Total Recall (2012)

total_recall_farrellRemake season continues for me, this week with the 2012 remake of the 1990 original movie Total Recall. Back when it came out, I was seriously questioning what the hell was going on in Hollywood, as this was just another remake in a summer that was packed full of them. But as the saying goes, “put up or shut up” – i.e. if I’m going to complain about the tide of remade movies, I might as well know what I’m talking about.

And much like last time, I figure that a review of this movie should start by paying a little lipservice to the original (which this remake did in spades!)

Total Recall 1990:
total_recall1The film is set in the not-so-distant future, where a man named Douglas Quaid is haunted by dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman and seeks an escape from his humdrum life as a metal worker. He learns of a memory-implant service named Rekall which he believes might be the solution, since they can provide a simulated adventure that he has always wanted – to go to Mars and live a life of adventure.

He then goes to Rekall and selects a package that includes a simulation where he is a special agent on a top-secret mission. However, things go terribly wrong when he begins acting out his secret agent character before the company has even had a chance to implant it. They sedate him and put him in a car, hoping to wash their hands of the incident. But when he wakes up, his friends and wife try to kill him, claiming he is not who he says he is.

https://i0.wp.com/www.fmvmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Total-Recall.jpgHe is given a briefcase by a former associate which contains a recording, in which he is telling himself that he’s really a man named Carl Hauser, and that the governor of Mars (Cohaagen) erased his memory because of a secret he carries. Quaid/Hauser then goes to Mars, retracing the path his old self has given him, and finds his way to Melina and the resistance. She then takes him to Kuato, leader of the resistance, to unlock his memories.

They help him recover the secret he’s been carrying – which involves the discovery of an alien artifact under the surface of Mars – but the base is then found and overrun. He and Melina are taken prisoner, and he learns that Hauser was never a double-agent, but a mole working with Cohaagen all along to lead them to the resistance. They strap him and Melina into chairs and try to force Hauser to recover his old self.

total-recall-originalHowever, Quaid and Melina escape and enter the alien artifact. Cohaagen tries to stop them, claiming its a doomsday device that will destroy the planet, but Quaid manages to activate it before the three of them are sucked out onto the surface. The reactor turns out to be an atmospheric generator that turns Mars’ icy core into breathable air, which then pours out onto the surface, saving Melina and Quaid and making the planet livable.

Quaid kisses Melina, still not sure if what he has experienced is real or a dream.

Total Recall 2012:
TotalRecall2012PosterAt the end of the 21st century, the world has been devastated by chemical warfare, rendering all but two regions unihabitable. Whereas the wealthy live in the northern hemisphere – in the United Federation of Britain (UFB) – and in the Colony (former Australia). Tensions between the two are high due to the latter demanding independence, and a series of terrorist bombings attributed to a man named Matthias.

Enter into this Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who makes the transit between the Colony and the UFB every day on a massive subterranean lift called “The Fall”. At night, he dreams of fleeing for his life with a woman, and then being taken captive. He attributes these dreams to feeling trapped in his dead end life, and then hears of the memory-implant service known as Rekall.

https://storiesbywilliams.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/0e021-total-recall-movie2b252882529.jpgAgainst his friend Harry’s recommendation, he goes to Rekall and requests a memory in which he is a intelligence service agent. The chief technician reveals that any duplication will cause problems, and then stops the process when he learns that Quaid really is a secret agent. Federal agents then break in and shoot everyone and try to take Quaid prisoner. However, he kills his captors and escapes.

Coming home to his wife Lori, he tells her of what happened and she tries to kill him as well. After escaping again, a pursuit begins, and Lori is told by UFB Chancellor Cohaagen to bring Quaid in alive. Meanwhile, Quaid is told by a former coworker to find the “key”, and a hidden message in the call leads him to a safety deposit box containing fake IDs, a holographic disguise, and a recording in which he explains what is happening.

https://i1.wp.com/www.fxguide.com/wp-content/uploads//2012/08/TotalRecall_TwoWeeks.jpgApparently, Quaid is actually a man named Hauser who worked for UFB intelligence. He was given the task of infiltrating the Colony’s resistance until he met Melina, who convinced him to change sides. He is instructed to go to the UFB and find it, but upon arrival, he is found out and forced to flee again. He is then rescued by the woman he keeps seeing in his dreams and escape Lori for the second time.

Together, they make it away and Quaid takes them to his old apartment to hide. Here, he finds the “key”, which is a recorded message on his piano that tells him that Cohaagen has been behind the bombings, and that he is planning an invasion of the Colony with an army of synthetics so he can level it and rebuild it as a new living space for the UFB. Luckily, Hauser discovered a kill code for the synthetics, which he must get to Matthias to stop the invasion.

https://i0.wp.com/www.thewallpapers.org/photo/59772/Total-Recall-013.jpgAs they attempt to leave his apartment, they are interrupted by Harry, who claims Quaid is still at Rekall and that he is an implant there to help him wake up to reality. Quaid chooses to shoot him and save Melina, and they are once again pursued by Lori and once again escape. They travel via the Fall to the Colony, where they meet with Matthias to hand over the memory that contains the kill code.

Unfortunately, the memory proves to be a recording of Cohaagen telling them they’ve been had. He then shows up with Lori and several security forces, kill Matthias, and take Melina away. Hauser is told he was given a false code to lead them to the resistance, and that a backup of his memories that predate his betrayal will be restored. Hauser realizes his old colleague is with them, has left his restrain undone, and escapes.

https://i2.wp.com/www.themaninthemoviehat.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/caps-total-recall.jpegA fight takes place aboard the Fall, and Hauser and Melina plant a series of bombs on the rails. The Fall arrives and the synthetics begin to deploy, and Hauser begins fighting it out with Cohaagen and his forces. Hauser and Melina defeat Cohaagen and then detonate the bombs, which causes the Fall to begin falling backwards towards the center of the Earth where it explodes.

