances and complete failures. Other than last year’s Horrible Bosses, which featured an ensemble cast, Farrell’s movies have rarely performed remarkably well. As a lead actor, he has seen disappointments in both big-budget (2006’s Miami Vice, 2004’s Alexander) and small-budget (2005’s The New World, 2011’s Fright Night) productions.

In contrast, Schwarzenegger was at a peak in popularity in 1990. Although it would be another year before Terminator 2: Judgment Day made him the most famous actor in the world, Arnold was already a household name thanks to the success of properties like Predator and Twins. Take a look at the original Total Recall poster. Today it might look a cheesy precursor to Avatar but twenty years ago the man’s face and 14-letter surname were enough to sell a movie. Imagine Columbia displaying “Farrell” with the same theme.

Popularity is only half the story; each actor’s artistic contribution to their picture is worthy of examination as well. While Schwarzenegger’s trademark deadpan delivery added humor to the dark tone of the original film, Farrell’s talents as a dramatic actor did nothing to sell the newer Recall.

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Whether or not Schwarzenegger’s cheesy lines and blunt machismo made the original the better film is a matter of opinion. What seems less debatable is the unique elements that each actor contributed to their respective picture. Yes, Schwarzenegger was over-the-top but that’s exactly what audiences came to love and expect from him. Farrell didn’t possess that identifiable charm. It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Arnold playing some of his classic roles or delivering his wince-inducing lines. It’s easy to do with Farrell in Total Recall.

3) Why invest so much money in the first place?

The official production budget of Total Recall remains undisclosed, with estimates falling between $125 and $200 million. No matter where it falls on the scale, any number appears to be excessive.

Director Len Wiseman has demonstrated his ability to work with healthy but non-exorbitant budgets. 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, another ‘80s / ‘90s reboot that also opted for a PG-13 but kept franchise star Bruce Willis in the mix, grossed $134 million domestically on a $110 million budget.

Would audiences, especially the nostalgic kids of the ‘90s, really have cared about B-grade special effects after two months of nonstop blockbusters? Couldn’t Total Recall have been made on a $90 million budget with a little less action and a little more dialogue?

It’s easy to blame the audience for not showing up but profit still remains a two-part process: decrease expenses, increase revenues. In Total Recall’s case, neglecting to focus on the former did just as much to damage the film’s prospects as tepid audience interest.

Written by Boris Paskhaver

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  • Len Wiseman said in interviews that he was going to ape as much style as he could from Minority Report, which is funny considering Minority Report’s production started in the early 90s as a sequel to Total Recall (Arnold’s character becoming Tom’s and some of the mutants on the Mars surface becoming the PreCogs).