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Total Recall is pornography.

I’m ashamed of myself — I was railing against the Total Recall remake in the days before its release, though mostly in jest, saying things like “It was Arnold, not Philip K. Dick, who made Total Recall great” and other words of wisdom in a similar vein. I wanted to see Total Recall for reasons a product of hard cynicism — ranging from “I wonder what an Arnold movie is like without Arnold” to “I refuse to see Batman Begins 3*”, but didn’t include “I’m going to enjoy this.” Why wouldn’t I enjoy this? Despite the director’s not sterling resume, and the bland, depressing source (remake of an adaptation of an uncinematic short story), this movie is a complete joy, an absolute gem.

Total Recall 2012 benefits and suffers from its modernity. Gone are the more outlandish elements, like vagina-faced mutants and ancient aliens, and with those things the rapid-fire pace of imagination that elevates the original, which is reduced somewhat, though a significant residual fleshes out the world. And what a world — there is a broad and intimate attention to detail in a cityscape that takes turns being as big, beautiful, and absurd as the green and vertical city from Vanquish and the best Blade Runner mean streets since the original, beating out strong contenders for the throne like Natural City.

Granted, this reeks of ‘Christ, why even bother,’ much in the way of Natural City, and it’s true — Total Recall makes Minority Report seem more important than it is for crafting a Phildickian utopia that isn’t flooded by rain and defended by not umbrellas but neon parasols. It’d be a real issue if the city wasn’t so busy, so energetic, serving as a satisfying and dazzling backdrop for action that’s more intense and entertaining than expected in a PG-13 movie. It’s good action, not splatterfest action like the original. They’re both good, but in different ways. Nobody’s getting used as body shields, but I think Kate Beckinsale just punched Colin Farrell in the face with her vagina.

There’s zero-gravity, futuristic gadgets, and some very cool-looking robots thrown into the mix. It’s a streamlined art direction that offers a more focused, cyberpunk look than the original at the price of a playful, more unpredictable quality (like Inception vs. Paprika). Bill Nighy plays the resistance leader, but rather than being a mutant on the stomach of some other dude, he forgets where he is and assumes it’s The Matrix Reloaded, saying things like “Memories are constructs of the Mayan-dah,” and then looking up and winking at the Architect, who’s of course always watching.

The characters are pale shadows of their former selves (with one alarming exception), as there’s nothing visually interesting about them, and the serious attitude of the film keeps dialogue on the straight. I never realized how much of a non-character Quaid was until someone un-Schwarzenegger played him — he’s a blank slate searching for his identity, which is a compelling premise for a character, though better yet a short story, but doesn’t make for a particularly charming or memorable hero. He’s good at killing people, and that’s what counts, along with the generally strong performances — Bryan Cranston will never play a goof again, you can count on it.

When the fight is done and the hero and heroine look in each other’s eyes, it hit me what a hollow experience this movie was, favoring the ideas over any character development or drama, and not expounding on those ideas as expertly as the author, or introducing any new concepts. But then I thought back and remembered how much I actually enjoyed Kate Beckinsale’s character going around doing stuff. It’s sad that Richter and Sharon Stone’s characters have been combined into one, such that Ironside never gets his arms chopped off by an elevator, and nobody gets pierced through the skull with divorce, but Beckinsale plays one awesomely ass-kicking lady, a villain who isn’t sympathetic or interesting, but is extremely fun to watch. She runs hard after Quaid, and her physical performance heightens the action. And obviously, she looks good doing it all.

But this amounts to little more than pure guilt — guilty pleasure of the highest order. Total Recall may not be considered very important in the realm of science-fiction, but it’s unique for being one of the few action movies with nearly non-stop action. Quaid and Jessica Biel bound from set-piece to set-piece as the collateral damage and body count rise faster than you can groan at all the visual homages that put Terminator Salvation to shame. Why did the director say this movie would be more like the short story than the original movie? It’s just less like the original movie. There’s no tiny alien invasion, or anything completely odd.

This is a good thing, however. Total Recall 1990, an adaptation of a pretty good short story, is a really fun story, and I appreciate its immortalization in remake form, as well as the remake itself, which is an energetic and colorful adventure with a lot of pretty things to look at**, whether that be the city, the action, the robots, or the very attractive and active lead women.

*(On The Dark Knight Rises): Hey, the fights may be hampered by poor fight choreography and dumbass costumes, but he finally nailed the cinematography (stood still) and surrounded the action with pure spectacle — more like Batman Begins than… that other one

**(On Art Direction): Just one problem: the guns. The pistols were fine, but I recognize the rifles from reality, or at least, the reality of near future weapons that find homes in like, Ghost Recon. They look cool, but why not design something new? I could be wrong… maybe it was just a dream.

You know, we got ourselves into this. No one made us chew Chew-Z.

