That Old Feeling: You Know Dick

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Scott and producer Bud Yorkin would fight over the final cut, with Yorkin winning. (Scott's version appeared in 1999.) But the density was still there in the version that hit theaters in the summer of 1982. In TIME I wrote:

Moviegoers seeking the smooth propulsion of story line look at these films and ask, 'What's going on here?' Directors and effects specialists, plumbing the of a technology that can show what has never been seen before, answer: 'There here is what's going on. The setting, the surroundings, the texture.' In 'Blade Runner,' the here is quite enough: a vision of dark, cramped urban squalor. This is Los Angeles in the year 2019, when most of the earth's inhabitants have colonized other planets, and only a polyglot refuse heap of humanity remains. L.A. is a Japanized nighttown of sleaze and silicon, fetid steam and perpetual rain. This baroque Tomorrowland juggles images from a dozen yesterdays: walk out of the rain and into a 1940s world of overhead fan blades and women in shoulder-pad jackets moving to the cadence of a keening alto sax. The filthy streets are clogged with Third World losers and carnivores, while 10 feet above them the police cars hover, monitoring the future as it molders into chaos. Like its setting and chief android Batty (Rutger Hauer), 'Blade Runner' is a beautiful deadly organism that devours life. Because this drastically cut movie has a plot that proceeds by fits and starts, "Blade Runner' is likely to disappoint viewers looking for sleek thrills and derring-do. But as a display terminal for design wizardry, the movie delivers. The pleasures of texture have rarely been so savory.

That was me in 1982. Eight summers later, reviewing 'Total Recall,' I had the same impression of visual density. I wrote:

It zaps out beguiling images so quickly that viewers may want to see the film over again right away, just to catch what they missed. Verhoeven seems to have assumed that today's moviegoers have a megabyte media intelligence; then he worked like crazy to overload it. When 'Total Recall' is cooking, it induces visual vertigo. Spinning its tale at warp speed, the movie creates a coherent world that is part prophecy, part satire. On future Earth, folks flick on the wall-screen TV to check out ESPN's coverage of the Toronto-Tokyo game, then perfect their tennis stroke with the help of a teacher on hologram. Johnnycab, the robot taxi driver, chirps irrelevant pleasantries until passengers want to throttle him. A married couple debate whether to move to Mars — as if it were the suburbs — or to Saturn (''Everybody says it's gorgeous''). The film's Mars is Earth's cracked mirror image: a domed underworld of freak psychics and three-breasted prostitutes, ruled by a tyrant from whom the colonists must buy air, and he has just jacked up the price. It is on Mars, toward the end, that 'Total Recall' goes wussily misterioso in an encounter with a Yodaesque guru. 'Open your mind!'' says the mutant guru, and 'Total Recall' does just that.

Looking at the film two years ago, I decided I'd overrated it. Compared to Scott's direction of 'Blade Runner,' Paul Verhoeven's is coarse and comic-bookish, and the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original story's nerdish Quail, renamed Quaid, tilts the move toward steroidal bulk. But PKD and 'Matrix' fans will enjoy a frisson when a doctor, doing his damnedest to convince Quaid that fantasy is reality, or the other way around, hisses, 'Take the red pill!'


'It's very difficult to be true to Phil Dick and make a Hollywood movie. His thinking was subversive. He questioned everything Hollywood wanted to affirm.' — Gary Goldman, co-writer of 'Total Recall' and an executive producer of 'Minority Report,' to Frank Rose

'Dick's emergence in Hollywood seems oddly inevitable,' Rose writes. 'His career itself is a tale of alternate realities. In the flesh he was the ultimate outsider, pecking out paranoid visions that place the little guy at the mercy of the corporate machine. Yet posthumously he feeds the machine, his pseudoworlds the basis of ever more elaborate entertainments doled out by the megacorporations we pay to stuff our heads.'

Can't get much more mega than Steven Spielberg, who was in an SF frame of mind when he made 'AI' (from a Stanley Kubrick scenario) and 'Minority Report' back to back. 'AI' was set in 2051, in a bipolar world: sleek surfaces and a carnival-carnivore underbelly. In 'Minority Report,' it's 2054, and the future is more recognizable: tomorrow, only more so. (A lot must have happened in three years.) Copies of USA Today flash instant headlines as readers hold them. Cars race down vertical freeways on the facades of mile-high office buildings. On a Washington skid row, eyeless bums peddle the newest nose candy. Like 'Blade Runner,' 'Minority Report' mixes future and retro. Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), who might be a more benign John Ashcroft, and his prot'g' John Anderton (Tom Cruise) run a system that prevents murders by arresting people before they commit them. Yet the Pre-crime apparatus is so goofily anach-ronistic — three young mind readers floating in a tank and billiard balls rolling through plastic tubes — that your brilliant, mad old uncle could have concocted it in his basement. This two-edged look fits with Spielberg's (and, before him, Scott's) idea of marrying science fiction with film noir; this is a 50-years-ago detective story set 50 years from now.