Hauser loses consciousness and wakes up with Melina inside a medical vehicle. He realizes it is actually Lori wearing his holographic disguise and they fight again, and he finally kills her. He and Melina are reunited, and they stand together and hear how the Colony is now expecting full independence. He sees a Rekall signs and has a moment of doubt, but ignores it and kisses Melina.

Summary:
Once again, I am forced to give this one to the original. Whereas the remake had some signs of quality, which included decent enough performances from Farrel, Biel, Beckinsale, and Cranston. But unfortunately, some decent sets, a whole of lot of chase scenes and big budget special effects were not enough to save this movie from a relatively weak plot and a whole lot, too much CGI, and a whole lot of borrowing.

We-Can-Remember-It-for-You-Wholesale-Dick-Philip-K-9780806534459First of all, why did they do away with the whole Mars plot? The story which both the original and the remake are based on – “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K Dick – centered on Mars, though it did not take place there. Including it in the plot seems like a no-brainer. But for some reason, the writers of the remake wanted a story focused on Earth and the dangers of chemical warfare and rezoning.

Second, the story did away with a crucial element this time, which was the good old fashioned mind-fuck of the original. In that version, not only did we not know for certain whether or not Quaid/Hauser was dreaming the whole thing, we truly thought he was a good guy up until they showed otherwise. The plot involving replacing his memories was a ruse by Cohaagen in order to get Hauser past Kuato’s psychic detection.

https://i1.wp.com/filmesegames.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/total-recall-comparison-trailer-thumb-550x295-94147.jpgIn other words, in order to infiltrate the resistance, he had to believe he was an actual traitor. Thus began the convoluted process of making the resistance think he was genuine by erasing his memory and dumping him on Earth, then leading him to retrace his path and find his way to Kuato. Though the information he had about the Martian artifact was real, it was just the bait they dangled in front of the resistance’s nose to get them to give up their location.

Which brings me to item two in the weak plot front. The fact that Quaid/Hauser was actually a good guy in this version made me respect the plot way less. It was cool finding out the hero was a villain, and then seeing him chose to remain with his implanted identity rather than allow himself to be turned back into his old self. It was a big reveal, added a solid twist to the plot, and even raised an existential question or two.

https://i2.wp.com/img2-3.timeinc.net/ew/i/2012/08/02/TOTAL-RECALL-RED-PILL.jpgAnd then there was the key moment where Quaid/Hauser has to decide what is real. In both versions, this takes the form of someone telling him he’s still dreaming and has to do something he won’t like in order to wake up. In the original, it involved Quaid being handed a pill which the man from Rekall says is a symbol of his desire to wake up, but could just as easily be a sedative. He realizes the man is a fake by the way he’s sweating and shoots him.

In the remake, it takes the form of him being confronted by his friend Harry who tells him he’s dreaming and to shoot Melina, a figment of his imagination. He chooses to shoot his friend Harry and accept that what he is experiencing is real because Jessica Biel begins to cry. But isn’t that be exactly what a fantasy woman would do in that situation? Seemed like quite the gambit there.

https://i0.wp.com/img576.imageshack.us/img576/8643/totalrecallf.jpgAlso, the “secret” that Hauser had stumbled upon in this version was really quite lame. In the original, it involved an alien artifact, which is oodles more interesting than than Cohaagen planning to rezone Australia for more living space. Sure, the idea was laden with scientific inaccuracies – melting an ice core doesn’t instantly terraform a planet! – the ridiculousness of it could always be circumvented by arguing that it really was all a dream.

Last, but not least, there were the many parts of this remake that were obvious shout outs or references to the original. First, you had the three-breasted hooker, who was well cast and easy on the eyes. You also had key lines like – “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” “How would I know? I just work here.” And of course, the redheaded woman at the customs line. But these seemed a bit too many and obvious to be a simple wink and a nod.

https://i2.wp.com/iteenacgppesam.wikispaces.com/file/view/Total-Recall-Vilos-Cohaagen-Actors.jpg/493570572/Total-Recall-Vilos-Cohaagen-Actors.jpgAlso, Bill Knighy had barely any screen time at all, and only really comes on to paraphrase what Kuato said in the original film. And the bad guys? No comparison! While Kate Beckinsale was believable enough as a villainess, Brian Cranston simply did not hold a candle to the original’s Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. Those two were perfectly cast as the evil, somewhat over-the-top bad guys, the perfect counter to Arnie’s over-the-top good guy.

But getting past that, there’s the matter of what the movie kinda-sorta did right. The settings were all quite artistic, with the world in the Colony being gritty, crowded, dirty looking, and consisting of a great deal of cultural influences. By contrast, the UFB looked cleaner, brighter, and the design seemed singular by comparison. And the emphasis of shortages of space was summed up nicely by the massive, overlapping layers of structures.

total_recall_setsAnd the “synthetics” were artfully done and kind of cool looking. As were the flying cars, the aerial traffic lanes, and the three-dimensional elevator pods that crisscrossed the sky. And “The Fall” was a pretty neat idea, especially with the whole “gravity reversal thing”. But in just about all cases, these things have been done before. The sets are reminiscent of Blade Runner, with it’s gritty, crowded streets, signs in Asian characters, and the synthetic humans wandering around.

The robots also looked like a cross between Storm Troopers and the machines from I, Robot, and the flying cars called to mind another Philip K Dick adaptation, namely Minority Report. What can be said about a movie who’s set designs and concept art are quite impressive, but which borrow heavily from several other franchises? It’s like this movie is subtly mocking itself for a lack of originality – which makes sense since it’s a remake.

https://i2.wp.com/futuredude.com//wp-content/uploads/2012/07/total-recall-2012-reboot-robot.jpgAnd with all the special effects, things looked entirely too fake. People today might find the Kuato puppet and the molded plastic suits of the mutants to be outdated, but those showed a lot of heart versus the extensive use of CGI in this one. In fact, seeing movies like these make me long for the days of old-style effects where costumes, real actors and real sets were built rather than generating everything digitally. George Lucas, I’m looking at you as I say this!