PKD scholars tend to divide the author’s career into three eras: the 50s pulp with flashes of literary merit, the golden era of the 60s and early 70s with many of his masterpieces, among them Ubik and Flow My Tears, and then the late 70s and early 80s with the fascinating spritual journey that yielded, among other things, the VALIS trilogy. Published in 1964, one might view The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as a prelude of things to come, a blend of science-fiction and faith that maintains a relatively grounded story. Through the three eras, we can trace an analog to Philip K. Dick’s life, one that began in the dregs of pulp science-fiction with mainstream aspirations, and was bombarded with drugs and bizarre religious experiences into the oblivion of quiet tragedy, ending on March 2, 1982. As Philip K. Dick was buried next to his long dead twin sister — the original dark-haired girl — the mainstream was finally introduced to him through Ridley Scott’s brilliant Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adaptation released later that year in its first of many forms.

Nowadays that mainstream often considers The Three Stigmata to be one of his best novels, along with A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle, and I must say real quick that I’m glad this is our reality, where we can evaluate his work and not be laughed at, where my mom knows who Philip K. Dick is and we’ll all be lining up to see the Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said or Disney’s King of the Elves in years to come. But anyways The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch tells the story of an Earth on the brink of destruction, where people are forced into emigration to a miserable existence on Mars, and find sole respite in Can-D, a drug that offers shared hallucinations — the ultimate escapism. Or is it? There’s talk in the wind of a competing substance known as Chew-Z, as manufactured by the enigmatic Palmer Eldritch. God promises eternal life, Chew-Z can deliver it, as they say. Corporate bigwig Leo Bulero and his top psi consultant Barney Mayerson investigate and soon find themselves in a plot to assassinate Eldritch, who may or may not be human. Or God. They travel across space, time, and everything, often propelled along by the fierce women in their lives.

What starts as a pretty typical Philip K. Dick novel, one that could conceivably share the world of Ubik or Flow My Tears, with its flying cars and vidphones and corporations, mutates into a spiritual meditation on the big questions. Science-fiction is being used here as means to reach these areas of exploration, which is why it’s important to remember that Philip K. Dick was definitively an author of science-fiction. Like Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not just saying this because I’d like to use this useless blog in defense of the genre, and don’t want to lose one of its key players, but because with The Three Stigmata we witness the growth of an artist. Dick always wrote about ideas close to his heart through fantastical worlds and scenarios, but in his discussions of faith and God strike a profound chord.

We know they’re coming from a very genuine place, as Philip K. Dick would not only become obsessed with the religious half of these books, but always stuck by the science-fiction half. He always hoped to be accepted by a popular audience, but knew that the perception of his genre was that of the literary ghetto. 40 novels, 50 short stories, only a handful non-science-fiction — that’s dedication.

There’s not much I can say about this book, and not much I can say to remember the author that hasn’t already been said. For a better resource, be sure to check out the review catalogue on the Genrebusters website, which has many of his works, and if for all diehards, make sure to pick up the recently released Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It’s an involved, thoughtful tale of endless unpredictability and spots of humor that punctuate a terrifying, absurdist reality.

For a two hour interview with the author I just found on YouTube but haven’t yet listened to, click here

Perhaps we should be thankful; these current days of Matt Damon and Steven Spielberg have set a precedent for Philip K. Dick adaptations–they’re big deals. His name finally means something to somebody, and he no longer languishes in the low-budget genre ghettos. I on the other hand will approve of this shift in Hollywood with a nod or too, but reminisce fondly on the days of old, when the early Dick movie reflected the early Dick novels–they were small. Now, Total Recall and Blade Runner were big productions, but going through the years we have Next and A Scanner Darkly and of course Screamers, which were either indies, or given little fanfare, or not taken seriously, like the classic Arnoldo. Or all of the above. I could say–without vouching for Next–that they all constitute cult classics, and in the case of Screamers, it makes perfect sense.

Here we have a joining of names that would tickle any nerd–Dan “Alien” O’Bannon, Peter “Robocop Across the 8th Dimension” Weller, and Philip K. Dick. It’s a movie about killer robots, a war in space, and it’s a gritty, low-budget actioner that’s high on imagination. It also becomes something of an echo of John Carpenter’s The Thing, although I’m sure the original short story predates the 1982 flick. Screamers deals exclusively with Dick’s “What is human?” question, exploring the human-as-machine theme as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, though not in the same way.

As Steven Owen Godersky puts it, “Phil Dick’s third major theme is his fascination with war and his fear and hatred of it.” Screamers doesn’t use its war between the Alliance and the New Economic Block as mere backdrop as Total Recall does with its rebellion; it’s integral to the theme, as war will lead naturally to questions of humanity. The robot metaphor works as well as it does in other Dicks, but here it allegorizes that classic phrase, “Man’s inhumanity to man.” People are fucking each other over on Sirius 6B, fighting wars and leaving soldiers for dead. What better way to visualize this than to have a gunshot wound be filled with wires and servos?

