Total Recall

Total Recall: Body Switches

With The Change-Up hitting theaters, we run down some of cinema's most memorable body swaps.

by | August 4, 2011 | Comments

Body Switching

When Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds pee in a magic fountain and switch bodies during this weekend’s The Change-Up, they won’t just be setting up a bunch of wacky jokes about how being married with kids is different from the single life, they’ll be extending a long Hollywood tradition. For decades, filmmakers have been fascinated with the possibilities of body-switching, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a premise that’s equally useful for comedies, dramas, and sci-fi thrillers. For this week’s Total Recall, we decided to take a look at some noteworthy examples, including a few from each of the genres mentioned above — and some that aren’t so easily categorized. Which are your favorites? Which movies would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

All of Me


Quibble, if you must, over the fact that All of Me is less about body switching than body sharing — the fact remains that this is a film in which Lily Tomlin ends up in Steve Martin’s body, and the two of them fight for control over his faculties for the better part of its 93 minutes. That makes it close enough for our purposes — and it also makes this one of the better comedies of the decade, featuring some of Martin and Tomlin’s most inspired work. “Martin has become a superb physical comic, and Tomlin brings some unexpected warmth to a cruelly written part,” observed Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, adding, “A manic fuzziness takes over in the last reel and spoils some of the pleasure, but it’s still a sympathetic effort.”



People don’t change bodies here the same way they do in, say, Freaky Friday or Vice Versa, but when we have to choose between bending the rules a little to take Avatar or filling the list with stuff like Like Father, Like Son, well… we’ll bend the rules. In James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Earth is at war with blue, 10-foot aliens named the Na’vi who want to protect their planet, called Pandora, from humans intent on mining it. Pandora’s environment is toxic to earthlings, but scientists have figured out a way to control genetically engineered Na’vi bodies — ahem, avatars — via a fancy mental linking process that puts humans inside their minds. But then, you already knew that, because as its nearly $3 billion gross proves, everyone saw Avatar — and most of them loved it, including A.O. Scott, who gushed in his At the Movies review, “I had the feeling coming out of this movie that I haven’t felt since maybe I was eleven years old in 1977 and I saw Star Wars for the first time.”

Day Watch


Boasting eye-popping special effects, a brain-bendingly twisty plot, and some of Timur Bekmambetov’s most assured direction, Day Watch proved a worthy sequel to its predecessor, 2004’s Night Watch, taking audiences on a journey involving a body-swapping protagonist (of course), a war between supernatural combatants called Light Others and Dark Others, a history-altering tool called the Chalk of Fate, and… hey, why are you chuckling and shaking your head? Admittedly, Day Watch isn’t the easiest sci-fi thriller to explain, but it was a huge hit with Russian audiences — and with American critics like Matt Peterson of the New York Press, who wrote, “Bekmambetov succeeds in crafting a movie so fast-paced and stylish that it doesn’t matter why there’s a battle sequence or car chase, you just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Dream a Little Dream


Part goofy teen comedy, part poignant meditation on the bittersweet experience of growing old alongside your lifelong love, 1989’s Dream a Little Dream starred Corey Feldman as Bobby Keller, a lovesick high school student who (literally) runs into the object of his teen obsession (Meredith Salenger) at the precise moment that his wacky old professor neighbor (Jason Robards) is attempting to meditate his way into immortality with his wife (Piper Laurie). Next thing you know, the professor is trapped in Bobby’s body, and has mere days to find his way back before his wife — whose spirit is trapped in Salenger’s body — forgets the love they shared. Oh, and did we mention Corey Haim plays a guy named Dinger? It sounds sort of messy, and it is; the movie flopped at the box office, coming too late to capitalize on the Coreys’ waning popularity, not to mention the late 1980s body-swapping craze. And although it’s grown into something of an ironic cult classic, critics thought it stunk: as Richard Harrington wrote for the Washington Post, “Folks staggering out of Dream a Little Dream may well wonder what the heck they just saw.”



