The filming of Philip K. Dick.

The filming of Philip K. Dick.

The filming of Philip K. Dick.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 25 2002 4:15 PM

The Filming of Philip K. Dick

Still from Minority Report

When the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick died in 1982, he had just returned from a screening of Blade Runner, the first of many movies that would be made from his work. Dick was impressed: Though he had hoped to see Victoria Principal play the leading female role, he was nonetheless quite pleased by the film's night-soaked atmosphere and paranoid style. In an interview, he praised director Ridley Scott's creation of a grimily futuristic cityscape. "It's not a hygienically pristine space colony which looks like a model seen at the Smithsonian Institute," he said. "No, this is a world where people live. And the cars use gas and are dirty and there is a kind of gritty rain falling and it's smoggy. It's just terribly convincing when you see it."

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Dick has a great deal to offer the filmmaker, and Hollywood has responded by making a number of movies from his vast repertoire of novels, short stories, and searching mystical investigations; the latest is Minority Report, which is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Tom Cruise. But are these movies convincing? Over the course of four decades, Dick worked ingenious variations on the questions of "what is real?" and "what is human?" He created hallucinations and hallucinations within hallucinations, interlocking time loops, and extravagant conspiracies. Under pressure from his publishers, he also included a good deal of flashy gadgetry and extraterrestrial warfare. (He wrote a novel called The Zap Gun because his editor wanted a book with that title.) Underlying everything was his succinctly stated suspicion that the world is "a forgery (& our memories also)."

Not surprisingly, Hollywood has been more entranced with Dick's reality-bending premises than with his efforts to understand how human beings might actually live in a world where they cannot trust appearances. It has turned his humble employees into muscle-bound superheroes and replaced his wry humor ("God is responsible for everything, but it's hard to get him to admit it") with crowd-pleasing laugh lines ("Consider that a divorce," crows Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall after killing his wife played by Sharon Stone).

This is a shame, because Dick's novels are remarkable not only for their head-spinning reality games and sci-fi melodrama; they are also marked by the modesty and fragility of their protagonists and by the mordant humor with which those protagonists make sense of their bewildering lives. His books are strewn with hapless repairmen, lonely truck drivers, and timid bureaucrats who must cope with the unexpected and unbearable breakdown of reality. And yet when Arnold Schwarzenegger plays one of Dick's "lowly clerks" in Total Recall, the effect is entirely lost. There's a certain power to the scene in which Schwarzenegger's Douglas Quaid watches the videotaped statement of a man who tells him, "You are not you; you're me." But there's little urgency to Quaid's ensuing quest for his true self, since it seems unlikely that this introspection-free hulk ever had one to begin with. (As the makers of the Terminator series understood, Schwarzenegger is far more convincing playing an automaton than a human being.) Total Recall, derived from the story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" and directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a better science fiction thriller than most, but it hardly does justice to the spirit of Dick's writing. And despite a strong ending, the 1995 film Screamers, which was based on Dick's story "Second Variety," is more generic still; it makes Total Recall seem like a work of the greatest subtlety.

Minority Report, to be released this summer, is about a police agency that identifies and incarcerates murderers before they actually commit their crimes. Though this might sound like a fantasy sprung from the head of John Ashcroft, it is actually another of Dick's fearful scenarios, and one might hope that Spielberg will make a film that combines philosophical paradox with human drama. In A.I., after all, Spielberg created something at once chilling and poignant out of the typically Dick-ian effort to locate human feeling in a world that is "metal and cruel." But the choice of Tom Cruise as star augurs badly. His smug performance as a playboy magazine heir in Vanilla Sky undermined a potentially interesting film that also carried undeniable Dick-ian overtones.

