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Well, there’s been good and there’s been bad. Like with anything. But even in the bad, there’s always something strange lurking. A pretty out-there scifi idea, and yet, identifiable to a brand of weirdness. Seems that no matter how hard you try you really can’t take the Philip K. Dick out of the Philip K. Dick adaptation, which should in turn speak to the zaniness of the more effective movies here.
I’m always surprised at Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the big D, because he is an unusual writer, even for scifi, but then I gotta remember that one of the major scifi awards is named after him, and chances are, if I know about a guy, everybody knows about him. This year, we’re seeing two major adaptations, both television. I don’t know if the historians will remember the Minority Report TV show, any more than they do the Total Recall TV show, but that did happen, and also upcoming from this episode’s publication is The Man in the High Castle, the Amazon American Idol show I voted for. I dialed 555-Frink. That pilot was really entertaining, but I have loathed what digital distribution does to episodic storytelling (the first four episodes are dour, but just wait!), and being that High Castle is based on a novel, it’ll lie heavy.
So let’s take a look at some of the adaptations we are sure of, beginning with our first, which… maybe we’re not so sure of. Bear with me.
One of the considerations in criticizing a Philip K. Dick movie is the integrity of the adaptation. The farther a movie or TV show gets away from the letter of the original, the more we demonstrate the author’s versatility, of ideas and stories. Because as much as his work was rooted in the attitudes and culture of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, much of what was expressed is really timeless. Of course, it will require additional creativity to take some of these ideas out of the story context they were designed for, but leave it to the creative scifi minds behind Futurama.
While generally a riff on Star Trek, and loaded with non-discriminatory scifi references, the framework for lighthearted exploration through a galaxy widened by scifi and comedy both means invention, despite the obvious origins.
The show is somewhat infamous for episodes with an unexpectedly cutting emotional edge, and while “Sting” doesn’t quite match the devastation of “Jurassic Bark” or “Luck of the Fryish,” it furthers the dramatic center of the show from Leela’s perspective, where we see, in Fry’s absence, how much he means to her.
It’s a strangely psychological story, with a twist that echoes Ubik, just like other unofficial adaptations like Open Your Eyes and Vanilla Sky.
The actual Ubik movie has had a tortured development history, with Michel Gondry attached at one point, but no actual hope that it’ll happen. By this point, elements of the 1969 novel have filtered into pop culture enough such that the original may not have the same impact, because we’ve seen this in The Matrix and Inception and all of those movies (Dark City, Spider, eXistenZ, Avalon, Paprika, if you’re up a movie night). It’s kind of like how we could never have a real Aliens vs. Predator movie, but I don’t know how heartbroken that will leave anyone else.
It’s unfortunate, because Ubik is one of the more accessible and easily recommended of his books, not only appearing on TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 best novels since 1923, but by having a concise yet dense, highly effective narrative.
Which is funny because it’s fairly atypical for scifi in that it’s got a number of scifi premises all jammed into one, like corporate anti-telepathy, androids, spaceflight, and pseudo-realities. Especially with adaptations into TV or film, there’s a tendency to smooth things out, and handpick one of those elements (if Chronicle is really the American Akira).
So maybe Futurama is the ideal place for a phildickian story, because it, in itself, is bringing a number of out-there elements. But what I really appreciate about “Sting” is how economic it is in adapting a novel to a 22-minute episode.
We have Leela in a coma and Fry at her bedside calling for her to wake up, and that’s the big reveal, but those elements find dramatically satisfying expression in the episode — Fry’s calling out becomes Leela’s questioning her reality, and the coma becomes this hallucinatory nightmare.
Also of note is how the episode connects to the pilot, giving further credence to Futurama as more than a delivery system for jokes — story and character actually matter, and you may not expect that from a comedy, nor from a body of work dominated by androids and biblical paranoia.
#4: Total Recall
In theory, Hollywood has had greater success adapting Philip K. Dick short stories than novels, because novels have a less filmic structure, making it a tough translation. With a short story, elements specifically designed for film have to be introduced, as is the case for “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” better known as Total Recall.
What Hollywood hasn’t had great success with, despite the enthusiasm, is with remakes of all our favorite genre films from the 80s (Robocop, The Thing, Conan, Evil Dead, Poltergeist). But the original Total Recall and the remake are two sides of the same coin. One is an ultraviolent, imaginative, but gleefully idiotic ‘satire,’ and the new one is a straightforward, bland action movie that is superbly staged and paced. I’ve never seen anything like it that really never slows down, moving from set-piece to set-piece.
But the new one really shows us, for example, how much of a non-entity the main character truly is. We didn’t notice before because Arnold was playing Arnold, and that’s honestly one of the most magnetic characters Hollywood’s ever given us.
But the thing that really offended me about the remake was how Len Wiseman and co. were really talking it up, saying the usual thing when adapting a story that’s already been done, that they’ll stick closer to the prose than the film (Oldboy, The Thing).