Peter Weller, playing a character named Hendricksson, which I believe was his name on 24 as well, decides to make peace with the other side, but must trek across Screamer-infested, radioactive, winter terrain. He takes a young soldier Jefferson along with him, the lone survivor of a spaceship crash–he was headed to fight on another planet, which signals to the Alliance that Earth has moved on, and they didn’t get the memo, or weren’t supposed to. The idea of a faceless organization stabbing its expendables in the back is a common thread in the O’Bannon canon, and here it’s the military. We can’t trust these people.

So old enemies become friends, and they’re united against a common enemy–machines. Not only those who left them for dead on Sirius 6B, but the Screamers, which are Alliance-invented killer robots. Indeed Hendricksson and Jefferson meet up with two NEB soldiers and a black market merchant when they reach the enemy base, and must travel back to the Alliance compound to escape. Along the way they find something troubling, a little boy named David who turns out to be an advanced species of deadly Screamer.

Concern. Not only have the Screamers evolved by their own accord, they’ve become perfect illusions. The Screamers began as horrific weapons of man’s design, which tear soldiers’ limbs off before going in for the kill, as seen in the beginning of the movie. Now they look human–the line between human and killer machine has blurred, it seems. So this proves to be quite the conundrum, as Hendricksson will discover that another variation of Screamer is a wounded soldier, and there’s an as of yet unidentified “Second Variety.” One thing is known–the Screamers will repeat things because they can’t think of anything smarter to say.

This creates instant paranoia on the desolate battlefield of Sirius 6B, and we’re not sure who to trust. The final twist in the movie, which I shouldn’t spoil but would love to talk about, is essentially a repeat of what happens in Blade Runner–the line, it’s just so damn blurry. What does that say about us?

The premise in Screamers is great. Pure phildickian, and a setup for thought-provoking scenarios that make this film stand out among other scifi action movies. Helping it in this regard is the production design and art direction. The movie looks fantastic on a conceptual level. The ruins of industrial cityscapes, the bunkers embedded in hills, the underground laboratories–very classic imagery. Add on top of that that Screamers is Aliens, Doom, and all those movies where you have soldiers with big scifi rifles checking corners in metal hallways–there’s pretty much nothing I appreciate more in science-fiction film. Eventually the crew comes across the site of a massacre that screams Dead Space and Aliens: this was a settlement of some sort, complete with that Weyland-Yutani propoganda about colonizing a better world of tomorrow.

So yes, we have soldiers and futury locations, and they’re scouring those locations. Unfortunately the hostile element–the titular Screamers–are to me very uninteresting visually. They’re either little boys, Terminators in the flesh, or stop-motion robots. The stop-motion I like, but this movie being as low-budget as it is, they’re not on screen for very long. From a writer’s standpoint, I understand why the Screamers make sense as little tiny robots, but I much prefer big enemies in my scifi action movies. I’ll call this the Gort principle, for any of you who actually saw the 2008 remake, you’ll know that Gort goes on a rampage as a 500-foot tall robot, and then decides to manifest a cloud of nano-robots. Sigh, boring. Nanorobots can’t shoot lasers or smash buildings!

In Aliens and Doom and most recently The Thing, we had monsters that were either human-sized, or a little bit bigger. You’re probably wondering at this point what the freaking deal is, but there is a specific product resultant from an enemy’s size. Enemies are meant to be shot at, but when they’re tiny, shooting is often discouraged. It’s less exciting. This is all on a visual level, of course. In the end, I just wish there’d be a human-sized robot that didn’t have to look like a human. From what I can remember of this movie’s sequel (which will be covered soon), aside from the stupid The Descent-esque ending, there might be some stuff there.

But as it stands with Screamers, all we got are robots that simply don’t look that interesting, save the Type 3 fish-monster-dinosaur looking thing. That’s a nerdgripe for sure, and very minor, because at the end of the day, this movie kicks ass. It’s totally entertaining, and aside from some hinky acting every now and again, gets the taste of Paycheck out of your mouth. This movie also reminded me a lot of Doomsday, for one reason: there was an attention to the minor characters. In Doomsday, there were two or three redshirts, identifiable immediately. But they were great characters who had fun chemistry between them, and I didn’t want them to die. I liked Jefferson, and one could tell that Hendricksson did too. The NEB soldiers were actual characters, they weren’t just nameless grunts. This attention to detail is perhaps expected from a script co-written by Dan O’Bannon, but also telling of the movie’s quality and standing among movies of its ilk.

We’ve talked about the movie’s thematic structure, how Rick Deckard becomes a robot over the course of the movie, having started out not far removed, and how Roy Batty is humanized as he accelerates toward his engineered death. The only weak link in the narrative extends from this point – the tears in rain monologue was of course very telling of Roy Batty’s character as human, but it was meant to reflect on Rick Deckard as a replicant. One of the endings of Blade Runner (never filmed) was Deckard taking Rachel up north and shooting her in the back, which would have worked perfectly after the monologue scene, where our hero must embrace the robot he’s become.