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Even Blade Runner, which is an arresting film, omits the most powerful elements of its source, Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both the novel and the film tell the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose job is to hunt down and kill the androids who escape from Earth's colonies on Mars. Ridley Scott's vision of a mechanical world is a haunting one: After one of the androids destroys his human creator, the camera turns to record the blank stare of the mechanical owl who had seen it all. And yet Scott downplays Deckard's struggles to make sense of his cruel calling. In the book, Deckard is beset with a troubled marriage and money problems; he agrees to take on a final android-killing mission because he wants to replace the unimpressive mechanical sheep he keeps on his roof with a real live pet. But in the film, Deckard (who is played by Harrison Ford) has no wife and no pet and no financial troubles; he takes the mission after his boss goads him with the words, "You know the score; if you're not a cop, you're little people." Most significantly, Scott ignores Deckard's emotional reactions to his work. In Dick's novel, when Deckard feels nothing for the androids he kills, he wonders if this might be a sign that he too is merely a machine, a creature defined by "the flattening of affect." But when Deckard does begin to develop some empathy for his victims, he wonders if this also might be an indication that he is an android. Scott skips over this fascinating set of conundrums. The movie goes much further than the novel in suggesting that Deckard actually is an android; but it leaves out Deckard's own grapplings with the question of his identity.

Of course, Dick has influenced many films that fall outside the format of the Hollywood action picture. In 1992, the French director Jerome Boivin based his movie Confessions d'un Barjo on Dick's bitterly comic novel Confessions of a Crap Artist. It's an offbeat and engaging, if somewhat slight film. Dick's novel, which was set in the outer reaches of Marin County, concerns a grown-up misfit who has never outlived his teen-age enthusiasm for collecting milk bottle caps and strange ideas from science fiction novels. He lives with his sister and her husband in a large, comfortable house in the woods; he torments them with his foolishly earnest questions, but his naive transgressions hardly compare to the couple's brutal treatment of each other. Boivin skillfully transposes this black-hearted sendup of suburban ennui into the French countryside. Barjo himself is a convincingly awkward young man; with a deranged exuberance, he asks the leader of a local doomsday cult whether he will be able to return his library books before "la fin du monde." Boivin balances green lawns and bucolic woods against a succession of acrylic walls and mustard-yellow clothes; the result somehow conveys both the loneliness of rural isolation and the toxicity of a mechanical civilization choking on its own exhaust.

But the best cinematic treatment of Dick's concerns may be a movie with no explicit connection to any of his writings: last year's Memento. The materials of the film are deliberately generic: We trace a tired murder mystery through the anonymous motels, deserted warehouses, and leafy villas of the B-movie ecosystem. Against this plain backdrop, the film's cognitive dislocations stand out dramatically. The protagonist, like Quaid in Total Recall, has a defective memory and must struggle to furnish his life with even the most minimal sense of temporal continuity. It soon becomes clear that Memento's scenes are presented in the reverse order of the plot's chronology; viewers can only make sense of the film when they realize that effects precede causes rather than follow them. Dick himself was fascinated by the reversal of time. Influenced by a case study by the existential psychoanalyst Ludwig Binswanger, he returned again and again to the notion of a moldering "tomb world" where all the usual processes of growth and development that characterize life are reversed. In his spectacular 1969 novel UBIK, he envisioned a strange environment where everyday objects revert to earlier versions of themselves: Sleek modern elevators and airplanes become antiques, and "all the cigarettes in the world are stale." In a film scenario for the novel, Dick suggested the use of older and older film stocks and directing techniques as the film progressed. (Nothing ever came of it, though John Lennon did express some interest in filming Dick's equally remarkable novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.)

The latest news from the theater of Philip K. Dick is that Richard Linklater may direct A Scanner Darkly, Dick's study of a drug-addled policeman in a futuristic Orange County. It's one of Dick's best novels, and Linklater may be the director the book deserves. In Waking Life, Linklater had his rambling philosophical soliloquists invoke Dick as they pondered the impossibility of distinguishing reality from a dream; the film's brightly colored animation of live action scenes suggested the "double exposure" of realities that Dick wrote about obsessively in his later years. I had reservations about Waking Life, but I suspect Dick would have loved it. And one can imagine Linklater finding his way through the peculiar thickets of logic and illogic that make up A Scanner Darkly. In Dazed and Confused, Linklater had Matthew McConaughey's aging stoner Wooderson return to his old school to deliver the immortal line: "That's what I love about these high-school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." In A Scanner Darkly, the drugged-up, schizoid cop Bob Arctor senses that his world has become truly unfathomable: "You know something," he observes with mounting anxiety and confusion, "I used to be the same age as everyone else."

Alexander Star is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. This fall, he will begin editing the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe.