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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.

I had a strange thought some time ago. When movies like these come out, they aren’t the events that fans and filmmakers look back on and imagine. They’re movies with little concept of how much they’ll impact the world for the next thirty years and beyond. There is no futuristic city more quintessential than L.A. 2019, which isn’t far from now — but hopefully never comes to pass as it does in Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic cyber-fable.

The idea is so clean it’s almost painful. The story defines to me the beauty in science-fiction film, that of tight ideas which lead down fascinating roads of thought while maintaining and executing on a high concept premise. It isn’t just: “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids — STOP,” making it something like the more recent Surrogates, it’s “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids, an act that impacts the audience and characters on a moral and philosophical level, as these androids are distinguishable to humans only by a bizarre method of interrogation known as Voight-Kampff…”

In a recent interview with Cinemax to look back on Blade Runner during its 30th anniversary year, Ridley Scott revealed that Blade Runner was definitely his most personal film, though he followed that up with a moment of silence and thought and something like, “yeah, that’s it.” I suppose it makes since, not because Scott isn’t known for making films with very personal subjects (in that, he does everything from the Crusades and Columbus to espionage and modern warfare), but because Blade Runner is an emotional film that says quite a lot about humanity and violence — lofty themes atypical of science-fiction in film.

Because this is a sci-fi film, the emotion and that which says quite a lot are delivered in what we could call a non-traditional manner, considering the genres that do deal in these things more often than SF. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, or even character interaction, but there’s an unrelenting brooding about the atmosphere that looks pretty — though thirty years later it does show the construction behind its making — but hits you as a dead end for our kind, a shimmering monument to ourselves that’s choking out life and morality. Above all, it fills us with dread and loneliness, despite, or perhaps because of, the faceless crowds flowing in every direction, and being pelted with endless rain. It’s a perfectly impressionistic environment to house one man’s depressing, dehumanizing journey.

That’s exactly what Blade Runner is, this journey that chips away at Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), making it less of a dramatic tearjerker and more cerebral fare with a genuinely poigniant core. Characters struggle against forces beyond their control, whether it’s death or society (“If you’re not police you’re regular people”), and lose, even though the hero does achieve the dramatic need he establishes at the beginning of the movie.

LEGACY

Blade Runner also works because it’s one of the classic genre-mixers. It combines science-fiction with noir, a formula that’s sustained SF for years and years. In the context of this film, it’s a good blend, as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking hard-boiled is entirely justified in a bleak world where suddenly you can’t be sure of your own identity, and where the sky taunts you to join the “Off-World Colonies,” which I can’t imagine are any better than the ‘Hellscape’ of Los Angeles.

Anime in particular took to this new trope, referencing and embodying the movie in so many titles — but to no better effect than in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which does more than pay lip service to the visuals. In this 2004 sequel to Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, two police detectives scour the dark underworld of a futuristic Tokyo, maneuvering through yakuza strapped with illegal model cyborgs and the haunting, Gothic locales where minds can be easily lost to remote psychological warfare of the most invasive variety. Questions of humanity and the blur between flesh and metal — what Masamune Shirow refers to as the Man/Machine Interface — rise to the same effect, though in much clunkier, verbose terms.

Elements of Blade Runner have also found homes in America, in the oddest of places — anything from Mass Effect to Batman Begins. Science-fiction is great at capturing the imagination of fans and creators, and Blade Runner stands up there with Star Wars and Star Trek and frankly, has spawned better derivatives, which seem to be more venerating toward the source.

THE UNICORN

Maybe the greatest problem with the whole “Is Deckard a Replicant” thing is that he dreamt of a unicorn, and not an Electric Sheep. That would’ve solved it, put it down for good. Of course, there’s a bigger problem, that of harping on whether or not he’s a replicant, and proliferating the idea that it actually matters. What is gained from Deckard being a replicant? An idea, but only one that’s supplemental — the Philip K. Dick “aha!” at the end that gives us a notion about the world and the themes of the movie, a mechanic that Christopher Nolan most recently recycled in the ending of Inception. We are not meant to argue one way or the other, because that would be giving validity to something best experienced in its fleeting, epilogue form.

