July 12-18, 2006

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Cult Leader

Dick Tracing: In time for 'A Scanner Darkly,' a look back at Philip K. Dick movies

By Steve Palopoli

IN 2002, when Minority Report came out, I wrote: "Don't ask me why Hollywood keeps adapting Dick's early short stories like this one—most of which were written hurriedly on amphetamines and are awkwardly built around a single cool idea—instead of his truly genius novels like Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Probably, they're scared to death to even try." Wouldn't you know that a few years later it would turn out to be Richard Linklater who wasn't afraid to take on A Scanner Darkly, using the rotoscoping animation process to visualize the extreme, literal interpretation of schizophrenia that no doubt made A Scanner Darkly seem pretty much unfilmable to most directors. (Let us not forget that before everybody went ga-ga for Waking Life, rotoscoping was mostly remembered for its crapulent appearance in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 adaptation of Lord of the Rings. Rarely has one director redeemed an art form the way Linklater has rescued Max Fleischer's silent-era technique.)

As Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors, now seems like the time to review previous cinematic attempts to bring his work to the big screen. I've done my best to group these films as straightforwardly as possible for those who want to seek them out.

TRULY PHILDICKIAN: The two best Philip K. Dick movies proved it's not staying true to the source material that's important. Instead, each of these films takes on one of the two questions central to Dick's writing: "What does it mean to be human?" and "What is the true nature of reality?" Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) grapples with the former, while discarding the weirder stuff in its source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. More importantly, it's the world visualized in Scott's film that captures the essence of Dick's work. Just before his death in 1982, the author himself marveled at how the sets captured what he'd been seeing for years in his own head. In a totally different vein, Total Recall (1990) jumps off from the kernel of his short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." It takes several viewings to realize just how deep into Dick's riddle of shifting reality the writers Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman were able to get. The cartoonish, violent Paul Verhoeven shell of the film is just a decoy, which in itself is a clever comment on the nature of reality.

DICKING AROUND: Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) was a much better science-fiction film than many critics gave it credit for. In retrospect, it was more a Spielberg movie than a Philip K. Dick movie, but its vision of an efficient, button-down society whose government has secretly tipped over into fascism nicely captures his earliest paranoia stories. The French film Barjo (1992) is also worth mentioning—the only attempt to bring Dick's non-science-fiction work to the screen, it's a slightly too zany but still funny and well-done take on his novel Confessions of a Crap Artist. The running gag that parodies his science fiction work is priceless. Last among these moderately successful adaptation attempts is John Woo's Paycheck (2003), which is my pick for guilty-pleasure PKD flick. Ben Affleck plus high-concept science fiction plus yet another Woo film in which people point guns at each other equals about as much stupid fun as one short story from the 1950s can reasonably be expected to provide.

WHAT DICK WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS?: There are roughly two good ideas in Screamers (1995), both of them taken directly from Dick's short story "Second Variety." All in all, it's one of the worst scripts in Dan O'Bannon's career—my God, the dialogue in this thing! Peter Weller gives his most detached performance ever (and that's saying something), but you would too if your best lines were stuff like "Jefferson, you must be confusing me with someone who gives a shit." O'Bannon mixes Dick's 1950s obsessions—a world fighting its own war technology and losing, as well as machines imitating and outsmarting humans—with his own fetish for evil corporations and industrial landscapes. But the end result is a movie that seems like endless shots of people hiking around barely convincing alien landscapes—I'm getting sleepy just writing about it. The final shot, involving a stuffed animal, is hands-down the stupidest thing you will see in any PKD adaptation. And yet, it's not even the worst. That honor goes to Impostor (2002), which makes Screamers seem breathlessly paced by comparison. Ridiculous chases and lots of unintentional humor (do you think he'll escape ... through the vent?) add up to a lot less fun than I just made it sound with those two phrases. Apparently the feature-length Impostor was a botched expansion of a shorter anthology piece, but I simply cannot bring myself to track down the original, because then I will have to watch it.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite movie about androids here.

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