Of course, what we have in the Director’s Cut, which in my opinion is the most best Cut (I hate that I even have to make the distinction) is the taste that lingers – ambiguity, as some see it. I see it as a clever bookend and a confirmation on what we’ve observed earlier, that Deckard is in some sense a replicant, and the preface to a truncated denoument.

Of course, had Blade Runner shown Deckard shooting Rachel, which we may or may not infer happens after the credits, it may have suffered Boyz N the Hood syndrome: we didn’t have to be shown (or told, rather blandly) that Doughboy dies young, it’s been implied internally in the narrative. Not only that, but it seems to be pounding the sadness of the South Central situation on to near excess. So maybe we don’t need to see the guy shoot the girl, because it is in some way implied – as an extension of Deckard as dehumanized robot – but I see too many pros over cons to the scene.

Running with this thematic thing, the hypothetical shooting of Rachel serves only the plot, a payoff to the various discussions of “No [I wouldn’t come after you]. But somebody would,” but an actual displayed shooting of Rachel would have a grave tragedy to it because of the visceral nature of the act itself – its power lies in its existence, which sounds stupid, so in other words we need to see it in order for it to work. This is film, after all.

Rachel walks out into a clearing and Deckard is there behind her (I believe while snow is falling) mulling it over with that stoic and shadowed face, and then shoots her and walks off. He doesn’t like it, but he’s not human anymore, and this is the demonstration of that fact. That would solidify the themes whereas now what we’re sort of stuck with is endless ambiguity. Will Deckard and Rachel live a happy life together? (I guess that’s explored in the sequel novels – Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human through Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon) Is Deckard a replicant? Will Gaff ever find true love?

So basically Blade Runner‘s ending should be like what Jin-Roh has. Kill the girl, embrace the wolf.

It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again – who does?
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory

 

Total Recall is among many of the short story adaptations of the author’s work, something that makes sense from a screenwriters’ standpoint, and hopefully from the producers’, because as Cronenberg has said of adaptations, they’re less translations than they are transformations. A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner are polar opposites when it comes to the method of their respective adaptations, and they serve as telling analogies to the difficulties of not only adapting novels, but adapting Dick. To the screenwriter, novels have structures that can be broken down into three acts, which based on the novel, may be true, but isn’t always, and thus these movies aren’t always successful. Look at Dune – well, don’t. I’m sure there were other problems with that one. *blek*

With a short story, the screenwriter sees story elements, and these can be transcribed onto film. And Philip K. Dick shorts usually have strong, high concept premises, so that’s what you’ll see in Minority Report and Total Recall and others – the premise, and story elements. Unlike Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau and Paycheck and the other PG-13 Dick flicks, Total Recall is lousy with MPAA-here’s-the-middle-finger-you-assholes moments. Bullets don’t rip people to shreds like this in movies, not even in John Woo. This must be the work… of Paul Verhoeven.

Before Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven was a force to be reckoned with as a champion of science-fiction film. He did a lot to sell the genre as an effective medium of satire, with each of his entries in an unofficial scifi trilogy – Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers – becoming increasingly bolder in their sociopolitical statements. They also share something even more important: they’re all great, fun movies. Big and full of explosions and car crashes and guns, guns, guns.

 

Total Recall, based on “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick, is not quite as successful in its introspections Robocop, but at least as successful as Troopers, and this is just fine. At the end of the day, Total Recall is an Arnold movie, meaning it’s an iconic action movie with a lot of macho. Arnold is a presence, he’s the face of American action cinema, spanning just as many subgenres as Sly Stallone but with more success (in that, for example, The 6th Day was technically better than Judge Dredd), and he makes any movie he’s in an Arnold movie. Just think – Aliens almost had Arnold playing Hicks; it was very close to being an Arnold movie.

This particular Arnold volume has an interesting twist – it offers a few phildickian questions into the “What is real?” half of the author’s preoccupations, going so far as to create one scenario about mid-way through that’s reminiscent of Ubik. Sharon Stone and some fellow ‘working for’ Rekal approach Quaid and try to explain this scifi adventure away as a fantasy, that they’re simply avatars trying to reach Quaid from the other side. For a moment the audience is confused. Perhaps this isn’t real?

Then Arnold shoots the guy and there’s an action scene, which is great, though it washes away all that ambiguity in favor of what Total Recall prioritizes: action with a capital a. To be fair, there is enough narrative evidence to throw out the question, for example this has the John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness issue of insanity, where the audience can’t really be convinced of one character’s mental hiccups when the movie isn’t told exclusively from his viewpoint. Not every scene has Quaid in it, just like not every scene in Carpenter’s flick has Sam Neil. Yes, it would be interesting to have that question, and it is a good idea, but the scifi action movie is a popular medium, an audience’s medium. The Philip k. Dick novel is not, certainly not in the year 1990, at least, or whenever this film was first brought to the studios – a guaranteed long time before release.