This is an issue of fandom, more specifically that of the science-fiction variety. This is odd because there are plenty of Philip K. Dick books out there with these kinds of endings — I think to Ubik immediately — but because there is no Ubik movie, there is no discussion, and Ubik is left alone as a thought-provoking, satisfying whole. It’s also an issue of medium, then. I think that we as audiences tend to value the literal over the figurative when it comes to movies, which unless established, portray things meant to be taken at face value. We’re seeing and hearing these ‘tangible’ things — they’re solid, concrete. When Deckard picks up that origami — it’s not the idea blending over the physical image and clouding our mind like it should.

This story format bias is interesting, but has only really haunted Blade Runner and a handful of others, as Blade Runner was brave but didn’t make its money back. It’s more of a cult success in line with The Thing and Streets of Fire, to name two movies from around that time, which often gives these movies its staying power. In the case of Blade Runner, it must just be that immortal question, that which is so backwards. In my mind, he’s a replicant insofar as he’s been dehumanized over the arc, but to say that creates a clash of how Scott sees the Android, and how Dick sees it.

In preparation for writing Nazi characters for his Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick did extensive and disturbing research, becoming fascinated by how robotic and callous people can be. He drew on that in his creation of the ‘andys’ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, creating what were essentially empathetically-challenged humans, which Scott takes one step further. The replicants in Blade Runner are sympathetic, some more than others, but in the end, Roy is entirely human. But he’s a replicant. In the end, Deckard is a figurative replicant, but wouldn’t that mean that… he’s human? And besides, he’s also supposedly a replicant for real…?

I suppose it’s more to do with the blurring of the two. It’s not so much where one begins and ends, but that we as people are becoming colder, or have been cold and this city is a mirror, and this is how we can shoot a human woman in the back, in front of the endless crowds.

BLADE RUNNER, 2019

The future of Blade Runner is a recent development with the announcement of a sequel, which is definitely one of those sequels that’s always been ‘possible,’ but never really plausible. On one hand, it’s a shame, as Blade Runner has always felt more in line with great science-fiction literature, and should stand alone as a great story with a beginning, middle, and end, but on the other, this is great news.

Thinking on it, the things that made Blade Runner a true classic could be done again. It’s just… science-fiction in film isn’t a thinking man’s genre, and the current state of SF is best summed up in the Syfy Channel*: “We just don’t give a fuck.” Granted, there are surprises every now and then, and hopefully Blade Runner 2 will surprise us all. If it doesn’t, that’s fine. This is how I view things, after The Thing remake: I love John Carpenter’s The Thing as a fan of film. It’s a great movie with memorable characters and moments that shock and reinforce the bleakness. I love the new The Thing as a fan of general science-fiction because I love the story’s setup, and the things it can do. The Antarctic setting, the monster itself, the infighting — it’s not the best it’s been, but it’s more.

The world of Blade Runner has also had time to develop. Cyberpunk was born in 1982 and died ten years or so later. It saw a lot of classics, like Akira, the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and its TV series Stand Alone Complex, Strange Days, Deus Ex, and even to some extent the Terminator franchise, though that’s been missing an entirely new world to populate. That’s what Blade Runner 2 can offer right now, when we know so little about it. A world — and if it’s anywhere near the original’s, it’ll be a good day for science-fiction fans.

But we’ll bitch anyway.

 

*Rant incoming

(Not that any future plans on this site should be trusted. I’d like to do that but once I said I’d do a retrospective on Mamoru Oshii and then I said I’d do a Ghost in the Shell retrospective and then a Wire recap… Someday)

Following or going back and researching production histories of your favorite movies can often yield interesting stages of development. For more troubled productions like Alien 3, a whole ton of writers submitted drafts, many promising, and many who probably would’ve murdered a then smiled upon franchise. Screenplays are written all the time, but are get the go-ahead much, much less often. In science-fiction, there can be any number of reasons for cooked projects. Budgets, that thing when an executive is replaced and he says “yeah none of these projects go forward,” you know how it is. Crazy world.

There is precedent for this type of thing, though I don’t think Dreck Fiction has enough clout to influence publishers, but Harlan Ellision’s I, Robot is widely available, so who knows. Maybe we will see some of this stuff. I also don’t even know if any of it is ‘lost,’ or just difficult for me to find. I don’t stray far from Amazon.com.