I’d say its blatantly obvious at this point, but this one definitely goes to the original. And much like the Robocop remake, it begs the question: why redo a movie when the original got it right? Sure, the 1990 version of Total Recall wasn’t perfect. It had a lot of cheesy elements and some massive scientific inaccuracies, but it managed to both entertain and impress with the way it played with perceptions, twisted things around and kept people guessing until the end.

In this remake, there really is no mystery, the plot is simplified, the most important element (i.e. Mars) is dropped, some of the best elements are missing, and it borrowed too heavily from multiple sources – not the least of which was the original. So really, why was it even made? In this season of remake review, I find myself asking that question quite a lot! Not a good way to start…

Okay, onto new things. Which may, at this point, include The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles relaunch. No promises though 🙂

Robocop Then and Now

robocop-2014-wallpaper-robocop-movie-wallpapers1Recently, I took the plunge and watched some of the reboots I had been avoiding. These included the reboot of Robocop, an updated take on the 1987 Paul Verhoeven gorefest about a police officer who is brutally murdered and brought back as a cyborg. The movie was officially released in February of 2014 after being pushed back from its original August 2013 release, and received mixed reviews.

In any case, upon viewing the film, I totally saw what all the mixed reviews were all about. Whereas the new movie does score some points for updated special effects, technology, and has some decent casting, it lacked the social satire, edginess and macabre sensibilities of the first. So while it had some entertainment value, it really suffered from a sense of ambivalence, as if the makers themselves were wondering what the point of the remake was.

To put it in perspective, here’s a rundown on the original and what made it work…

Robocop (1987):
https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Robocop_film.jpgSet in the near-future, the film opens on a Detroit that has become a cesspool of crime, corruption and corporate greed. Having gone bankrupt, the city has signed a deal with Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to run the underfunded police department in exchange for demolishing Old Detroit and building a new metropolis – Delta City – that will renew the city and provide employment.

To remedy the crime situation, OCP plans to deploy the ED-209 enforcement droid. But after a demonstration leads to the death of a junior exec, an alternate plan is considered from the cybernetics division. This involves placing a recently-deceased police officer inside a machine that is armored, has superior firepower, and runs on programming based on three simple directives:

1. Serve the public trust
2. Protect the innocent
3. Uphold the law

https://i1.wp.com/www.joblo.com/images_arrownews/robocop%204.jpgTo get a “volunteer”, OCP transfers officers to more crime-ridden districts, one of which is officer Alexander Murphy. A dedicated officer, he and his new partner run into criminal kingpin Clarence Boddicker and his gang during their first patrol. After pursuing them to an abandoned steel mill, Murphy is isolated and gunned down. Pronounced dead, his body is then used to create Robocop.

His deployment results in an immediate drop in crime, but problems quickly ensue. At OCP, the creation of Robocop leads to an internal power struggle between senior president Dick Jones and Bob Morton – the young exec behind the Robocop program. Boddicker, it is revealed, has been working with Jones for some time, using his crime connections to advance OCPs agenda of taking over Detroit. Jones orders Boddicker to kill Morton, and promises him exclusive control over all vice in Delta City.

https://i0.wp.com/normalguysnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/robocop.gifMeanwhile, Murphy begins to remember his old life and begins hunting for Boddicker and his gang. After capturing him, he learns of Boddicker’s relationship with Jones and attempts to arrest him, but is stopped by a secret Fourth Directive, which prevents him from arresting an executive of OCP. He narrowly escapes OCP headquarters with the help of Lewis, his old partner, and flees to an abandoned factory to recuperate.

Meanwhile, Boddicker is given advanced weaponry by Jones and a tracking device to go and kill Murphy. In a showdown at the abandoned plant, Murphy and Lewis kill all members of his gang, including Boddicker himself. He then goes to OCP headquarters and presents a video of Jones confessing to ordering Morton’s death. Jones attempts to take the head of OCP chairman, but he fires Jones, giving Robocop freedom to kill him.

http://nureviews.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/robocop-without-helmet.jpgThe movie ends with the chairman asking Robocop if he has a name, to which he replied: “Yes. Murphy”.

Summary:
For many reasons, the movie remains a cult classic and an iconic genre film. Though the franchise didn’t do so well after two sequels, the original remains popular with fans decades after the fact because of the way it pulled no punches and delivered on a message. Set in a future Detroit characterized by rampant crime and urban collapse, the movie showcased a very real problem that was apparent by the late 80s in America, and people certainly noticed.

Thought it was brutal and shocking at times, the over-the-top nature of the violence played into the social satire of the film. As he would demonstrate with later films – Total Recall, Starship Troopers – Verhoeven was known for using graphic violence to parody America’s preoccupation with violence in media. And in this context, it provided a sense or urgency to the plot – with police, politicians, and common folk feeling helpless in the face of it, and corporate execs being indifferent and using it to further their agendas.

In short, the hard-R rating of the movie worked in its favor. And the exploration of issues relating to identity and humanity in an age of man-machine interface were also well rendered. Now as for the reboot…

Robocop (2014):
https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b1/Robocop_poster.jpgThe year is 2028, and robotics and automated military systems are now commonplace around the world, enforcing US military policy in places like Iran. Looking to expand, Omnicorp contemplates ways that they will be able to make robots palatable to the American masses, where the Dreyfus Act currently forbids their deployment. All they need is a critically injured policeman to put inside the machine.