For all its charm, Total Recall was a troubled development. Of all people, David Cronenberg was attached to it, which to me is just wild. To think that Total Recall could’ve been more Naked Lunch than Commando is an intriguing thought, but if Cronenberg was to adapt any Dick I’ve read so far I hope it’d be Ubik: there’s plenty of body horror in that one, with all the people dissolving and the android bomb and the guy who eats people whole. I could see it. Unfortunately Cronenberg’s sort of gone in a different direction, but A Dangerous Method still looks amazing.

Anywho, Total Recall eventually (or perhaps always was, I don’t rekal) got the treatment of Dan O’Bannon, another cult favorite, also responsible for genre favorites like Return of the Living Dead and (funnily enough) Screamers. I don’t know who did this, but somebody along the way did something really cool to the short story, which for quick recap, is much simpler, and quite the good laugh, though a different brand of humor than “Consider that a divorce.” There is dedicated imagination in Total Recall; it’s filled with a great many ‘things.’ The number of inventive gadgets and SF elements is staggering, each unique and often offering a set piece or clever moment (bursting through X-Ray wall, for example) as cinematic application.

In addition, there’s an element of metanarrative here that I’ve always found interesting, and this seems to be a common theme in Arnold movies, from Commando to Last Action Hero, and even Terminator 3. At some point filmmakers realize that the Arnold movie can be a delicate art – one that’s self-aware. This isn’t quite like that, but references to a secret agent hero defeating the badguy and getting the girl in the end are made by Rekal yuppies, and there’s no better quintessential secret agent hero than the Arnold. Layers of unreality, I suppose – stories within stories.

Total Recall is bursting at the seams with stuff. One-liners and gratuitous violence galore, it’s a perfectly, characteristically paced Verhoeven action picture. We never move from scene to scene without a big set piece, without Michael Ironside or Dick Jones running and gunning through a rich world. The production design in Total Recall is pure joy. The interiors kind of remind me of the Citadel and other planets from Mass Effect, where alien landscapes are in plain view right out the windows. The mutant effects, from the vagina-face dude to Benny’s arm, are all charmingly practical makeup effects. The big vehicles and the weapons are cool, so it goes. Check this one – it’s a classic.

See you at the party, Richter.

Spoiler Alert, seriously. You should make the effort to read Ubik if you haven’t already, and then come back and skim this, the usual stuff. It’s actually a pretty quick read, and this is coming from somebody who rarely meanders onto the printed page. It must have taken me three months to read Childhood’s End, but Ubik was only a matter of three days.

Ubik is the most maddening, perplexing, fascinating, and mind-blowing novel I’ve yet to read. It feels, essentially, like a funny PKD short story like “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but blown up to 200 pages. That’s not a bad thing, but it does present one crucial problem. There’s a punchline to the novel, and it feels like a giant joke, in some way, that Philip K. Dick is dictating to us with his usual wit and entertaining prose. That’s fine, except that I didn’t feel nearly as much sympathy for the hero of the aforementioned short story as I did with Joe Chip or Glen Runciter – or even Pat Conley, who’s involvement in the narrative took me the most. When the characters are victims of some massive farce by the end of a phildickian short story, it’s the story itself that sticks with us; the characters are just vessels by which the story’s punchline gets through. In the longform medium, the paradigm shifts, and the length and complexity of the journey undertaken by the characters engages us on a higher level with those characters.

And yet, Ubik ends with the short story kick, which, by the time I reached the About the Author section and gazed upon it with wild eyes, caused me to emit a sound not unlike a groan, but more like a yelp. I was shocked, but this feeling was both amplified and frustrated by emotions gathered in the immediately preceeding chapter: disgust, mostly. When Jory was revealed I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to reveal how hero Joe Chip would resolve this larger-than-life conflict in the last twenty or so pages, meanwhile ticking away in my mind about how the scenario depicted is like The Matrix (or Inception, if you’d rather) but so much more fucked up, unbelievably so.

In the novel’s final moments, I was constantly reminded of how close to death Joe Chip was, how horrible this death would be, how irreversibly screwed he was, and how no matter what satirical 1992 future he lived in where life and death operate on a strange new level – he could never escape it. My mind was churning with these dark, intense thoughts, and after I put the book down one last time I experienced something very rare.

Usually in science-fiction I really fall in love with, I find myself thinking about the themes and ideas explored long after the title has expired, and usually I relate them here on this website. After Ubik, I was literally thoughtless. My mind was actually blown, taken up to a height unprecedented by an author with golden wings and dropped at the turn of the final page onto hard pavement. The disturbing nature of half-life and of Jory shook me, carrying me with jolting unease through the rest of the novel, where my mental discomfort paralleled hero Joe Chip’s frantic and shattering struggle to regain control of his body – inside his mind.

Based on what Wikipedia has to offer, and the scrawling I’ve found on the inside covers as penned by the book’s previous owner, the eponymous Ubik has been interpreted as God, something that heals us and is everywhere. The argument is that Ubik restores our faith in ourselves, makes Joe Chip believe that he can win the unwinnable fight against Jory. But in the end, he cannot. Eventually things run out – everything ends, and in the Ubik universe, things seem to end with Jory. So is Dick in this way criticizing God and our faith in him? The ending makes me think so, which essentially says that we can’t be sure of anything, not even God or his healing powers, but death is a constant for everyone, no matter how far we get into the future.

