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It’s not unfair to say that, compared to the relative subtlety of the Philip K Dick writings that inspired it, 1990’s Total Recall was about as subtle as an escaped rhinoceros running down a crowded high street.
The movie’s sledgehammer storytelling is summed up best in a late, brief scene in which an evil character shows up in a literal deus ex machina; determined to kill hero Doug Quaid with a tunnelling machine, the bad guy does that typical Hollywood bad guy thing of telling the hero what he’s going to do before he does it (“I’m gonna grind you up man!”), before narrowly missing Doug and smashing through a wall. This wall, coincidentally, covers a shortcut to the underground alien lair Doug had been looking for in the first place. Incredible.
Such madness was all part of what made Total Recall so special, of course. Paul Verhoeven, among the most slyly intelligent directors then working in Hollywood, new what he was making: a trashy Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. To this end, he packed the movie with as much wry humour, insanely over-the-top violence and subtle commentary as he could get away with, and the result is a fantastic product of its time.
Two decades on, Len Wiseman’s bringing his own version of Total Recall to the screen, and as the first full trailer demonstrated, it’s a very different animal from Verhoeven’s. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look of what the promo can tell us about Wiseman’s Total Recall, and how it’s both strikingly similar yet vastly divergent from the 1990 movie…
Protagonist“If I’m not me then who the hell am I?”
The logical place to start, we suppose, is with Total Recall’s protagonist. Gone is the Austrian Oak’s sleepy charisma and expansive presence, and in his place stands the willowy Colin Farrell. He’s still Doug Quaid, still living in the future with his picturesque wife Lori (more on her later), and he’s still plagued by nightmares – meaning that Total Recall 2012’s trailer starts in a strikingly similar manner to the 1990 version.
Farrell’s casting as Quaid changes absolutely everything, of course. Without Schwarzenegger, Total Recall is no longer a star vehicle, which is a sign of the times, if nothing else – back in the 90s, the only way you could get investors to stump up millions of dollars to make a sci-fi movie was by casting Schwarzenegger (Total Recall was briefly the most expensive film of all time, and dethroned the year after by another Arnie SF flick, Terminator 2). These days, you don’t necessarily need A-list stars to get summer blockbuster money – effects, it seems, are now the real movie stars.
Having Farrell as Quaid will also mean that, if the writing and direction are in step, we’ll be seeing a more human, vulnerable protagonist in this movie – one capable of greater acting range, we suspect, though still handy in a gunfight, as the first few seconds of the trailer demonstrate.
As Quaid’s story begins, Lori is his pretty and devoted wife. It’s certainly not spoiling things to state that Lori isn’t exactly who she seems, since the trailer makes her treachery plain in any case. Here, Lori is played by Kate Beckinsale (replacing Sharon Stone), which is appropriate, since her character is given much more action stuff to do in this Total Recall – stuff she’s well versed in after making loads of those Underworld movies.
In the 1990 version of Total Recall, Quaid was chased all over the place by Richter (Michael Ironside), Lori’s true husband (or at least lover). What the 2012 version appears to have done is made Richter and Lori into one character, since the former is nowhere to be seen on its cast list. This is quite a shrewd move, since the notion of a dearly beloved suddenly turning against a protagonist is a potent one, and was only skipped over in the original.
Recasting Lori as Quaid’s merciless hunter should give the action a bit more dramatic heft, and from the snippets we’ve seen so far, Beckinsale appears to relish the job of playing a villain. Speaking of which…
Villains“You don’t have the most reliable of memories, do you?”
In Total Recall 1990, the great Ronny Cox played Vilos Cohaagen, who in that film was the head of a mining company oppressing the populace of Mars. In the new Total Recall, Cohaagen is another leader, this time of an amalgamated US and Europe called Euroamerica – a nod, perhaps, to the Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia superstates of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The good news is that Bryan Cranston is playing Cohaagen, which is a fantastic casting choice. There are few actors better than portraying quietly menacing characters than Cranston, and in line with the movie’s overall tone, he appears to be playing a much more nuanced, subtly evil villain than Cox’s scenery-chewing, goldfish bowl-smashing version of Cohaagen.
The way Cranston utters the line quoted above, incidentally, is just sublime.
Humour“Yank that needle out before it takes!”
Verhoeven brought a certain amount of absurd, playful exuberance to Total Recall, from its creatively horrible violence to its talking robot taxi drivers. In his Hollywood movies, the Dutch director appeared to be fascinated by American adverts and untrustworthy salesmen flogging dodgy products; it was something that ran like a black thread through RoboCop, and it’s woven into the fabric of Total Recall, too. The bit where Quaid is ‘sold’ his Rekall memory implant by a chap with the patter of a used car salesman is just priceless.
We live in a post Nolan-Batman world these days, of course, so it’s inevitable that such humour didn’t make the cut. Johnny Cho’s Rekall rep is much more smooth and soft-sell than the outgoing one, and the movie as a whole appears to have a much more brooding, Bourne-esque identity thriller edge.
This is probably for the best, since we can’t imagine Farrell throwing out one liners like, “Consider dat a divorce” “Screw you” or “See you at der party, Richter” with Arnold’s distinctive panache.
Disguises“You’ve made a mistake! I’m a nobody!”