Meanwhile, detective Alexander Murphy and his partner are trying to take down crime boss Antoine Vallon, who has contacts within the police department. A car bomb nearly kills Murphy, and Omnicorp roboticist Dr. Dennett Norton convinces his wife to let them use him in the program. What is left or Murphy is placed inside a full-body prosthetic, and he is awakened.

robocop-2014-1Initially, Murphy is shocked to see what has become of him and tries to escape. But Norton manages to convince him to stay and do his job, if for nothing else for the sake of his family. He begins undergoing testing to see how combat effective he will be, and proves to be inferior to a fully-automated robot. Pressured to make him work, Norton then alters Murphy’s brain so that behavioral software is control of his actions, even though he still thinks he is in control.

This leads to the confirmation of the Robocop program and the company prepares to unveil it to the public. But his first demonstration, Murphy experiences a seizure when they attempt to upload tons of information and video feeds to his brain. Norton and his team then alter his emotional responses again, leading him to coldly enact his protocols before the public and arrest a criminal in the crowd. The arrest is a PR success, and Robocop’s performance begins to reduce crime and convince the public to rescind the Dreyfus Act.

https://i1.wp.com/www.robocop.com/media/images/gallery-2.jpgMurphy’s wife confronts him in the street, which triggers Murphy’s memories and leads him to begin investigating his own death. He tracks down Vallon and destroys his gang in an intense shootout, and then confronts the members of the police department who were supplying him. Seeing this, Omnicorp shuts Murphy’s systems down before he can arrest the police chief and begin to rethink his existence.

They decide to circulate a news story that he died of complications, while plotting to shut him down permanently. With the help of Doctor Norton, Murphy escapes the Omnicorps facility where he is kept and goes to the headquarters to confront the CEO. With the help of his old partner, he is able to fight his way in and narrowly kill the CEO, who is holding his wife hostage.

Murphy is then rebuild in Norton’s lab, the President of the US vetoed the repeal of the Dreyfus Act based on the testimony of Norton, who confesses everything OmniCorp has done, and Murphy goes back to work and living with his family.

Summary:
Compared to the original, the reboot suffered from multiple problems. In addition to being toned down and less violent, as evidenced by its PG-13 rating, it was c0mparatively confused and muddled in terms of its message. Whereas the original was a hard-hitting movie about corporate greed, corruption, crime, and the fight to retain humanity in inhuman circumstances, the new movie was a rather bland commentary on the morality of robotics and autonomous machines in today’s world.

https://i0.wp.com/blogs-images.forbes.com/scottmendelson/files/2014/03/robo.jpgWhile these issues are certainly very relevant, the way the movie went about presented them seemed at once too subtle and heavy-handed. This is best illustrated by the character of news pundit Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a clear parody of Bill O’Reilly and a slew of other Fox News commentators. In addition to being loud, extremely biased and a corporate shill, he completely hands the message to the audience within the last few seconds of the movie:

Now I know some of you may think that this kind of thinking is dangerous and these machines violate your civil liberties. Some of you even believe that the use of these drones overseas makes us the same kind of bullying imperialists that our forefathers were trying to escape. To you, I say… Stop whining! America is now and always will be the greatest country on the face of the Earth! 

The way his scenes are shot, he’s even addressing the viewing audience. So he’s effectively breaking the Fourth Wall when he says this. It was honestly the most obvious scene and message I’ve watched in some time!

Another odd aspect of the movie was Murphy’s sense of self, which was a key aspect of the original. After having his remains dismembered and placed into a “full-body prosthetic”, Murphy’s memory was erased to prevent any semblance of his old personality from coming through. This was to ensure that Robocop would function perfectly and not experience complications due to things like anger, sadness, trauma, or an attachment to his old life.

https://i0.wp.com/cephuscorner.jadedragononline.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Making-of-RoboCop-3.jpgBut in this movie, he wakes up inside the machine remembering everything that happened to him and has trouble performing on par with automated robots. To remedy this, they have to go through a convoluted process whereby he’s no longer in control, but thinks he is thanks to the magic of brain-altering software. All of this seemed unnecessary, clunky, and took away from the story. It also begged the question, why not simply erase his memory and avoid all this?

But above all, the decision to go this route also robbed the movie of its most central theme – i.e. the Jesus allegory of death and ressurection! Murphy does not rise from the dead at all in this movie, but is simply put in a body to keep him alive. So ultimately, his transformation – dying and coming back to life as something completely different – is something that’s very watered down and ineffective by comparison.

robocop_concept_art_walkerThis all seemed weak when they could have simply gone with what they did in the first movie and erased Murphy’s memory, which would have worked way better for the plot. That was one of the most important aspects of the old film and how it exposed OCPs corruption and delved into the whole issue of man vs. machine and what it is to be human. Not only was OCP looking for an automaton, Murphy’s recovery of his past self got the audience emotionally involved.

To boot, the bad guys were very underdeveloped in this film. Vallon was no match for Boddicker, having little screen time and no sense of motivation compared to Kurtwood Smith. His allies in the police department were also afterthoughts, who seemed to be nothing more than bride-taking cops who betrayed Murphy because he was too dedicated. And Michael Keaton is poorly cast as the crooked CEO of Omnicorps, which in this movie falls far short of the cold, indifferent corporate crooks of the first one.

Robocop_concept_art_UAVTo be fair, some casting choices weren’t bad. Joel Kinnaman wasn’t bad in the lead role, Gary Oldman played his role ably, and Samuel L. Jackson (though not very well scripted) certainly delivered on his portrayal of a loudmouthed, angry, horribly-slanted media pundit. But compared to Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer, the guys were just eating crumbs off the table.

All of this leaves me wondering, what was the point of this remake? The idea was to relaunch the franchise for a new generation by focusing on modern issues, updated technologies, and a fresh take on the whole cybernetics thing. And in all of these respects, save for the technology aspect, they failed. Too bad, because their certainly was potential, given the range of issues that could have been explored better.

