The soundstage on which a big science fiction movie is being filmed feels ... like science fiction. There are a bunch of different sets scrunched together in one mixed metaphor of a space, and these disparate environments are connected by umbilicals of heavy cable that look like they're strung around the engine room of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott's Alien.
The way onto this Dadaist landscape is through a totally mundane corridor of college-dorm-boring painted cinderblock, so it's especially jarring to step from a place of total sensory deprivation into a situation of blaring lights and sounds that make you feel like you need to grab Newt and get the hell out of there before the reactor blows.
The one familiar thing in all real-fake-surrealism is Kate Beckinsale being all badass. Which, of course, I'm familiar with from seeing her in the fakery of genre movies. But that fakery feels reassuringly authentic in the context of a visit to the Toronto set of the new remake of Total Recall, which is being directed by Beckinsale's husband, Len Wiseman, who came up with cinematic motif of Beckinsale as badass with his debut feature, Underworld. Both this Total Recall and its 1990 antecedent (directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) are based on the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Unlike the 1990 movie, this Total Recall will take place entirely on Earth, and will feature no transports to Mars, where most of the previous Total Recall was set. But that doesn't mean there won't be a cool transport in this movie. It's on this transport that I'm watching Beckinsale being a badass, and it's called the "China Fall."
According to Total Recall production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, "[T]he way you travel from one side of the world to the other, you actually travel underneath the world system [that was envisioned for this movie, with the multi-nation states of United Britain and New Asia controlling opposite ends of the Earth]. That, to me, makes sense. We're going to need more space in the future; how do you compress it? Well, you travel with magnets. How do you go from one world system to the other? We created a magnetized elevator [the China Fall], it's part of the action scene. We all talked to futurists, just to get a sense of what the world would be tomorrow. The China Fall, I have to say, creating a spacecraft elevator thing is very unique. I've never seen that. There we were lucky, because what we're going to do hasn't been seen before.
"If I had to create a spaceship going between the planets, it would be more challenging to come up with something quite different. We make it a trip [on the China Fall] of about 15 to 20 minutes [through the middle of the Earth]. It's very brief. It goes really fast. People use the time to read information, news, things like that. Basically you just go sit in there. The seats are very similar to those you'd find in an amusement park ride. They keep you in place. If you take a steel ball and let it go through the Earth, it'll take about 30 minutes, which is incredibly fast in my mind. Those are scientifically recognized facts. So, the magnetized elevator, all that makes sense."
So there's a moment when the China Fall hits the center of the Earth that it exists in zero G. The thing flips and reorients so that up is down and down is up as the descent becomes an ascent. This twist will feature in an action sequence with stars Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel as well as villain Beckinsale. The effect of making up down and vice versa is done with a gimbal system that, unlike the one used in 2001, rotates the camera, not the whole set.
Looking on the monitors that show what the cameras on the China Fall set register, I see stage hands walking on the ceiling like Peter Parker. I get a chance to walk around the China Fall set between takes, and the interior has a serious Walt Disney "Tomorrowland" feel, and it's weird to see the environment you're standing on mirrored exactly on the ceiling over your head. Despite the solid look of the China Fall set, as action sequences are being filmed in it, you can hear the thumping footfalls of people running around in a way that makes you wanna bang on the set with a broomstick and tell your noisy neighbors to be quiet.
On the monitor, I see robotic-looking bad guys in plastic armor that makes them look like extreme paintball enthusiasts. Towers Vegas-like strobing lights outside the China Fall set register as cool Abrams-esque lens flares in the set. No spoilers, but I see take after take of one principal charge into the set to the aid of another. The exteriors of the China Falls set features a practical hatch that looks like something Chris Foss would design for a spacecraft, and Beckinsale, wearing a tight black outfit, does take after take leaning out of the hatch and glowering. The fact that she can repeatedly get her hair to fall in that distinctly Beckinsale-y, Selene-like way with each take makes the familiarity of her badass-i-ness all the more reassuring.