With the goofy humour gone, it also means we won’t see Farrell dressing up as a woman to get through airport security. Disguises do remain, however, as the dying seconds of the trailer suggest – this time, Quaid’s costume is of the digital variety, a bit like the scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly.
All we hope is that, when the chap at the security desk asks Quaid how long he’s staying for, “Two weeks” is the reply. We’ll emit a little “Hurrah!” at the back of the cinema if he does.
And then we’ll probably be kicked out.
Future“Are you actually happy with how your life’s turned out?”
If you wanted to create the impression of a sprawling future metropolis back in the early 90s, you essentially had four options: use matte paintings, make scale miniatures, find real-world locations that looked vaguely futuristic (as Kubrick did in A Clockwork Orange, for example), or build a bunch of expensive sets.
Total Recall used all four techniques to create the impression of a future America that, even at the time, looked more like a subterranean concrete shopping precinct than a vast 21st century city. Wiseman’s Total Recall, meanwhile, reveals a proper, Blade Runner-informed skyline of shanty towns built atop shanty towns, and skyscrapers apparently dripping down from the sky like stalactites.
If we’re interpreting the trailer correctly, it seems that Quaid begins his adventures in New Shanghai, given the distinctly eastern flavour of the architecture scene throughout. In Verhoeven’s Total Recall, Quaid got his ass to Mars, where Cohaagen reined supreme as its tyrannical overlord – this time, we assume Quaid gets his ass to Euroamerica, where he runs into Cranston’s President Cohaagen and his army of robot soldiers.
Will the film question the reality of Quaid’s adventures, as the old one did? The trailer gives us no clue, which is a good thing.
In the future, Verhoeven appeared to suggest, we’ll all be driving around in flimsy machines with all the grace and poise of golf carts. While the G-Wiz electric car proved that prophecy at least partly correct, it’s fair to say that Total Recall’s vehicles weren’t the sexiest future machines to grace the big screen – Tron Light Cycles they were not.
Wiseman’s newer, slicker Total Recall is home to some newer, slicker autos. Although clearly inspired by the Spinner flying cars of Blade Runner, with maybe a bit of Minority Report thrown into the mix, they’re undeniably more svelte and futuristic than the ones from 1990. And there’s not a single robot taxi driver anywhere to be seen…
Décor“Tell us your fantasy. We’ll give you the memory.”
Quaid’s apartment back in 1990 was appointed with all the appliances and comforts a future body-builder could need: a decent block of sharp knives for cutting up fruit, a smoothie-maker for making protein shakes, and even a holographic fitness instructor. If Schwarzenegger had been up for it, this set-up could have made for the perfect sitcom: Sharon And Arnold, The Futuristic Odd Couple.
Quaid’s 2012 apartment, on the other hand, is a dingy, austere place more in keeping with the character’s lowly economic status. Note how he has the same blinds he once owned in 1990, and how a shelf of books are among his few possessions – the poor chap’s so poverty-stricken, he can’t even afford a Kindle.
Memory machines“What do you know about this Rekall place?”
Rekall is, of course, where everything in Quaid’s life gets turned upside down. Heading there with the aim of buying false memories of a life as a double agent, the company’s high-tech implantation machine has an unexpected effect: it unblocks the previously erased memories of Quaid’s previous life, in which he really was a double agent.
In the original Total Recall, both Rekall and its patented memory machine were depicted in slick, functional concrete and grey metal. In the 2012 version, the chair looks markedly similar, but the entire company now looks like an exotic, oriental themed massage parlour – though for Quaid, the visit definitely won’t have a happy ending.
Action“You haven’t even begun to see me try to kill you.”
Ah, action – Total Recall’s main draw for many viewers in the last millennium, and something that’s clearly at the centre of the new one. Barring a financial leap of faith of epic proportions, it’s unlikely that Wiseman’s movie will be insanely graphic as Verhoeven’s – which means there’ll be no tearing off of limbs, stabbings with metal rods, screwings with drills, and certainly no shootings of skulls at point-blank range. All of these things, including the original movie’s insatiable appetite for swearing, will probably be toned down for a PG-13 audience.
Blood and swearing or no blood and swearing, new Total Recall still looks very exciting. And what we quite like about the first full trailer is that, although it gives quite a few act one details away (including Lori’s true allegiance), there’s still so much we don’t know. Jessica Biel will play Quaid’s love interest Melina, and the trailer hints that she and Lori will engage in the same sort of tussle we saw in the first film. Will Quaid intervene in the same unforgettable (if rather un-PC) fashion he did in Verhoeven’s movie?
The original movie’s second half contained a long-dead alien civilisation, a magic pyramid that could only be activated by the power of an Austrian’s hand, a lady of the evening with three mammary glands, a villain with direct control over an entire population’s oxygen supply, and a freedom fighter with a rubber man in his belly (Bill Nighy’s taken over this role, but the rubber belly man is nowhere to be seen in the trailer).
Presumably, none of this stuff will be present in the remake, though we’ve heard rumours that the uniquely endowed lady of the evening may make a surprise cameo, which is wonderful news.
What fresh madness have Total Remake’s creators come up with to replace it all with? Having seen Sunday night’s trailer, that’s a question we’re very much looking forward to find out the answer to.