Between the highly contentious issue of UAVs, killer robots, and their effect on foreign and domestic policy, this movie could have really been something. Instead, it was a confused, half-hearted and obvious effort. And this is really too bad, because it’s likely to lead to yet another relaunch in a few years time. Don’t believe me, just look at Terminator: Salvation!

But regardless of what any reboots or relaunches attempt to do, Detroit still loves Robocop! As evidenced by their commissioning a massive statute of the guy. And Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith… still the men!

robocop-statue-2

The Future is Here: Memory Implants Now Possible!

?????????????????????The concept of implanting a person with false memories has been featured in many a science fiction franchise. Between Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale” (which was the basis for Total Recall), the cult-hit Dark City, and the more recent Inception, the idea that memories could be tampered with – thus showing how reality and experience are subjective – has a long history.

And now it seems that once again, science fiction has proven to be the basis of science fact. As a result ongoing collaboration between the Japanese Riken Brain Science Institute and MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, a process has been devised for planting specific false memories into the brains of mice.

memory_implantsThis breakthrough, in addition to being mind-blowing and kind of scary, is also likely to seriously extend our understanding of memory. The ability to learn and remember is a vital part of any animal’s ability to survive, but with human beings, it also plays a major role in our perception of what it is to be human. What’s more, disorders effecting the human brain and memory have been growing considerably in recent decades.

These range from Alzheimer’s disease, where the abilities to make new memories and to place one’s self in time are seriously disrupted, to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which a memory of a particularly unpleasant experience cannot be suppressed. Such disorders are a powerful force driving research into discovering how healthy memory functions so that we can diagnose and treat problems before they become too serious.

Mouse-Hippocampus1In their previous work, researchers from the Picower Center for Neural Circuit Genetics were able to identify an assembly of neurons in the brain’s hippocampus that held a memory engram – a cell containing data about a sequence of events. In recalling a memory, the brain uses this data to reconstruct the associated events, but this reconstruction often varies from what actually occurred.

Working from this, the researchers were able to locate and identify the neurons encoding a particular engram (a specific set of memories) through the use of optogenetics. This technique is a relatively new neuromodulation process that uses a combination of genetic modification and optical stimulation to control the activity of individual neurons.ChR_memoryAfterward, they were able to genetically engineer the hippocampal cells of a new strain of mouse so that the cells would form a light-sensitive protein called a channelrhodopsin (ChR). These proteins activate neurons when stimulated by light, thus ensuring that specific memories could be triggered by exposing someone implanted with them to a light source.

Next, the researchers conducted a series of behavioral experiments in order to identify the set of brain cells that were active only when a mouse was learning about a new environment. The genes activated in those cells were then coupled with the light-sensitive ChR and monitored during the next phase of the experiment, where the mice were placed in a series of boxes.

memory_implants1In the first box, the mice were exposed to a safe environment, during which time the neurons that were actively forming memories were labelled with ChR, so they could later be triggered by light pulses. In the second box, mice were treated to a series of mild foot shocks, which created a negative association, while at the same time, a pulsing light was used to trigger their memories of being in the first box.

When the mice were returned to the first box, in which they had only pleasant experiences, they clearly displayed fear/anxiety behaviors. In short, the fear that they had learned in a separate environment was now falsely associated with the safe environment. Whats more, the false fear memory could be reactivated at will in any environment by triggering the neurons associated with that false memory.

brain-activityWhat this demonstrated was that the recall of this false memory drove an active fear response that was indistinguishable from a real memory. And according to Steve Ramirez, a graduate student in the Tonegawa lab and the lead author of the paper, the experiment provided some real insight into the nature of memory:

These kinds of experiments show us just how reconstructive the process of memory actually is. Memory is not a carbon copy, but rather a reconstruction of the world we’ve experienced. Our hope is that, by proposing a neural explanation for how false memories may be generated, down the line we can use this kind of knowledge to inform, say, a courtroom about just how unreliable things like eyewitness testimony can actually be.

Granted, it might not sound like Total Recall or Inception, but the basic premise is the same. And note how in those movies, no explanation was given as to how these false memories were fashioned – nor could they be, since no means yet existed. But now, using this technique, memories could be fashioned in one person, and then implanted in another.

total-recall-originalFrightened yet? Well, you should be! If memory is one of the very things that define us as human beings, and we can’t be sure if the memories we have are real, our own, or someone else’s, then how can we be sure of anything? How do we even know who we are? Man, I’d be writing this into a story outline right now if it hadn’t already been done to death!

Until next time, guard your experiences and memories jealously! You never know when someone might try to come along and steal them…

Sources: gizmag.com, io9.com

Total Recall: The Original

Wow, it seems that I have Mars on the brain today! How else am I to explain the constant deluge of Mars-related news and my insistence on publishing Mars-related posts? Not to mention the fact that a few nights back, my wife and I finally sat down and watched Total Recall together. the original, not the remake. And interestingly enough, the whole reason we watched it, aside from my insistence that it was a classic, was the fact that she expressed some desire to see the new one.

As for myself, I had little interest paying theater prices to  see the remake. But I figure I’ll have to catch on DVD (or download) sooner or later, if only so that I can provide a comparative review. My compromise with on this with el wifey was that she watch the original first, just so she’d know what she was missing when we finally did get around to seeing it 😉

Word around the camp fire is that the remake has made its share of money (it’s purpose from the get-go) but that the critical response has been pretty iffy. In fact, it received a 29% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com and was generally panned for lacking all the elements that made the original a hit. Of my friends and fellow armchair critics, the consensus seemed to be that it boasted cool action sequences, but lacked originality and depth.