But then you watch the movie and it’s pretty much the same as the first Total Recall, and that’s because the first Total Recall is a radical departure from the short story. Which, by the way, ended in an apocalyptic invasion of tiny aliens.
Total Recall 1990 had a lengthy journey to the screen, and for a long time had genre master David Cronenberg writing it, until his vision clashed with producers who wanted ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars.’ Which is great but it does deprive us of the cinematic meeting of two like minds, Cronenberg and Philip K. Dick. I can’t even imagine what that would’ve looked like, maybe Naked Lunch with laser beams.
So what we got instead was another mix of trashy genre trappings and surprising social commentary from Paul Verhoeven, though this one is definitely a step down from Robocop, as most movies are.
What Total Recall really does best is be this freakshow for scifi imagery, this bloodsoaked wonderland where so much can happen and appear on-screen, and then get shot to hell like a John Woo movie. It’s really crazy, and that owes to the replacement screenwriters, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset, who co-wrote with Gary Goldman.
It makes sense that all of this would come out of the minds creative enough to have envisioned the scariest alien encounter in film…
If you like the original, there’s no saying you’ll like the remake, since it’s the opposite approach to the same story, but there’s also no saying you’ll like the original short story. Might as well sample all three.
Gotta love robots.
One of Philip K. Dick’s greatest stories, which presaged Terminator, and itself takes cues from the novella behind The Thing, is faithfully adapted to low-budget B-movie horror, and it works because of, and not despite that.
Sure, a modern adaptation with the production values of a Prometheus, for example, might make a scarier version, but there’s something I love about the aesthetics of Screamers, and it’s not about wasn’t it better back then before CGI, it’s weighing the positives without any absolutism, like for example the unfortunate absolutism of CGI having replaced physical effects. Hollywood is all about verisimilitude, but there are qualities to older forms that work in certain contexts, though it may just be a personal taste. It’s just that when you compliment stop-motion killer robots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a truly unsettling exploration of dehumanization and war… you get something pretty unique.
This one is also written by Dan O’Bannon, and maintains the blue collar approach to space-faring characters that Alien introduced, while bringing in a creature just as deadly.
I’m a sucker for robots, and I’m a sucker for military science-fiction, but more so the visuals of each. I don’t really care about maneuvers or naval combat in space, but more so the extrapolations of the experience of being a soldier.
Robots, then, are a go-to metaphor in that regard, but this kind of military SF is rare in film. Screamers is much appreciated. It may not have the values of prestige scifi, but that doesn’t slow it down.
It takes itself as seriously as it needs to, adapting a story about Cold War paranoia as expressed in robots that can mimic humans perfectly, for the purpose of infiltration. That kind of ruthless programming could only come out of a society hardwired for war.
Along with being uncertain of reality itself, Philip K. Dick was preoccupied with the limits of humanity in terms of morality, as reflected in The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The great reveal in the original Screamers short story, “The Second Variety,” was that the robots, or ‘claws,’ were becoming human in more ways than one, that they were actually beginning to kill each other for whatever petty reasons. You know your time is up as a species when your doomsday weapon’s ultimate evil is behaving like you…
Also be sure to check out Screamers: The Hunting, which was direct to video, but has another tough female soldier, this time in the lead, and it’s got Lance Henrikson. This one really looks like some kinda weird cyberpunk Dead Space, so thumbs up.
#2: A Scanner Darkly
This is the true outlier in the Richard Linklater filmography, but apparently the guy’s a superfan of the Dick, because this adaptation, like Screamers, was basically point-for point. He even included the absolutely necessary epilogue, which shows up just before the credits and will move you to tears if you’re not already there.
What’s bizarre about A Scanner Darkly is that it’s a drama, on the whole, even more like a tragedy really, but moment to moment it feels more like a comedy. Much in the same way as with The Wire. You watch it the first time you’re like oh my God that’s so heavy, and the second time when you actually understand what the hell they’re saying, you realize how funny and charming everyone is, and you’ll pretty much be laughing the whole time.
You have actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson competing for the best lines of dialogue, in these really surreal scenes that have no direction, so you kinda just go with it.
Despite that, this is a high-concept scifi premise, where an undercover cop is addicted to a drug that confuses his two identities. And it also has a high concept ending that reframes the premise, and hits you like a blow to the stomach.
It’s a powerful anti-drug message that isn’t about scaring children or placing blame within institutional forces, like The Wire, it’s simply a creative illustration of just how terrible drugs are. It’s an illustration of evil. And it comes from somebody who really didn’t point fingers but just… suffered, so it was sadness and despair rather than anger, and that desolation is made clear in this colorful cartoon about the future.
The animated style, like Beowulf (in a philosophical sense, this one is rotoscoped, not motion capture), allows recognizable actors to interact with fantastical things, such that we as seasoned movie-watchers cannot draw the line between what’s real and what isn’t. Just as the characters often cannot.
