It is ironic that Douglas Quaid spends so much time in Total Recall trying to figure out who he is, because the film itself does not know what it wants him to be. Ostensibly a science-fiction adaptation inspired by—at least they had the decency not to say "based on"—Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," Total Recall actually spends more time alluding to its 1990 namesake directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Both films center around a worker who decides to use the services of a mysterious agency named Rekall, which purports to be able to implant memories of experiences you cannot (or cannot afford to) have. Quaid purchases a "package" in which he is a spy/secret agent, but the imprinting of the fantasy is interrupted when it is discovered that Quaid actually is a spy who has had his memory erased and whose current existence is itself a fabrication. Or is it? Perhaps everything that follows the trip to Rekall could be the fantasy he has just purchased rather than the interruption of that transaction. Is Quaid a factory worker fantasizing about being caught up in the war on terror the government is waging against the mysterious "Matthias" and his followers, or has he been brainwashed by the government into forgetting what he has already done? While Dick's short story is a dark, cautionary tale about a man who has been wiped and imprinted so many times he can no longer decipher what is real and what is made up, the film versions are mostly interested in playing an "is he dreaming or isn't he?" shell game with the audience.
That's a shame, because the "keep the audience guessing" game is much less interesting than the questions raised intelligently by the subjectivity and ambiguity of the source material. Truthfully, though, director Len Wiseman's version doesn't even keep the audience guessing for very long. There are simply too many scenes cut away from Quaid's point of reference for it to all just be in his head. We can understand that he may not be sure, but as the film never adopts Quaid's perspective exclusively, we ourselves are never in doubt. Whether the film wishes us to be in suspense but lacks the comprehension or the skill to think through how to accomplish that ambiguity or whether it simply doesn't understand how his uncertainty has less dramatic effect than our own is an open question. In one centerpiece scene lifted from the 1990 film, a person pretends to be an imprint trying to get Quaid to snap out of what he is told is his own psychotic break by shooting an accomplice. "Will he or won't he?" carries a lot less dramatic conflict when the question "should he?" is no longer in play.
One famous study purported that an average National Football League game, which lasts about three and a half hours, has eight minutes of actual action spliced in between huge chunks of down time. Total Recall is almost the opposite. It feels as though there is eight minutes of story spliced in between endless repeated chases and stunts. The larger social and political setting of the film is set up in the first five minutes, and Quaid spends most of the first hour of the film looking for pieces to a puzzle that everyone else, including the audience, has already put together. The best action/mystery hybrids are the ones in which the hero is a step or two ahead of the audience, convincing us in their ingenuity that they are smart, clever, or well trained. That is not the case here. Quaid makes many miraculous escapes that require physical grace and precision (and more than a little special effects help), but the sequence of set pieces are stitched together not by a strategy he develops but by a series of external messages or clues that are directing him to his next steps.