Total Recall, 2012 Edition: Do You Recognize This Workplace?

Editor’s note: We asked a number of writers to take a look at the movies from the summer of 2012 with an HR or talent management theme. Bob Duffy was the first to weigh in on the remake of  Total Recall.

Just when you thought you had forgotten the gubernator’s Total Recall of 1990, back it comes, re-envisioned for 2012 with Colin Farrell in the lead.

Chock-a-block with familiar sci-fi/gamer conventions, this Recall’s setting is bleakly post-apocalyptic, with a color spectrum that ranges from brown to dark gray. No blue skies, and absolutely no green anything. If you’re of the Comic-Con persuasion, this telegraphs immediately what we’re in for — moral and physical desolation, and lots of lightning-strike, barely motivated violence.

New movie, old premise

The movie’s premise, if you need a memory refresh from the previous version (which this iteration generally follows), also takes place in the future: here good guy factory worker Colin Farrell goes to Rekall, an experience-marketing emporium that promises to implant pleasant vacation fantasies in his noggin. But instead, the treatment triggers recovered memories of his real past as an alpha-male agent of the evil government, which had hoped to bury these memories before plunking him down in a repetitive blue collar job on the other side of the world.

But before we wrestle with the weighty human resource issues that this flick raises, a word about its most delightful and appealing features — specifically its two over-the-top super-villains. Bryan Cranston overplays smarmy head man Cohaagen with eyebrow-arching zest; and Kate Beckinsale is the film’s implacable can-do enforcer and putative second-in-command.

Come to think of it, maybe there are management and human resources parallels here, too. But I’m a corporate culture consultant, so I tend to see organizational obstructionists in the most unusual places. You may disagree.

Anyway, Beckinsale and Cranston are single-mindedly off-the-chain in their brooding, unrelentingly evil drive, an obligatory element in contemporary exemplars of this genre. Their relentless demonization by the filmmakers recalls another 1990s secret agent thriller, True Lies, specifically the wonderful moment when Arnold You-Know-Who is asked by his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) if he’s ever killed anyone. “Yah,” he nods, tight-lipped and straight-faced, “but day vass all bad.

That says it all about the moral universe of today’s blow-‘em-away potboilers. The evil duo in 2012’s Recall is unequivocally bad-to-the-bone, which of course seals their ultimate fate in the film.

Paying tomorrow’s tab for today’s excesses

In this version of Recall there are at least two big business/human capital plot engines that keep the story moving, if somewhat conventionally. The first of these hums along at what you might call the macroeconomic level. This Recall — in a departure from the Martian setting of its predecessor — takes place on planet Earth, where humanity is paying the piper for its environmental abuses and warlike bent.

It’s a world despoiled throughout by chemical warfare, except for two regions, a European federation (capital in London) and “The Colony”, revealed as Australia in a hokey (and I’m hoping tongue-in-cheek) map sequence reminiscent of pirate movies, but without the little model ships gliding across the parchment.

These two regions, like theme-intensive bookends, frame opposite sides of the Earth, although mutually accessible through a jaw-dropping 15-minute subway link between the two realms. The Colony is the domain of the underpaid, maltreated, dirty-faced working classes who make things.

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London — at least in those quarters where the foul gases don’t linger — appears to be home to the umbrella-toting knowledge classes, who we presume design and market stuff, though we might well wonder who in this dismal post-Post-Recession economy is buying anything. Big HR theme Number One seems to be telling us (surprise!) that this is where our own society may just be heading.

A C-Suite struggle worthy of HP or Yahoo

Big HR theme No. 2 unfolds on a more interpersonal level, in the familiar ripped-from-the-business-press struggle for favor between primary underlings of an entrepreneurial CEO, in this case boss Cohaagen (Cranston), primary enforcer Kate Beckinsale, and (spoiler alert!) unknowing heir apparent Ferrell. Cranston is the hands-on exec writ large, personally leading his invasion force against The Colony (doesn’t he already own it?) and inevitably engaging in a George Lucas-esque single combat for the planet with hero and surrogate son Ferrell (Could I be reading in here?).

Because the odds of career preferment are seemingly so stacked against her now that Colin is back on the scene, at moments Beckinsale almost froths at the mouth, in cold-eyed manic fury. She is the (over)acting delight of the film, the most watchable, seething she-nemesis since the monster-mother in Aliens. And throughout, the caricature she creates she is reminding us, as does Cranston’s smarmy villain, that all this is escapist fiction and not to be taken to heart.

But this is ultimately troubling, and little more than a fig leaf for the movie’s violent action sequences. The rapid-fire combat sequences are unremittingly violent, even when the pure-hearted hero is forced into action. Once restored to his former consciousness, good guy Colin’s trigger reflex and peripheral kill-zone prove as reliable as ever when he’s called on to cut down the baddies without mercy.

As a by now standard plot element, I guess this is to be expected, and the core audience should be very gratified by the familiar full-auto, blow-‘em-away-instantly conventions of the genre.

Still, I can’t help wondering if these trappings — while not as excessive as in other recent films — don’t stir up will-to-power impulses among the powerless and emotionally-deprived individuals who take up automatic weapons against real people, strangers and co-workers alike, in today’s world.


Bob Duffy is founder and principal at Insight Consulting, LLC, which specializes in corporate culture, research, and brand development. His teams have worked with the ITT Corporation, Verizon Communications, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Navy Recruitment Command, and the U.S. Army Reserve, among many others.

A committed advocate of brands based on shared values and substantive intellectual capital, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland.


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