So to be fair, and in preparation for my eventual exposure to the remake, I thought I’d give the original movie an official review. I mean, you have to know what makes an original movie awesome before you say that a remake fails to deliver right? Of course you do! And I apologize in advance for all the terrible puns, but this is an Anry movie dammit! They are to be expected. Okay, here goes. Cue the Arny noises:

“HLALALALALAL!”

Total Recall (1990):
Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, the story deals with the subject of false memories, identity, and free will. Although Dick’s original story did not take place on Mars, much of the plot had to do with Mars, Martians, and the fact that the main character was a hero who was in possession of secrets even he didn’t… (ahem) recall. In the end, the movie adaptation was faithful to the spirit of the story, if not the letter, and managed to expand on it greatly.

The film was a box office success, grossing over 250 million dollars and receiving largely positive reviews. In addition to its classic sci-fi themes and motifs, it boasted some very cool and cunning set designs, special effects, and action sequences. Plus, it possessed that rare and awesome Anry quality, where everything had a certain comical, cheesy element to it, even the somewhat gratuitous violence.  but of course, much of this was due to the directorial style of Paul Verhoeven, director of such gory over-the-top cinematic splatter fests as Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls!

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens on the apartment of a blue collar worker named Douglas Quaid (Arny) who is unhappy with his workaday life. At night, he dreams of being on Mars with a strange woman he doesn’t recognize, and interprets this as a latent desire to move there and become something more than he is.He asks his wife about moving to Mars, which she promptly shoots down given the violence between a mutant resistance faction and the Mars government, which is led by a man named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox).

Eventually, his desire to experience a trip to Mars leads him to seek out a company called Rekal, an organization that specializes in false memories. After hearing the sales pitch, he decides he wants to live out a fantasy where he is a secret agent who is sent to Mars, a scenario which resonates with him for some reason. Unfortunately, things go awry when Quaid begins his “implant procedure”, as it seems that he begins acting out his fantasy even before its been implanted in his mind. Naturally, the company is frightened and decides to dump Quaid in a cab and erase all traces of his visit from their computers.

When he returns home, a work friend finds him and asks about his visit, which he does not (ugh!) recall. The conversation then turns ugly as thugs grab him and his friend pulls a gun, telling him he must die because he “blabbed about Mars”. Quaid has no idea what he’s talking about, but quickly kills him and all the thugs with ease. Running back to his apartment, he tells his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) about what happened, insisting that it’s not a delusion. After washing the blood from his hands, he is shocked to find that another gunman is trying to kill him. This time it’s his wife!

After disarming Lori, he learns the truth. His name is not Douglas Quaid, and he and Lori were never married. His true identity was erased for reasons she does not know and she was to keep an eye on him, posing as his wife. When he realizes she is stalling and men are on the way to get him, he knocks her out and runs. He is pursued by an agent named Richter (Michael Ironside) who is apparently Lori’s boyfriend and works for Cohaagan. He is determined to kill Quaid, something which Cohaagan doesn’t want. He reveals that he is the one who erased Quaid’s memory and dumped him on Earth, and asks that he be returned to him alive.

After escaping, Quaid ends up in a dingy hotel and is contact by a man claiming to be his contact from Mars. He warns him that he has a trace bug in his skull, and tells him how he can muffle the signal. He then leaves Quaid a case with various items, such as money, ID cards, a device for removing the bug in his nose, and holographic device which projects a mirror image of himself. On top of all that, there is a laptop-like device that contains a recording which he made for himself, which begins to explain the situation…

Turns out his real name is Hauser, and that he was working for Cohaagen up until a few months ago. Then, he defected and joined the resistance, a move which prompted Cohaagen to erase his mind and dump him on Earth. The recording tells him to go to Mars and find the resistance, and that his mind contains enough info to ruin Cohaagen forever. Quaid escapes mere seconds before Richter and his men show up, and does as the recording tells him and gets his ass to Mars!

Once there, he has a bit trouble getting through security, as the disguise he brought begins to malfunction. Richter is in the vicinity and realizes it is Quaid, and a firefight begins. Quaid narrowly escapes thanks to a stray shot which shatters the dome, causing decompression. When the emergency doors begins to close, he manages to slide underneath one and make it away.

He then travels to the Hilton Hauser told him to seek out, where he finds a message in a safety deposit box written in his own hand. It tells him to go to a club called “The Last Resort” in the red light district (“Venusville”) and ask for a woman named Melina. A newfound friend named Benny, a cab driver with “five kids to feed”, picks him up in the midst of a resistance attack and explains that this is commonplace. Once in the “Last Resort”, which appears to be a front for the resistance, Quaid meets Melina; who as it turns out, is the woman from his dreams. They have a brief reunion, in which she slaps him and tells him they thought Cohaagen killed him. He replies that he doesn’t remember who he is, to which she replies that he was only ever using her to “get inside” and kicks him out.

Back at his hotel, Quaid receives some strange visitors: Rekall’s President, Dr. Edgemar, and his wife, Lori. He explains to Quaid that he is dreaming his experiences and never left Rekal, which makes some sense since everything that has happened to him is what he specified in his travel package. He offers him a way out by presenting a pill, which he claims is a symbol that will allow him to wake up from his self-sustaining dream. Quaid is about to comply, but notices that Edgemar is sweating and shoots him. Lori then attacks him with the help of some more thugs, and Quaid is beaten to near-unconsciousness.

However, Melina shows up to rescue him, and the two kill the thugs, shoot Lori, and then make a getaway. Once again, Richter shows up and is unable to capture them before they slip away. They run to the Last Resort and escape through a series of underground tunnels which lead to the resistance headquarters. Meanwhile, Richter and his men attack the club, but are told to pull back by Cohaagen. He then shuts down the ventilation shafts, slowly depriving Venusville and the mutant population of air.

