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30 Years of Dick on Film

Colin Farrell is currently starring in Total Recall, a loose remake of the 1990 classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, itself a loose adaptation of a short story by Philip K. Dick (1928-82). One of the most visionary and influential speculative fiction authors ever, Dick’s works revolved around themes of the boundaries of identity and reality, and were often steeped in paranoia and mind-bending weirdness. For the past three decades years, his writings have been mined as source material for a wide range of feature films:

Blade Runner (1982)
Based on: the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Director Ridley Scott followed up his success with the seminal Alien with another classic sci-fi flick, about a bounty hunter chasing after renegade bio-engineered humanoids in a dystopian future. A loose adaptation of Dick’s novel, it nevertheless eloquently captured the author’s themes of identity and humanity. Initially a box-office bomb, a director’s cut released a decade later undid some of the damage done to the story by focus groups. It’s now a major work whose influence is seen as recently as Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Scott is working on a sequel.

Total Recall (1990)
Based on: The short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (1966)
Like Scott, director Paul Verhoeven followed up one great sci-fi flick (Robocop) with another, in this case a pulpy, almost trashy, version of Dick’s story about a construction worker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has himself implanted with false memories of life as a secret agent — though the truth may (or may not) be the other way around. It’s as memorable for its graphic violence, dazzling effects, quotable one-liners, and triple-breasted hooker as it is for its twisty plot. The $90 million budget — paltry by today’s standards — was a whopper of a price tag at the time. It currently rates as the only movie with a Martian setting that hasn’t flopped.

Screamers (1995)
Based on: The short story “Second Variety” (1953)
Peter Weller stars in this mixed bag of a movie, about a once-thriving planet reduced to a wasteland by a civil war between mining personnel and their megacorp employer, the latter of which has unleashed a deadly weapon: intelligent, self-replicating machines that have begun to evolve on their own. Good for a low-budget production, though ultimately an unremarkable movie.

Impostor (2002)
Based on: The short story of the same name (1953)
Gary Sinise stars as Spencer Olham, a weapons designer circa 2079, a time when the human race is waging a bloody war with an alien race. He is arrested by the military and accused of not being Olham, but rather a replicant with false memories dispatched as an assassin. The project was originally filmed as a segment in a science fiction anthology film titled Light Years; it was the only one completed before the project collapsed. The story was fleshed out and extra footage filmed so that it could be released as a feature, resulting in a choppy, dull story.

Minority Report (2002)
Based on: The short story of the same name (1956)
Stephen Spielberg crafted an impressive piece of sci-fi neo-noir with this action thriller starring Tom Cruise as a cop in PreCrime, an elite police unit that uses clairvoyants to predict crimes before they happen and arrest the would-be culprits. Cruise becomes a fugitive when he is pre-accused of a crime he didn’t not-yet commit… or something. The themes of free will vs. determinism are classic PKD, and Spielberg’s vision of the future is clever and original. Farrell appears in an early role as a cop, and the cast also includes Samantha Morton, Max Von Sydow, and Neal McDonough.

Paycheck (2003)
Based on: The short story of the same name (1953)
Legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo joined forces with Ben Affleck for this Recall-esque thriller. Affleck stars as a reverse-engineer approached by an old friend (Aaron Eckhart) who engages him to spend three years on a top-secret project and then have his memories of the job wiped from his mind. Then the weirdness starts to happen. It’s a thoroughly adequate movie, but despite the worthy premise, director, and cast, it never rises above mediocrity; not surprisingly, it was Woo’s last Hollywood movie to date.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Based on: The novel of the same name (1977)
An avowed PKD fan, writer-director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) applied the digital rotoscoping animation technique he developed for Waking Life to this stunning adaptation of Dick’s semi-autobiographical tale of identity, deception, and addiction. Set in a dystopic near future, it stars Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor a very deeply undercover agent tasked with finding the supplier of an highly addictive new drug. He becomes an addict in the process, and breaks down to the point that he no longer knows what is fact and what is fiction. Dick at his paranoid-schizophrenic best, superbly adapted by Linklater. the cast also includes Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane.

Next (2007)
Based on: The short story “The Golden Man” (1953)
Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) directs Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, and Jessica Biel in this thriller about a man with a limited ability to see into the future who becomes the target of terrorists as well as the FBI. Hampered by script rewrites, it’s less muddled than it could have been, starting out as a so-so action thriller that falls apart during its clumsy ending.

Radio Free Albemuth (2010)
Based on: The novel of the same name (1976)
An impressively accomplished low-budget indie adaptation of one of Dick’s more challenging works. Another semi-autobiographical tale, it’s set in an alternate reality version of the US controlled by a totalitarian government circa 1985, where a record store clerk (Jonathan Scarfe) begins to experience strange visions that cause him to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music executive. With the help of best friend, science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigam) and a mysterious woman named Silvia (Alanis Morissette), he finds himself drawn into a dangerous conspiracy of cosmic proportions. Well-received on the festival circuit, it’s a trippy, unconventional movie that may be lost on PKD newcomers.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Based on: The short story “Adjustment Team” (1954)
A surprisingly — and enjoyably — romantic film starring Matt Damon as David Norris, a political candidate with a bright future who meets and instantly falls for a ballerina (Emily Blunt). This brings him into conflict with the Adjustment Bureau, entities who manage human affairs from behind the scenes (literally) and who have determined that, according to “The plan” David is not meant to be with his true love. Free will vs. predestination ensues. Though it’s only mildly daring, it’s nevertheless an intelligent and endearing film.

About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.


5 thoughts on “30 Years of Dick on Film

  1. What about “Barjo”?

    Posted by Daviar | July 28, 2012, 2:07 pm
    • Still trying to track down a copy of “Confessions d’un Barjo”. Have you seen it? Your thoughts?

      Posted by Gary Dowell | July 28, 2012, 3:54 pm
      • Barjo is to my mind the best film adaptation of a PKD story (bought my VHS with English subtitles on Amazon a few years ago). Especially Hippolyte Girardot as the brother (I don’t think he has a name in the film) is excellent – I laughed myself into tears almost every time he was on the screen. Although the film is not as good as the book, I highly recommend giving it a try.

        Posted by Bul | July 28, 2012, 4:50 pm
      • Good to know! And it’s nice to see people still using VHS.

        Posted by Gary Dowell | July 28, 2012, 6:44 pm


  1. Pingback: Movie review: ‘Total Recall’ « movie ink™ - August 3, 2012

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