James Cameron’s Mother

Avatar is old, son. Older than me, came about in the days of Xenogenesis and Alien II. At the start of his career, James Cameron was just as much of a work horse as he is now (he does indeed take pretty epic breaks to dive to the Trench and stuff, but hey), at one high point writing three screenplays at once — a Terminator rewrite, an Alien sequel (terrifying I’m sure), and First Blood 2. Alien 2 benefitted from the research he was doing into the Vietnam War for Rambo, but it also happened to be influenced by Mother, a science-fiction movie.

The details are scarce, and if they aren’t I don’t very well remember them, but some of it had to do with Avatar (see, I didn’t mention it for nothing), and the Alien Queen. No matter what it is, it combines two of the greatest things ever, James Cameron and science-fiction, which has yielded some classics (T2, Aliens, The Abyss), and some clunkers (Avatar) — Cameron is definitely a hugely influential name in recent scifi, despite being a filmmaker and not an author.

Unfortunately, Mother has been so cannibalized by other Cameron movies it couldn’t possibly be made today (also taking into account Cameron’s Avatar-only agenda until 2020 AD), which isn’t quite the Planet Terror scenario — in that case, an old Rodriguez screenplay was chock-full of stuff, like Savini’s crotch rocket in From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado, but by 2009 still had enough to make for a crazy-ass zombie movie. Maybe it’s fortunate though, because reading Mother would be a warm, familiar place for any fan.

William Gibson’s Alien 3

I gotta be honest, the premise for this screenplay is pretty absurd. The origin behind the Alien, which I suppose preempts Prometheus by almost exactly two decades, is nano-robots, in true Gibson fashion. We know that William Gibson is a good writer and he’s got a fascinating imagination, but in the film and television realm, he hasn’t had great success. I’ve heard that his two episodes of The X-Files weren’t among the most memorable (or were, but for the wrong reasons), and of course Johnny Mnemonic stands as a shining example of the author at its worst, despite the film’s lasting entertainment value.

It’s hard to know whether the scripts are good and the direction and Keanu “I Want Room Service” Reeves performance are what kills it, but I think that either way it’d be an interesting read.

David Hayter’s The Chronicles of Riddick

You might be scratching your head over this, but for me it goes two-fold. I would love, love to see an earlier draft of The Chronicles of Riddick, which is in concept a fun space romp. Modern pulp fiction with a dash of badass angst. And though I have little reason to be, I’m a huge fan of David Hayter. He’s the screenwriter behind the first two X-Men movies, which I don’t really care for, and The Scorpion King, which is not as good as my beloved first two Sommers Mummy movies but was enjoyable enough to a twelve year old, and the voice of Solid Snake, the mascot for a video-game system I never had until a few years ago.

But I follow him on Twitter and I really like hearing him talk about Watchmen and Lost Planet and stuff. And when I saw that he wrote a draft of The Chronicles of Riddick I was shocked. I’d like to see an unfiltered voice (not audio) for this guy.

Interestingly, David Twohy (writer/director of The Chronicles of Riddick) wrote a draft of Alien 3, another in the long line of screenwriters on that film with such a tortured development history that also includes Walter Hill, the great action director and career producer for the cycle.

Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Need I say more? I know I just got through talking how Gibson can’t adapt his own shit or whatever, but that’s only because we do have Johnny Mnemonic on hand. Philip K. Dick didn’t have much experience with movies, but had something of a hand in rejecting the initial drafts of Dangerous Days, or Android or whatever, which were allegedly rather hokey. So from this I shall jump to the conclusion immediately that he’s got good taste.

And Ubik is a nice and rounded story. A Scanner Darkly seems kind of oddly paced and everything, but Ubik builds toward an ending — it’s more cinematic. In fact, Linklater attempted to do Ubik before ‘settiling’ on A Scanner Darkly. So this isn’t the only time Ubik was tried and shot down. Meanwhile Open Your Eyes and Vanilla Sky happen, so I wonder how the near future Ubik movie will bode now that people can guess the ending.