In the resistance HQ, Quaid is taken before Kuato, leader of the resistance, who apparently lives within the stomach of one of his lieutenants. He helps Quaid to remember what he saw that made Cohaagen erase him memory, which turns out to be an underground reactor built by aliens millions of years before. He wakes up to discover that Cohaagen’s forces have found them and are coming through the walls. They escape into a airlock, but Benny betrays them and shoots Kuato’s host dead. With his final words, Kuato tells Quaid to start the reactor.

Captured, Quaid and Melina are brought to Cohaagen’s facility where he tells them the last of the story. It turns out Hauser was not a double agent at all, but a loyal member of Cohaagen’s inner circle who volunteered for the memory implant procedure so he could get close to Kuato and lead their forces to his lair. They knew that Hauser would not be able to fool Kuato unless he sincerely believed himself to be a double-agent, hence the implanted memories and feigned cover up. Quaid does not believe it, until Cohaagen shows him another recording where Hauser tells him himself that he’s been played.

Cohaagen orders them both placed in memory-implant chairs where Hauser will be restored and Melina will be turned into a willing supplicant of his. He then leaves with Richter, and Quaid manages to break his bonds and kill the scientists before the procedure can take effect. He pulls Melina out, who also appears unaffected, and they begin to fight their way to the reactor. Benny tries to take them out using a drilling machine, but Quaid manages to disable the machine and kill him with a drill!

Once they reach the reactor assembly, Richter attempts to stop them with a small army. But relying on the holographic device and some kick-ass shooting, Quaid and Melina manage to take them out. Richter tries to escape using the underground lift, but Quaid jumps aboard the and the two fight it out. Quaid manages to overpower Richter and tosses him over the edge. Richter grabs hold of Quaids arms and threatens to take him with him, but he loses his arms when they are crushed against the shaft, and he falls to his death.

Quaid reaches the reactor room where Cohaagen tries to stop him, telling him that the reactor will detonate the planet’s precious minerals. However, Quaid doesn’t believe him, and Melina arrives shortly thereafter to shoot Cohaagen. However, Cohaagen indicates that he has planeted a bomb on the device, which Quaid narrowly manages to toss down a shaft before it goes off. Once it explodes, it breaches the room’s seals, causing decompression and sucking Cohaagen out onto the surface where he dies of asphyxiation. Quaid manages to activate it mere seconds before he and Melina are sucked out as well and begin to suffocate.

The reactor fires up and begins to plunge a series of red hot rods into Mars’ core. This causes the ice core at the heart of the planet to melt and explode in plumes of air to the surface. This air leads to the creation of an atmosphere and a blue sky within seconds, saving Melina and Quaid from asphyxiation and destroying all pressure domes on the surface. The Red Planet has now become a habitable world, which is apparently what the Martian aliens had intended all along.

Quaid and Melina walk up to the nearest hilltop and look out at the sky. Quaid wonders aloud if he is in fact dreaming, to which Melina replies that he had better kiss her before he wakes up. The movie ends with the sunshine becoming a blinding flash of light, leaving viewers to wonder if it was all a dream, or actually happened.

Summary:
To cut straight to the chase, I really liked this movie. I saw it back when I was a surly teen, and appreciated it for what it offered – action, guns, and plenty of creative nudity! Remember that scene in the Last Resort with the three-breasted hooker? Scarcely a boy who grew up in the 80’s doesn’t know about her! But as I got older, I came to see the plot as something rather creative and complicated, which inevitably drew me back to the story again and again over the years.

Of course, the number of twists and explanations might seem a bit contrived, and even I thought so for awhile. But that was before I saw it again recently and actually thought them through. Basically, Hauser was himself when he found the resistance and posed as a defector. But Melina didn’t let him in, thinking his intentions weren’t pure. It was Cohaagen’s attempt to remedy this by staging his capture, circulating rumors of his torture and death, and then planting false memories and dumping him on Earth and setting him up to find his way to Mars and the resistance. It was only in this way that his sincerity could be seen as genuine, and the psychic Kuato wouldn’t be able to detect his true intentions. For all intents and purposes, he was Quaid when he met him, and his desire to learn the truth and help the resistance was genuine.

Sure, the overall twists, turns, and explanations for them all still present some degree of confusion, but that’s part of what’s good about this movie. Even after multiple viewings, audiences still debate whether or not everything was just a dream or real. They cite various tidbits of evidence, like the fact that Dr. Edgemar was sweating, that the story was exactly what Quaid asked for, that this coincidence was due to the fact that Quaid was looking to reclaim the life he lost, or that he had dreams of Melina before he went to Rekal. It all makes for a cool debate.

The plot also managed to make some rather cool commentary on the nature of identity, memory, false consciousness and free will. If it were possible to implant memories in a human being, then would they really cease to be who they were and become someone else? Would this be a possible remedy to the problems of criminal behavior and psychosis? Kuato offers a resolution to all this when he says to Quaid, “a man is defined by his actions, not his memories.” This is then thrown for a loop when Quaid discovers that his true and original self was an agent of Cohaagen’s, but he responds to this by embracing his new identity and fighting to free Mars.

And of course, the special effects and sets were all very well done. Sure, there are plenty of people who would say that they looked cheesy, especially the animatronic heads that were used for the asphyxiation, robotic head, and bug-removing scenes, but they were pretty state of the art for the time. The mutants were also very well done, molded plastic imitating the effects of radiation quite well. And the animatronic limb that Benny showed and Kuato’s body-within-a-body was also pretty convincing! And this was done without the benefit of any CGI.

What’s more, it was original, which is a claim the remake can’t possibly make. though I have yet to see the movie, one thing that I hear from just about everyone is how the sets and effects seemed very much borrowed. The robot forces look like Storm Troopers and droids, the flying cars look like something out of Minority Report, and the cityscape seemed ripped from Blade Runner. In the case of the original, there was a latent cyberpunk 80’s feel to much of it, but nothing had been copied or borrowed, much as I can tell.