Even though there’s a lot of neat technology and commentary on governmental surveillance, what is most effective in the film and in the novel is the spectrum of humanity that pokes through the haze of psychoactive drugs. Humanity that is charming, funny, flawed, regretful, and ultimately, destroyed.
#1: Blade Runner
If there’s any scifi movie I never ever want to talk about, it’s Blade Runner. So let’s just get to it.
One of the greatest science-fiction movies of all time, it is also one of the most misunderstood. If you’ll indulge me — and I don’t recommend you do, for the sake of my image — back in 1982, Blade Runner wasn’t given the critical appreciation we might expect, and a lot of what was said about it continues even to the day, despite the prestige it currently enjoys.
It’s based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Ship?, which is a memorable entry but not as coherent as The Man in the High Castle or A Scanner Darkly.
It was released the year Philip K. Dick passed away, and the limited footage he did glimpse of Blade Runner astounded him. That was the world he envisioned, made rain and fire on the silver screen. It also came out the same year as William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer, effectively giving birth to the cyberpunk subgenre (the best subgenre), which went on to give us some of the darkest, most existential, thought-provoking rock and roll fables of Tokyo 2032.
Critics saw this depressing scifi movie with Indiana Jones in it as something boring as it was discomfiting. When I first saw it I had the same reaction. This is it? This is the 2nd or 3rd best scifi movie all you nerds are gassin’ about? I thought it was gonna be an action movie about a bounty hunter robot fighter, so naturally I was surprised at a delicate young age, but what did stick out to me, even then, was the ending. Like tears in rain…
But then on repeated viewings I was able to see it for what it… is?
That’s really the problem with Blade Runner. I prefer the Director’s Cut, which is like the Final Cut but the editing and music are better, especially during the ending. But there’s so many versions and not even the filmmakers can agree on what it really means and who’s a replicant…
The primary criticism leveled against the movie, even to the day, is that it’s a special effects vehicle and focuses more on the world than anything else. Now, saying a movie is all about the effects in the art of reducing genre films not only devalues special effects as storytelling tools, but speaks for the creators on the priorities of their intent.
Special effects and production design, these are utilities. Like editing and sound, they work best when they’re invisible. But with SF, sometimes the effects and the look have to be specifically not invisible. We should point out when they’re remarkable, but we shouldn’t by default confuse them for the point of the movie. Sometimes in scifi, world-building is the point, but let’s really look at LA 2019.
It is both past and future, and the noir element clashes with the multiculturalism. The world looks, despite its beauty, like it’s falling apart, and so becomes this impressionistic backdrop for Rick Deckard on his murderous crusade. It’s a visual indication of how far we haven’t come. These geisha-blimps may not be preeminent representation for Asian-American women. The city serves a purpose, it isn’t the purpose.
Obviously with recycled use outside the film, the city has lost its meaning. It was made for Blade Runner, and so it doesn’t work exactly with Natural City or Bubblegum Crisis, no matter how hurricane that anime is, and possibly it might not work with Blade Runner 2, whenever that Engineers its way to a threatre near you.
But the way we look at movies is informed by a certain context. We come to Blade Runner and we take this city as an impressive marvel of Hollywood magic, because we know about the craft of making movies, that there is a craft, and you can’t just erase that from your brain like… Hauser. It’s hard to disconnect, and usually a movie has to help you out by engaging you, and Blade Runner isn’t here to be your friend.
Despite that, it’s actually an emotional, human story, but the emotion in this case is byproduct of what is more cerebral, the true focus. Rick Deckard is a Blade Runner, and his job is to shoot human simulacra to death, no due process, maybe not even a crime committed beyond simply being nearby.
He does this, and it wears on him, because of the introduction of Rachel, who is a replicant programmed with false memories so that she believes she’s human. Such that the line between human and android is now decimated. He’s shooting these people now — even if you wanted to make a philosophical argument, there’s a psychological reaction to shooting somebody you can’t always control.
It’s an arc of dehumanization, where violence has been given a new meaning. Deckard goes one way and Roy goes another. The replicant starts out murderous, but by the end we understand him, and he gives that monologue that indicates that no matter how villainous or flawed, he is human.
This is a fair departure from DADOES, which was focused much more on the simulacra part of it. There’s that one scene where Deckard is arrested and taken to a police station that he finds his manned entirely by androids. The end revelation in the book is still the same, but it’s how we get there. Whether faithful or taking creative license, it’s all about the story that needs to be told, and that’s different for each adaptation.
Philip K. Dick’s library is incredibly rich with ideas, which is a bit frustrating as to why the same titles are being retread. But further experimentation with preexisting adaptations might yield interesting results too — if what we have already teaches us anything, from Blade Runner to A Scanner Darkly, the wild adaptations and faithful retellings both, it’s to always keep an open mind. You never know. You can’t really put all your trust in one approach, because… you can’t put your trust in anything…