I don’t know. Philip K. Dick would go on to write more blatantly theological novels, yet Ubik isn’t considered one of them. It is however, very phildickian, and one clear tell is the inclusion of the dark-haired girl. This time it’s a character named Pat Conley, who indeed is malevolent and a force of destruction. For me, she’s also a force of more discomfort – I really didn’t take to the idea that she was eaten by Jory, that just didn’t sit well with me. Otherwise she was an interesting character among a cast of interesting characters, and I can’t help but wonder how Philip K. Dick manages to balance so many well-rounded elements in one novel, considering how fast he put these and the short stories out.

There’s a lot to be said about Ubik, but I don’t have the capacity to say it. I’ll leave this one up to you, dear reader, because I think what we have here is something of a personal journey to be undertaken, and I can only point you in the Dickiest direction.

The troubled production of Blade Runner and the various Cuts of the movie put out over the years by different parties gives credence to the idea that very few of its makers fully grasped exactly what the movie was about. Some argued that Deckard wasn’t a replicant, some preferred ambiguity. In one cut we see that Tyrell wasn’t killed, his replicant was, and he’s up on the top floor of the pyramid frozen like Walt Disney. How could this be? And how in the world does it turn out to be such a focused piece of literary science-fiction film? Perhaps there aren’t answers to such questions; the best we can do is look back on the masterful filmmaking and science-fiction storytelling that was at play back in ’82. This is a dark, intense, cerebral, and moving film, the very most important science-fiction movie ever made.

This is of course, only in my opinion, as most people believe movies like Metropolis, 2001, Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, maybe Solaris, or possibly Planet of the Apes to be the best SF movies of all time. Blade Runner usually comes in second or third – a good movie, but the best? I have this sometimes unique opinion because Ridley Scott’s finest hour fills out every requisite in my personal checklist of the standard of film.

Awhile ago I was going to publish a post akin to my ludicrous “To Ride a High Horse” post that was all about the “Standard of Film,” though it was more about how movies like Citizen Kane and Crank 2 are both great movies, but can’t be judged on the same plane. One has the aspirations to be a dramatic metaphor for America, and the other wants to be an adrenaline-pumped action masterpiece to rival HK cinema – they both succeed, but they’re different aspirations that appeal to different people: one happens to appeal to AFI. Anyhow, it’s not the time nor place for that – this new standard of film is something I concocted awhile ago and couldn’t find a new name for:

If a movie is going to succeed fully in my eyes it must be treated like a sudoku puzzle. Every element has to fit into place here, here, and here, lest it upset the balance and not work – if we do upset the balance with some superfluous element, some other filmmaker could take the movie and exchange the element for a better one. So every fabric of the movie should serve a higher purpose, and equally significant, the manner in which it’s stitched should be important and irreplaceable. Everything that happens in the movie must tie back to the thematic structure, and this is the foundation that the filmmakers will build off of with their own unique and personal ideas.

There are of course exceptions to this, like The Shawshank Redemption, those thematic framework isn’t necessarily the strongest, but it’s here to tell a damn good story, and it does, making it a truly great movie. Blade Runner on the other hand succeeds by being thematically dense – the paranoia, the questions of humanity and reality and morals, the film noir stylings, they’re everywhere in the images presented, in the dialogue, and embedded in deeper, subtler places.

What makes Blade Runner special is that the themes it addresses so meticulously are all fascinating and sometimes enlightening to me personally, and hopefully you too. Very phildickian, as one might imagine, despite it’s narrative departure from the beautifully titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a movie that steps back from humanity by pushing us forward thirty-seven years into a smog-choked future to examine and ask question like only sci-fi can. By using death as a motive for the villains, it creates dual arcs that dovetail into a powerful climactic scene between very changed characters, and in this journey’s end we as the audience are privy to the measure of dehumanization. We’re also allowed time to reflect on all the ideas brought up over the course of the story.

I’ll try to get into it more in depth later, but the idea that death motivates our villain is so brilliant on so many levels. Not only does it make Roy Batty sympathetic and not a one-note mustache-twirling “Give me one-billion dollars lest I blow up the world” fool, it demonstrates that the acceptance that all things fade in time like tears in rain makes us human, and Rick Deckard watches on, now a replicant in spirit but not in flesh…

What seems to be the problem?
Death.

For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory

Man, I really missed science-fiction. The last few posts have been pretty Movie-centric in terms of the Movie/Science-fiction split on this website, so this should be a nice return to form. I guess the posts here do happen to reflect my movie-watching habits – lately I’ve been watching a lot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – and I’ve seen some cool non-SF movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Mulholland Drive, it was nice to finally sit down with a movie about cops in the future.

