Total Recall (2012) Trailer: Anxieties of Influence

Among the many challenges involved in remaking an iconic film, not the least is creating the trailer and positioning the film vis a vis its original. Beyond the always demanding job of engaging unfamiliar or uninvested audiences in the movie on offer, there’s the trickier task of assuring original fans of the reverence with which the new film has been made.

I am not alone, it appears, in considering the 2012 remake of Total Recall (1990) to be an invitation to examine its trailer. Indeed, alongside the official trailer (above) on Youtube, two 3+ minutes appreciations of the new film and its trailer appear, fronted by hyper-active fan surrogates and movie-review personalities Grace Randolph, at Beyond the Trailer: Movie Bytes, and Jeremy Jahns of Jeremy Jahns Trailer Reviews. Randolph’s is the more thoughtful and content rich comparison, but both express ambivalence about the new version, although they take pains to welcome its release, in the best spirit of show-biz comity.

As is often the case with trailer sites and trailer reviews, commentators look past the trailer as a worthy subject of inquiry and attention, to the film it heralds. In the post that follows, I’ll be focusing on the trailer as a trailer, assessing its formal and expressive qualities in order to appreciate how it meets the marketing challenge of its feature film.

The trailer opens on protagonist Quaid (Colin Farrell), waking from a nightmare and being comforted by his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). Cut to Quaid staring into an futuristic, urban landscape, shot in blue-grey tones. Next, we find him at a bar with his buddy, Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), asking the kind of existential questions that explain his subsequent visit to the Rekall Corporation, against Harry’s explicit advice not to “mess with your mind.”

At Rekall, McClane (John Cho) explains the “memory implantation” operation which Quaid is to undergo. Unfortunately, the procedure goes awry in spectacular fashion. Cho brandishes a gun, screaming “who sent you,” as police storm troopers enter, killing everyone but Quaid who they arrest, despite his convincing pleas that there’s been some mistake. Whereupon, with the twitch of an eye, his newly implanted secret-agent persona takes over and he dispatches 10 armed and armored antagonists in a choreographed martial arts action sequence. Shocked at his own unfamiliar and lethal behavior, he throws down the gun and flees.

The words, “THIS SUMMER” appear on screen, as we cut to a city scape traversed by hover-craft and elevated expressways. Lori, is seen at the wheel of a vehicle, glaring menacingly like the villain she is, and next in a scene of domestic hand-to-hand combat with Quaid, who asks, “Why are you trying to kill me?” Her answer, “your memory was erased. Your mind was implanted with a life you think you’ve lived,” explains how events have come to this pass. She attacks yet again and Quaid leaps from their apartment balcony, crashing through an adjacent roof.

He is picked up by Melina (Jessica Biel), who claims to have been looking everywhere for him. (Her role is unclear, but she’s an ally, occupying an “outlaw” position as well.) He is chased by the storm-trooper cops and Lori, who operates alongside them, in a succession of fire and fist fights, within an urban, futuristic landscape.

Amidst spectacular special effects/CGI, choreographed fights and chases, the question quaid must answer, assuming he can survive, is tersely expressed in two copy cards, “WHAT IS REAL” followed by “WHAT IS RECALL?” After Quaid and Melina endure a harrowing, but gorgeous, vertical crash in their hover craft, the title, using the same block, metallic silver font, appears, followed by a button in which Quaid asks the all-important question, “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I,” To which Vilos (Bryan Cranston) responds with understatement, “you don’t have the most reliable memory, do you?” Cut to Quaid whose face morphs through a series of other visages before returning to his own. SUMMER and the website url occupy the final graphic card.

While rhythm is an essential component of effective editing, in this trailer, it becomes the defining quality. In a preview stocked with punches, kicks, falls, shatterings, collisions and automatic gun fire, the editing establishes a steady beat that’s regularly punctuated by staccato bursts of strobing light and images. For these pulses of visual information, the cuts are measured in frames rather than the seconds.

And Whereas in the opening, attention and eye trace is directed left (toward the past) and right (the future), with the initiating action sequence defined by its wraparound camera work and editing, in the second half of the trailer, up and down movements implying gravity and weightlessness predominate. Dropping, spinning, falling, plunging, bouncing, climbing and floating upward characterize and distinguish the visual presentation.

Synthetic and percussive, the soundscape translates diegetic elements into non-diegetic sounds that build suspense, underlines action and enhances excitement. Bullets and punches are scored as drum beats; motion as snares and cymbals played with sticks or brushes. Bass notes, warped and distorted as necessary, provide a steady beat and a tempo for the sound. There is no melody or harmony, to speak of, and the soundscape is urban, industrial, hypnotic and not-remotely natural.

Conflict and character in the film are conveyed chiefly by dialogue, with a spare copy treatment establishing the philosophical stakes. From Lori, Quaid learns what has happened to him–he’s been implanted with a memory not his own, which presumably, makes him a target of the security services. From Vilos, he learns that his memory is unreliable. The copy raises the metaphysical problem of mind and memory, more as a “cool” paradox than as a tangible subject for inquiry. (Reality vs. Recall or memory) The original film trailer foregrounded these issues and explored them at length, as I mentioned in last week’s post.

Whereas the original film and its trailer emphasized the fun, mad-house quality of the source material and its on-screen realization, this film and its trailer appear to take themselves and their subjects very seriously. Sober, anxious and un-ironic, there are no jokes in this film, no quips or put-downs. It seems as if, in style and sensibility, this film thinks of Blade Runner as its progenitor, rather than its 1990 original.

The trailer has a tricky path to pick out, between signalling relationship to its original and asserting its difference. By using dialogue, nearly identical to that in the original trailer–Lori’s, “your mind was erased…” and Quaid’s “If I’m not me…” this trailer explains Quaids situation, while quoting the iconic movie and rewarding its legions of loyal fans. The scene of Farrell undergoing the ReKall implantation is nearly identical to that of Schwarzenegger, as you can see in the key art photos of the two shots. Here, the trailer is quoting visual language from the original, and honoring the connection.

And yet, in many ways this trailer positions its film as a very different experience. One in which action, rather than metaphysics or political rebellion, is preeminent. In style, it also aspires to a look in keeping with its 200M budget, by which I mean cool, sleek, and expensive. There is enormous competition at the high end this summer, and Total Recall suggests that it can deliver the spectacle required.

Farrell in the role of Quaid represents a signal departure from the original, and probably as necessary one, since how would you fill the Guvernator‘s shoes? He plays it as an everyman, for which his physique and acting chops are better suited, displaying through dynamic and unfixed facial features the quality of his confusion and the absence of certainty in his own identity. The final scene where his face morphs takes his twitches and double takes of surprise and confusion to their ultimate extension.

Lastly, and this is my final comment, I wanted to offer an interpretation of the images of falling, rising and floating that preponderate in the back-end of the trailer. Apart from the pleasure of such vertiginous visuals and virtuoso graphic editing, it seems to me that weightlessness serves here as a literal manifestation of the metaphysical situation of our protagonist. Untethered to his past, he is freed of the gravitational pull of obligation and experience, light in the air and without inertia, able to bounce and recover. Yet the flipside of that freedom is the terror of rootlessness, of an ungrounded identity, impermanent and unfixed, in danger of floating away. Presumably, Melina will tie him down, as it were, to the insurgency in which she fights. For our needs, out in the audience, the trailer does an admirable job of explaining psychological concerns of the film using the most economical means possible, images from the film itself.

Like its predecessor trailer, this too is a superb piece of cinematic and marketing craft. Let’s hope the film holds up its end.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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