I wanted to like this, partly because I don't think Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film is some kind of untouchable masterpiece (it's got Arnie in it for a start, and the whole thing feels like it was shot on sets) and partly because there's enough material in the premise that it could stand a few different takes on the Dickmeister. But director Len Wiseman and writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback do nothing interesting with this remake. What they do change is frequently so daffy you can only conclude that you're supposed to think that Quaid's dream at the beginning is real and[i] everything[/i] else is a dream. This, despite the ploddingly literal approach screaming (or dully echoing) otherwise.
So we have the Earth divided (chemical warfare miraculously resulted in two English-speaking land masses surviving!) into two territories, United Federation of Britain and the poor, blue-collar Colony (Australia...). Workers from the Colony travel daily to UFB through the centre of the Earth in a giant lift called the Fall. Terraforming Mars in minutes while Arnie's eyes pop out of his head seems utterly believable after this. It's almost as if the writers are daring you to take it seriously, but then the subsequent film is so po-faced you conclude there was little rhyme or reason involved. Despite the window-dressing of the setting, whole scenes slavishly follow the plot beats present in the original. At one point there's a visual reference to the woman Arnie disguised himself as. It's a nice gag that works as misdirection due to the lack of originality on display everywhere else, and one of the few in the mix (for example, revisiting the three breasted woman is indicative of how devoid of ideas the film is).
To be fair to Wiseman, his highly derivative (of Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Fifth Element) future world has a physicality and tangibility despite it's reliance on CGI effects. And he stages the action competently and clearly (something nothing short of miraculous in current cinema). But there's nothing to be involved with.
The casting is utterly bland. Not just Colin Farrell (someone pointed out that he can only be relied on to give a good performance when he uses his native accent, and this is further evidence; he's not bad or anything remotely Arnie-esque but he's completely forgettable so there's no one to root for), but Biel, Beckinsale (she makes a convincing Terminator-bitch, but Sharon Stone was a far stronger presence with a third of the screen time), Nighy (who appears for all of two minutes) and Cranston. The latter is especially pay-cheque grabbing. It's a fairly unnuanced villain role but it it needed someone to do something "big" with it. The only time Cranston breaks a sweat is the groan-inducing extended fight with Farrell at the climax. When we're asked to believe that Farrell's supposed super spy will take a beating from a furious politician. You can see the thinking in filling a future vision with actors rather than stars, but it required those actors to be invested in, or inject some charisma into, the proceedings. Everyone present is as going-through-the-motions as the script and director (actually, John Chu made an impression with his bleach blonde cameo as the Rekall guy).
The design is, as stated, derivative, but there are some nice touches here and there. A journey by train into the London wasteland (again, logic rears it's ugly head; how are people free of pollution a few miles away when anyone journeying to the wasteland has to wear a gas mask) suggest a far more interesting milieu than the wall-to-wall cityscapes, while the only chase sequence that provokes interest requires the pursued and pursuers to dodge a criss-cross of lifts as they hotfoot it down different shafts. But it's future world building where you have to be told how it is, rather than be shown. Why is there a working London with double-deckers at ground level below the flying cars and city in the air? Particularly with the aforementioned chemical nastiness not far away? Because visually it makes you pay attention, not narratively. At least Wiseman makes sure his robot stormtrooper knock-offs are men in suits rather than Clonetrooper-CGI, and gets points for that.
The big climax, when it comes, relies on punches and explosions and lacks anything particularly intriguing (however, it occurred to me that the invasion force can't have been that large given the means of transporting them). Indeed, any cerebral element has long since been divested in a tiring display of non-stop action, lacking any hook to draw the audience in.
I don't think the issue with the film was getting rid of Mars, it was not coming up with different-enough plotting or any philosophical backbone to base the remake on (its food for thought is all lip-service to the Arnie film). Ostensibly there's a stronger political edge to the script this time around (Cohaagen is waging a War on Terror which, for the most part, he has instigated, engineering proceedings in order to invade another continent and make use of its "natural resources"), but there's no bite or conviction to it. Maybe someone who hasn't seen the original would enjoy it more, but I suspect even then the lack of any real enthusiasm from its makers would leave them feeling short-changed.