Okay, so the protagonists in this movie don’t switch bodies so much as they swap faces, but let’s not argue semantics — the important thing is that in this John Woo action thriller, an FBI agent (played by John Travolta) has the face of his terrorist nemesis (Nicolas Cage) grafted onto his body so he can trick the bad guy’s brother into divulging secret information. Only then, the terrorist ends up stealing the FBI agent’s unattached face, and infiltrates his family, and…well, it’s all pretty ridiculous, but if nothing else, Face/Off gave Cage and Travolta the opportunity to spend most of a movie pretending to be each other, with explosions thrown in. As Variety’s Todd McCarthy put it, “Watching John Travolta and Nicolas Cage square off and literally exchange roles brings back the old-fashioned pleasure of astutely judged movie star pairings in a major way.”

Freaky Friday


Well, of course we were going to put this one on the list. And we decided to use the 2003 remake for two reasons: One, it has a higher Tomatometer, and two, Jodie Foster has made plenty of solid films, and appears in Total Recalls more regularly than the once-mighty Lindsay Lohan. Lindsay really came into her own here, going toe-to-toe with an equally game Jamie Lee Curtis in the wacky — and surprisingly thoughtful — tale of a rebellious teen who trades bodies with her mother thanks to a magical fortune cookie. Audiences made Friday‘s second theatrical outing a $160 million success, and critics applauded right along with them, including John Monaghan of the Detroit Free Press, who weighed in, “Wise but not too preachy, warm but never snuggly, it’s also one of the funniest films this year.”

Prelude to a Kiss


Most of the movies on this list — and in this genre, really — use body-switching as a framing device for goofy comedy, but Prelude to a Kiss is something altogether different: the story of a newlywed couple (played by Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin) who find themselves in an unusual predicament when an elderly man (Sydney Walker) kisses the bride and ends up trading bodies with her. Though not without comedic moments, Prelude is really a romance — and one that comes with some thoughtful commentary on standards of beauty, the laws of attraction, and the meaning of love. “The ‘change of body’ plot device is nothing new,” wrote James Berardinelli of ReelViews, “but it’s rarely employed as intelligently or effectively as in this motion picture.”

Source Code


A body-switching sci-fi thriller with a Groundhog Day-style twist that’s played for anything but laughs, Duncan Jones’ Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens, a military pilot who wakes up on a speeding train in another man’s body. The premise is a lot more complex than that — it involves a terrorist attack and a government program called, you guessed it, Source Code — but this is the type of movie that’s better the less you know going in. Suffice it to say that it is, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, “A thriller that takes a science fiction premise and uses it, not for the sake of splashy effects, but as a doorway into the human soul.”


For anyone who thought screwball body-swapping comedies got their start with Freaky Friday, here’s evidence to the contrary: 1940’s Turnabout, starring John Hubbard and Carole Landis as a fabulously wealthy (and fabulously irritating) couple who repeatedly insist that each of them has it worse than the other — and then, wouldn’t you know it, they come across a mystical Indian artifact that gives them more than they bargained for. One of director Hal Roach’s less-remembered efforts, Turnabout was snubbed by critics like Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who called it “a tired and tiresome jape, as subtle as a five-cent stogie and just as aromatic.”

Vice Versa


Few actors in the 1980s communicated open-mouthed, childlike wonder better than Judge Reinhold — and few child actors played wise beyond their years better than Fred Savage. So in terms of casting, 1988’s Vice Versa was a perfect match — a tale of a harried executive (Reinhold) who ends up in the body of his young son (Savage) thanks to a magic skull that overhears them arguing about whose life is harder. Of course, once you say the words “magic skull,” you’ve given yourself a tough row to hoe in terms of what your audience is willing to accept, and it certainly didn’t help that Vice Versa arrived in the midst of a glut of similarly themed comedies. Although it ultimately flopped at the box office and received generally negative reviews, it was warmly received by some critics — including Roger Ebert, who called it “a treasure of a movie, in which the performances hold the key” and wrote, “What makes Vice Versa so wonderful is the way Reinhold and Savage are able to convince us that each body is inhabited by the other character.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Change-Up.


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