It was also nice to see a movie I knew I was going to like – and liked! I assumed I would like End of Days, but it didn’t have the one liners or the action of other Schwarzenegger classics, but Minority Report certainly worked out. It’s a good movie.

It’s definitely a Spielberg thriller; elements of drama, elements of action, elements of genuine science fiction, but none of these are more pronounced than the others. Combined, it’s an entertaining film, but right in the center of Dick adaptations to the right of A Scanner Darkly and to the left of Paycheck. It’s a great premise, and throwing in this convulted murder mystery seemed to be the right way to go, but everything non-Philip K. Dick and not pertaining to the look and feel of the film was formulaic. The tortured backstory for Tom Cruise, the twists and turns, the one dimensional secondary cast – those didn’t add up to much in the movie’s favor.

In the original short story, “The Minority Report,” John Anderton is a middle-aged bald fat man, but in the film adaptation he’s Tom Cruise. That should begin to illustrate the level of adaptation we’re working with here: not quite as faithful as Linklater’s rather strict constructionist take, but then again not as overtly “Philip K. What?” as John Woo’s extremely embarassing outting, just another in his line of extremely embarassing American movies.

It is perhaps more Spielberg than Dick, but that is never a bad thing. Spielberg is ace at nearly everything when it comes to that little thing we call filmmaking, so Minority Report may not be one of his better science-fiction blockbusters, but this is really only due to of the weakness of the script.

A wonderful irony here is that the screenwriters didn’t take any risks. My guess is that they had only the gall for one risk, and that was adapting something by this author whose popularity was only beginning to show, and was kind of weird. The script isn’t wholly reflective of ‘weird,’ for example the PreCogs are just psychics rather than deformed and mentally challenged mutants, but this I believe actually works in the movie’s favor. In the end it’s really just bland dialogue that doesn’t allow the movie to get deep with either emotion or judicial philosophy and morals.

To go back to the PreCog thing – I remember hearing one complaint about Inception, and at first I took it as a legitimate criticism, but quickly realized why the movie was the way it was. Essentially the moviegoer was hoping to see more dream stuff, as assumedly inside someone’s dream anything is possible, so why is it that the craziest thing to happen was the buildings folded over? We could’ve had robot unicorns eating the sun but instead we had some pretty cool gun fights – what gives?

That’s an issue that comes to production and art design. Christopher Nolan was going for a specific look as he did with the very Blade Runner-inspired Batman Begins and the period piece The Prestige. Inception was meant to be something of a neo-noir, and it was science-fiction but not embarassingly so. It had to have consistent art design, and therefore couldn’t have superfluous robot unicorns.

This is analogous somewhat to the world of Minority Report, which is one originally created by Philip K. Dick. The author made a habit of writing stories where time travel and space travel often co-exist, where off-world colonies hide ESPers and where androids see the future.

Because of the limited scope of the screen, filmmakers like Spielberg and like Nolan need to streamline. Some elements that some viewers may find distracting of what’s most important in the narrative (like deformed mutants) need to be altered, or adapted, to fit with the Minority Report look and feel. It’s a movie about cops in the future, and it works pretty well, looks really cool, moves forward most of the time.

In this case and in the case of Blade Runner, we actually benefitted by less Dick. Odd, but certainly not every filmmaker is capable of such a thing.

Here’s a title that will be referenced frequently in the coming weeks with the start of the Blade Runner post series proper; Philip K. Dick had a lot of interesting things to say about the one film based on his material produced during his lifetime. He also had a lot to say about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the final book, and The Owl in Daylight, those segments of which are fascinatingly maddening.

The editors Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter were good friends of Philip K. Dick, and Lee had taped several conversations with the man between January 10 and January 15, 1982, just months before his death. This book is a collection of those interviews, and we get insight not only on the various concerns of the writer, but the way he talks, which when translated on the page is cumbersome and near-scatterbrained. It’s clear by the things he says and the ideas he tackled (and was going to tackle with The Owl in Daylight) that he’s got a hell of a lot going on up there, and so truncated thoughts, contradictions and the like can be excused.

It is afterall, a fascinating read.

The title of the book, What If Our World Is Their Heaven? represents a bit of a tragedy, as it alludes to an idea Dick was working with for his new book, The Owl in Daylight. There’s a long segment where he and Gwen Lee are actually working out the premise behind the book, and it’s a compelling if dangerous method of pre-writing. He doesn’t start with narrative, he doesn’t start with the personal philosophy he’s written many of his stories under – it’s almost indescribable, and I don’t want to spoil it, if such a thing were possible.

Easily the most intriguing bit in the book was Philip K. Dick’s discussion of the connection he often has with his fictional characters, in particular Angel Archer, who he fell in love with. He claims that The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the one non-science-fiction novel (the only ‘literary’ one, as he says) he wrote, nearly killed him, that it was the hardest and least rewarding book he wrote. Upon inquiry, he responds with, “I don’t have very much to show for it. I mean, I could have written five science-fiction novels.” He may believe that it was perhaps a wasted effort, augmented by the fact that he did fall sick during or after writing it, but something very important happened.

