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by Greg Kuchmek

 

Paranoid and profound, Philip K. Dick's mind-altering, ground-breaking science-fiction novels are influential, infectious and highly attractive to Hollywood. Four films and at least two theatrical productions have been based on his work. It is also rumored that Stanley Kubrick's in-production film, A.I., is based on Dick's Martian Time Slip, and a script based on his story, The Minority Report, is circulating Hollywood. These films, in turn, have caused a resurge in interest in Dick's work; there is a proliferation of quality trade editions of his formerly near out-of-print work. Dick's jittery paranoid vision appeals to contemporary readers, and his dominant theme of the fragility of "reality" particularly lends itself to filmmaking.

During his 1928-82 life span, Dick was a prolific author, with over forty science-fiction novels, several "mainstream" novels, countless stories, and a personal memoir to his credit. Exploring present, future and other-dimensional worlds, Dick always questioned and attacked the fabric of reality. Whether by drugs, technology, schizophrenia, conspiracies, or random twists of fate, Dick's characters lose their grip on life, and find all they perceive as real to be spurious or immaterial. They descend through layer upon layer of false realities until they reach the very foundation of what MUST be real, and then Dick begins to pick away at that also. Since cinema itself is based on creating a false reality, Dick's vision has a resonance when made into film. And when the vision is paired with insidious technology, mind-blowing drugs or endless conspiracies, you can't help but have a thriller. However, it is just these qualities that often undermine the creation of a film that really addresses PKD's philosophical concerns: it's just too easy to make a great action film based on his concepts.

 

Questionable technology and nefarious syndicates abound in Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER (1982) based on Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?(1968). The film focuses on Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) whose job is to hunt down and "retire" escaped replicants who have come to earth to "meet their maker" and extend their programmed life-span of four years. Both the film and the book address the questions of what is reality and what makes us human. They are also concerned with how language can be used to justify actions, i.e. they are "replicants", not humans, so they can be used as slave labor, and when shot they are not killed, merely "retired." The replicants have emotions, social relationships and a desire for life, yet they are regarded as expendable machines. The questions go even deeper, as new replicants are developed with memory implants and believe they are human. Deckard is left questioning his own humanity, and we are left with the task of deciding what makes us "real."

 

Ten years later, the theme of memory implants resurfaces in Paul Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL, loosely based on PKD's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to have a "Mars vacation memory" implanted in his brain, only to find that all he knows of his life is another implant. In Dick's work, these false realities serve as a means to explore and analyze the human condition. In the film, however, they are merely a plot device, creating a good, but pretty standard Hollywood sci-fi/action film. It's too bad David Cronenberg, who was originally asked to direct, was not allowed to make his version of the film. Cronenberg submitted twelve scripts which were all refused. The last one was turned down purportedly because "it was too much the way Dick would have done it himself." Now what kind of logic is that?

The 1993 French film CONFESSIONS D'UN BARJO (a.k.a., BARJO) adheres more closely to the original work. Based on an early non-science fiction novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist, both the film and the book deal with the effect of coincidence and fate on reality, and focus on the character, Barjo, a daydreamer and obsessive chronicler. Barjo moves in with his sister and her family and methodically documents their daily life, giving equal importance to the number of eggs the chicken laid as to the fact that his sister is having an affair. We are drawn into a dramatic suburban soap-opera, where Barjo ends up, rather comically, but ultimately tragically, obstructing the day-to-day life.

 

Last winter, the U.S./Canadian/Japanese co-production SCREAMERS, starring Peter Weller was a pleasant surprise to PKD fans as it remained relatively true to the story, Second Variety. Set in a human colony on a distant planet, two warring factions propose a truce, but are undermined by their own weapons: Screamers. Screamers developed the ability to think, and began to rapidly evolve from burrowing robots into human-like beings, causing all sorts of Dickian identity confusion. The film is obviously a low-budget B-movie, but looks impressive and maintains the plot and theme of the short story it was based upon.

While all these films have merit, and begin to explore Dick's ideas, there is a sense that the true PKD film is yet to be made: a film that leaves you grasping for the slightest sense that anything is surely real, that truly undermines the foundation of your being the way Dick's best work does. Perhaps Stanley Kubrick will come through or David Cronenberg will take another stab at it? Philip K. Dick left a vast library for filmmakers to work with, and a film true to his work would be a fine tribute to one of the greatest science-fiction writers of the 20th century.   </end>

 
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