David Cronenberg’s Red

Red or Red Racers. I’m sure if I saw Fast Company I’d have a pretty good idea of what this movie was all about, but this is a passion project for Cronenberg that never got off the ground due to the whole “Cronenberg never ever made money,” thing. Now, David Cronenberg has asserted that screenplays are not art, so he wouldn’t appreciate this post none, but I’d still love to know what Cronenberg thinks about outside of sexual body horror and hardcore violence. In this case it’s formula racing, a peculiar obsession of the man. I wonder what a movie would be like with the Dronenberg thematic eye, but applied to something like… racing.

Like Prometheus, I guess I never really truly imagined the day would come. Prometheus doesn’t even feel real to me — the Alien cycle is the closest thing to Star Wars I have in terms of movie fandom, and not even those damn dirty execs want to touch that franchise after two clunky AVP flicks. Prometheus won’t have the iconic Xenomorph, but it’s got Stringer Bell, so the excitement factor is through the roof. 2012 is officially the next 2009 — John Carter, Prometheus, Total Recall, Cosmopolis, even The Avengers (which was good!), and I suppose The Dark Knight Rises (don’t care!) — and now I’m hearing news that a real live, actual factual Blade Runner sequel is on the books, but for truth? It’s a good time to be a scifi fan, at least on the big screen. On TV… I don’t know. People seem to like that AMC zombie show.

On June 1st, Prometheus lands (using Halo marketing-speak), and it’s success will not only signal the future of this series within a series, but how Blade Runner 2 might shake out. In my opinion, Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie since Gladiator — but has he had to? Most filmmakers can’t lay a claim to three of the greatest movies ever: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in this case, but Ridley Scott can. But now he’s doing something very, very important to the landscape of science-fiction — coming back to it.

Sure, we may tire of retreads and sequels, but the universe of Blade Runner at least, is rich (Alien is often said to be better unexplored, I agree) and inhabiting a subgenre screaming out to be revisited — hasn’t been done proper since ’03, though we’ve been getting recent respites in other fronts like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a Ghost in the Shell… Lucas Special Edition every so often. All of these things have been hugely influenced by the 1982 greatest-SF-movie-of-all-time, and have roots in cyberpunk’s 90s glory days. I’d love to return, and maybe this new Blade Runner will usher in a new generation of creators tuned into artificial intelligence and cyborg proxy soldiers, to whom the name “Tetsuo” means spinning dick-drills and giant nuclear babies that explode and destroy Tokyo.

I wonder if this new Blade Runner will be influenced at all by the over-the-top Japanese sensibilities that were themselves influenced by the original tech-noir, and the debut novel of the godfather of cyberpunk. That would be a strange and rare cycle between east and west that I’ve only so far seen in westerns. There’s a back and forth in the lineage of chambara (that the right term?) samurai and westerns, which are linked thematically; each generation become spritual successors of each other — between Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, and now Miike. It’s interesting, and if it happened to cyberpunk I feel like it’d be as natural.

Although thematically all cyberpunk is pretty much the same — what is human? What… do robots do? How fun would VR really be? — and not as poetic in this regard with the gunslinger/samurai, ritualistic violence and honor parallel, Blade Runner might use a touch of exploration, though being novel certainly didn’t help it commercially the first time around. I just think that by 2016, maybe 2017 when considering a two-three year turnaround time for Scott (after a movie set in the Middle East following Prometheus), we’ve seen it all. Cyberpunk was considered dead — for Christ’s sake there’s a subgenre called postcyberpunk — Blade Runner’s had its day in the sun.

Look Familiar?

But there is something interesting, something I like to stress as often as its relevant (not often) is women in science-fiction. Two of the most inexpilcably successful SF franchises of the day — Resident Evil, going five strong and soon to be six, and Underworld, on its fourth — feature female protagonists. So we’re getting there, but how about good characters, and good movies? Alien was both, and we’ll get that again with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus — and then with Blade Runner 2, believe it or not.

Some of the earliest news on this recent development is that Scott and co. (Hampton, but so far no Peoples, I gather) are pursuing a strong female lead, and this is very exciting.

So what’s to concern over?

Well, I suppose that this is just another in the line of redos and continuations of old properties, but hey — Blade Runner is Blade Runner. I love The Thing ’82, so I was super-excited when the new one was coming out, but Blade Runner is like… personal top five, and without a doubt the greatest science-fiction movie of all time. More of the same would be a hell of a thing.

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

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.

 

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.

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