After he finished the book and had to part ways with it, he felt that he was losing someone – he realized that he was parting ways with the main character Angel Archer, a dark-haired girl that he had spent so much time with. As he says, the writing of Angel was an unprecedented event, as he had actually created a character who was better, smarter, and cooler than he. He found that he was writing about things that she knew of, and he had to research later to understand.

Sounds odd, but that’s only because it is. And that’s Philip K. Dick for you. None of the stories you’ll hear about him make sense, but it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, because he did, and that’s what translated into some awesome fiction, and an extraordinary life, the latter of which is captured briefly here in this book.

Before we get into the pieces of Blade Runner I’ve found myself interested in, let’s go over the two men at the heart and soul of the film, Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. Consider this, in addition, a prelude to another Dreck Fiction series, which I may or may not simply call: DICK.

Ridley Scott

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been a fan of Ridley Scott. Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down – these movies range from mediocre to terrible, and I haven’t seen a movie of his after Gladiator that I’ve liked. At the same time, he’s got this holy trinity of films that I absolutely love: Alien, Gladiator, and of course, Blade Runner. He struck gold with these, and each of them are deep in visual, literary, and filmic ways.

Gladiator

Ridley Scott’s tale of Rome and its power players is both an epic and a personal story; it’s very much about one man set against a massive backdrop, and the scale of the film is handled well within the narrative’s solid structure, which effects quick pacing and consistent storytelling. It’s classic revenge saga, and it’s very old fashioned. There is positively no gray in this movie – Maximus is the flawless hero, and Commodus is the gross villain. We want to see one kill the other really badly.

The character’s journey is incredible, and Maximus’ reveal to the Emperor is one of the great cinematic moments in history. The movie isn’t even entirely stupid, which one might gather as it’s called Gladiator, and seemingly is all about gladiators fighting. It’s a movie about politics and society and power, but through it all it’s about heroism and fighting for what’s right. It’s a movie that gets you amped up, and if I had only one complaint, it’s one that developed over the years – it’s not nearly as violent as I remembered. I guess I’ve come to be a gorehound, unfortunately.

Alien

The most famous science-fiction horror film of all time, Alien leads the charge with The Fly, The Thing, and The Mist in that very, very small genre. I enjoyed Alien when I saw it many years ago, but oddly enough, I’ve only ever seen it that once. It’s bizarre to me because it’s place in science-fiction canon is known to all in the Kingdom of Nerds, but I always opt to rewatch Aliens.

Much has been said of the set pieces – the facehugger attack, the spacejockey, the chestburster, the final showdown – these are all memorable, and I saw them a dozen times before and a dozen times after viewing the movie in full. There’s not much I can add. I can say that I’m entirely too thankful for the story brought about by O’Bannon and Hill, which was a universe big enough to carry on in three more great movies, and small enough to stay mysterious, scary, and compelling.

Philip K. Dick

My exploration into the world of Philip K. Dick has been greatly augmented by Internet research: online various essays and speeches of his can be found, and very cheaply his titles can be purchased through Amazon. In addition to that is commentary spanning all mediums, including The Greatest Movie Ever Podcast, which occasionally touches upon the many film adaptations of Dick’s novels and short stories, all of which released after his death in 1982.

Philip K. Dick is one of the most interesting characters in science-fiction, as his writing is thoughtful and profound, dark and hilarious. Moments in A Scanner Darkly made me laugh out loud, and they were paired with moments that made me extremely bummed out – in a good way. I have so much to experience that’s written by Dick, I’m sure my realtive virgin status is envied by many of his fans. He definitely strikes me as one of those authors whose books necessitate multiple readthroughs, but the first will always be the most powerful journey.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When I think cyberpunk, a few key titles come to my mind: Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. These titles established their own worlds, populated these worlds with characters, and explored ideas characteristic of cyberpunk. I see metal men, man/machine interfaces, AI, detectives, assholes, femme fatales, metropolises, future weapons, hackers – it’s all good stuff.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands out for me because it’s such a depressed novel. It builds a haze of depression that translates well into the smog that’s killed all the animals and is seen in Blade Runner. Cyberpunk works since have all had sad worlds, but there’s something about this particular world that really works on a deeper literary level. It is out to get the main character Deckard, and it’s always there to bring up questions of morality, humanity, and of course, reality.

Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. One of them I’m very interested in. I can’t quite call myself a Dickhead in reference to reading his body of work, but I’m certainly intrigued and would like to know more. I think now I finally have the time to get some serious science-fiction reading in. Ridley Scott on the other hand is a director who hits and misses, but when he hits goddamn is it spot on.

Put these two together and you’ve got the start of Blade Runner. Of course, you can’t not mention Hampton Fancher and David Peoples and Douglas Trumbull… But I guess “Ridley and the Dick” sounded funniest to me.

For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory

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