Tuesday, July 5, 2016

PKD at the Movies

Hollywood loves Dick!

Heheh... yeah, couldn't pass that one up. Anyhoo, I wanted to suggest a Philip K. Dick story for film adaptation, but before I do, have you ever noticed his (name's) ungodly popularity? Most authors, even if quite successful in print (or e-print nowadays) should count themselves lucky if their work is ever even staged as a high school play, much less adapted with a Hollywood budget. As far as science fiction goes, even the biggest names like Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke find precious little footing on modern walks of fame.

Movie companies love Dick, though. His blatant, haunting paranoia littered his stories with spies, traitors, doppelgangers and impostors of every stripe. This lends them an uncommonly high appeal as thrillers, consistently delivering that minute-75 plot twist or dramatic unveiling to keep audiences gasping for more. Of course there's more to it than that. Anyone can tell you that movie adaptations almost never do their source material justice, so most authors or their estates may be reluctant to let their names get discredited by some Hollywood hacks' lowest-common-denominator treatment. This goes double for most good Science Fiction stories, as their social commentary tends toward the mercilessly avant-garde, stuff movie companies won't touch with the proverbial ten feet.

Philip K. Dick's accumulated a whopping thirteen movie credits to his name, and the number keeps rising. Does this mean the public is actually getting PKD stories on screen? Hell no. In most cases, the rights seem to have been bought for sheer name recognition, and little or nothing after the opening credits resembles even remotely the story it should represent. Do any of them manage to do justice to their inspiration? I'm familiar with most of these so let me go through the parts of the list which I recognize.

1) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Blade Runner
Hells yeah.
Ridley Scott built up a couple lifetimes' worth of karmic credit for giving us one of the few good SF movie adaptations, and in an era when good speculative movies were almost unheard of. Not entirely faithful to the book (I forget, did they even include the passage of the spider trying to bite the hero's hand?) but largely true to the book's spirit.

2) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
Total Recall
Haven't seen the new version so won't comment on it except to wonder how you can put Kurt Wimmer and Kate Beckinsale together and still get something I've never heard anyone praise.
The 1990 version caught me at about 8-9 years old, slightly too young to fully enjoy the chick with three knockers but utterly fascinating me with the string of grotesque mutants. It was actually a pretty damn good flick, but someone at some point will have to explain what it had to do with PKD's original story, whose material dries up about fifteen minutes into the movie, after which we're treated to a largely unrelated Martian acid trip.
I've got nothing against watching Schwarzy wallop mutants to death with heavy mining equipment, but there was no real reason to append Philip K. Dick's name to this. What's more, the original story actually ends in a pretty scathing condemnation of this sort of heroic escapist fantasy, and the last word matters.

3) Second Variety
I've commented on this at length before, as it's actually my favorite PKD story... and very much not one of my favorite movies. Though a half-passable post-apocalyptic film by summer movie standards, it definitely betrayed the original story. Read Second Variety.

4) The Minority Report
Minority Report
Social commentary on power-mad control freak bureaucrats sanitized to protect the viewers' delusions. See what I mean about the ten foot pole?

5) Impostor
Can't remember the short story, though I believe I did read it. Movie was mildly acceptable in itself.

6) A Scanner Darkly
In fact, I'd rank this as even more faithful an adaptation than Blade Runner, albeit slightly lacking some of the book's gut-punch pathos. Unfortunately it's not one of PKD's most memorable works even if the "drug war" sadly remains quite relevant. Linklater is capable of beautiful work and I was going to suggest he'd be perfect to adapt Ubik... until reading just now that he'd originally planned to do Ubik instead of this. Well, get on it, man!

Last, and also decidedly least.
7) The Golden Man
Yeah, "next!" is exactly what I thought as soon as I saw the theatrical poster for this movie. I've never watched it and so help me Pan the goat-footed god, I never will. At various points in my life, I've had to eat some serious crow for sometimes jumping the gun and, say for example criticizing Cloud Atlas before actually watching it. In this case though? All I needed to see was Nick Cage's dramatically posed mug as a heroic, dashing prophet fighting against the forces of anarchy for (insert heroic motivations here) God, country and the love of a good woman. It's crap. I don't need to watch it to know it's crap. Because it's crap!

Which is sad, because like Second Variety, The Golden Man ranks as one of those truly classic hard-hitting Science Fiction short stories which cram a total head-trip in a few brief pages. Without giving too much away (read it!) I will say that it absolutely hinges on the title character being not only a statuesque, physically imposing and even beautiful figure, not only inhuman but also distinctively subhuman. Nicholas Cage the boy next door discoursing with his star-crossed lady love in perfectly facile vernacular strays as far from the story's purpose as Hamlet would by cheerfully riding around in a clown-car at the World Cup. May you rot, Gary Goldman.

Anyway, more Dickishness tomorrow.

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