It was also well cast and ably acted. Cox and Ironside brought their usual awesomeness to their villain characters, Stone was convincing as the assassin/seductress, and the supporting cast was pretty solid. And let’s not forget, it was an Arny movie, which meant that it was automatically fun, cheesy, and full of hilarious one liners and his signatures “Hlalalalalalal!” And seriously, some of the lines he said: “Consider that a divorce”, “You blew my covah!”, and “See ya at the party, Richter!”. They rank right up there with “Get to tha choppa!”

The only real weaknesses were the many cheesy scientific implausibilities. For one, the scene where he removes the bug from his nose was impossible, as it would have broken his nose. Second, there’s no way anyone could create an atmosphere on Mars by simply evaporating water. Sure, it might be a good step in the right direction, but there’s no guarantee it would work, and it would take centuries, not mere seconds. Last, if you were already asphyxiating due to exposure to near-vacuum, you wouldn’t be instantly saved once breathable oxygen started pouring out. But of course, all of this could be dismissed by saying that it was all a dream. Or it can be simply written off as part of the cheese factor.

Overall, I’d say this movie deserves to be placed in the sci-fi classics section, between guilty pleasure movies and the films that actually have something to say and will make you think a little. If you haven’t seen it, then do so! And if you’re planning on seeing the remake, or already have, then get your ass to the video store and ask for Total Recall! And until next time, here’s a three-breasted hooker to keep you company! See ya at the party! Halalalalalalal!

Scientifically Inaccurate Mars Movies

In honor of the Mars Curiosity Rover’s recent landing, the good folks over at IO9 ask the question: “Why is it we can land a rover on Mars, but Hollywood still can’t make a scientifically accurate movie about Mars?” Yeah, I’d say that ranks right up there with Homer Simpson’s age old question: “How come you guys can put a man on the Moon but you still can’t make my shoes not stink?”

While the hosts go through a list of famous Hollywood movies that feature Mars, they ask guest host Phil Plait, the blogger behind the site Bad Astronomy (a segment at Discovery Magazine online), to debunk the junk science upon which so many of them are based. The list is long, but I’m thinking Mission to Mars for the win! Boy that movie sucked!

In between all that, there’s even some helpful tips for how to go about terraforming a planet like Mars for real. I’m thinking my group and I would do well to listen since our project concerns just that. Also, the image they put up when discussing the lengthy process terraforming would actually involve was taken from the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson! A psychic moment happened for me there because I swear that it was as they were saying “We need a miniseries where that’s done” (i.e. gradual terraforming), I was thinking of that exact series!

So yeah… HBO, Netflix, one you other cable providers, get on that!

Kickass Review of Total Recall from Ellipsis Media!

Here is a recent media posting by a friend and colleague of mine, named David Lim. His website, Ellipsis Media, is dedicated to the latest in entertainment and once in a while, I like to hear his opinions on the latest releases. They help me to decide whether or not I’m going to shell out the exorbitant amount of money that it takes to see a movie live these days. Earlier today, he helped me make up my mind on a somewhat contentious issue: whether or not to see the reboot to Total Recall.

Naturally, I had little desire to see this movie since it seemed to me that there was nothing wrong with the first one. And second, there didn’t appear to be much to this one beyond some A-listers who were cast solely for their looks. Third, they did away with the Mars angle which, though they differed drastically from the original PKD story, was still intrinsic to the first adaptation. But to hear that there was absolutely nothing original about it on top of all that, that pretty much clinched it for me.

In short, Total Recall looks like a good candidate for download!

Check out the review below, and if you’re suitably impressed, check out the site and like him on Facebook. It’s free….

The Future is Here: Robotaxis and Podcars!

2010 Zagato 2getthere Podcar

Fans of Total Recall may recall the Johnnycab, a robot taxi service that helped Arny get to where he was going and flee his armed assailants. Well, as it turns out, personal automated podcars (aka. robotaxis) are not a thing of the future anymore. Yes, as it turns out, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates has a taxi service that consists of a small fleet of autonomous taxis which run entirely on electricity.

Invented by a European company named “2GetThere”, the service accommodates somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 people per month. As part of the growing project to create a self-sustaining city that runs on clean, renewable energy, these rails are consistent with the city’s ethos and are expected to pave the way for clean mass transit. Best of all, the 2GetThere models don’t have weird-looking animatronic robot busts sitting in the front seat to creep you out and provide needless comic relief!

But of course, the UAE is not the only place where robotaxis can be found, nor is 2GetThere the only company investing in this revolutionary technology. In San Jose, the so-called “Capital of Silicon Valley”, similar efforts are being made to create clean, sustainable transportation. In this case, it takes the form of the Personal Rapid Transit System; or as it is more widely known, Podcars.

The system involves a series of on-call, point to point transit cars which move about on main lines and intermediate stations to find the quickest route to a destination. Under normal conditions, this means of transit has been shown to be faster than other forms of mass transit or automobile. The “matrix”, or looped layout structure of the network, allows for high-volume and is also expected to lessen the burden on conventional transit systems.

Granted, both networks are in their infancy, but both the science and the planning behind them is sound and expected to take off in the near future. Much like mag lev and light rail train systems, they are part of a growing Eco-friendly attitude towards city planning and mass transportation which is anticipated to become the mainstay of urban development and renewal in the 21st century.

And of course, Google and other companies are also hard at work trying to bring us other designs and concepts. Amongst them are true self-driving cars, the kinds that may very well involve robot drivers. But in all likelihood, these will take the form of truly “smart” cars – i.e. the kind that can guide themselves, pick optimal routes, and avoid accidents and traffic congestion. Sad to think that the days of driving might actually be coming to an end. But hey, at least we might save the planet in the process!