In adapting the Dick story, Spielberg and screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen borrow Hitchcock's Catholic belief that we are not all criminals, but we are all guilty; our humanity is our original sin. Anderton — on the run for a murder he hasn't thought of committing of a man he doesn't know — is oppressed by guilt because his young son was kidnapped while they were at a public swimming pool. Water, as both symbol and character, is everywhere in this film: in its Christian sense of baptism and absolution, in its dramatic function as either a hiding place (that terrific bathtub rendezvous with the cyberspiders) or a scene of tragedy (an abduction and two murderous drownings).

OK, so every modern action film seems to require that a member of the hero's family die to set the revenge machinery in motion. The genre also demands chases, to which Spielberg brings his inexhaustible ingenuity. But he is also keen to fold moral dilemmas into movie spectacle. Faced with irresistible impulse, he says, we can choose to resist it. Try to think of the last film in which the hero has the chance to kill a man he believes abducted and murdered his child and then, with an exertion of iron will, says no.


Karen reached out, touching Jennings' head, just above the era. 'Feel there. That spot.' Jennings reached up. Above his ear, under the hair, was a tiny hard spot. 'What is it?' 'They burned through the skull there. Cut a tiny wedge from the brain. All your memories of the two years. They located them and burned them out. The SP [Security Police] couldn't possibly make you remember. It's gone. You don't have it.' — from PKD's story 'Paycheck,' 1953

The latest Dick flick has Ben Affleck as Jennings, an engineer who agrees to go undercover for three years: to perform a top-secret industrial experiment, then have his memory erased. The paycheck: $92 million in Allcom stock, which will have soared in the interim because of his expertise. It's the ultimate insider trading: he trades part of his life for a lot of money. Except that, when he emerges, he doesn't have the bundle, only a manila envelope with 20 trinkets inside: a hairpin, a subway pass, a watch, a fortune cookie slip, etc. Jennings has left himself this grab bag for a reason he doesn't know. But he'd better find out, because the FBI and the company that hired him, want him captured, or dead.

John Woo, who directed many hot-wired crime movies in Hong Kong, then the brilliant 'Face/Off' and the busy 'Mission Impossible 2,' keeps things churning here. There's the hint of a moral dilemma — do you want to change the world or save it? — and some possibly unintentional political satire when Jennings gets rough interrogation by the FBI. (The year is 2007, and we're deep into the second Bush Administration.)

But he doesn't connect with the Dick story. Instead, he recycles elements from his and other Hong Kong melodramas: a fluttering dove, dry ice, a show window shattered by a motorcycle, a point-of-view shot of a bullet speeding to its human target, and fireballs for visual spice. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris has another notion: he wants to remake Alfred Hitchcock's 'North by Northwest.' We have a handsome man in a gray suit running from both the Federal government and a gang of suave villains, with an enigmatic blond associate. Like the Hitchcock comedy-suspenser, 'Paycheck' has two shootings in public places, lots of train thrills — everything but Mount Rushmore.

This 'Paycheck' should have been fabulous: Dick meets Woo. But the movie plays like a wary negotiation between SF literature and Chinese kinesis. Neither side came out happy.


'I'd sort of like to see some of my ideas, not just the special effects of my ideas, used.'—PKD, 1981

For all the post-mortem respect accorded Dick's work, there has yet to be a movie that is both fully faithful to his ideas and successful on its own terms. The two best smartest adaptations — 'Blade Runner,' with its 'more human than human' androids, and 'Minority Report' — use Dick as a launching pad for their own propulsive flights of fantasy.

What's missing? The philosophy he dreamed of, and embedded in his plots of empathetic androids and cunning cyber-torpedoes. He did foresee the reduction of personal liberty by big government and big capitalism; he would be saddened but not surprised at the Bush proposals to fingerprint foreign travelers and offer a revokable license to illegal immigrants. In that sense, the most assiduous reader of Dick's work may be Dick Cheney.

Our Dick, Phil Dick, was fascinated by what-if, but also by what's-next? 'I think, as the Bible says, we all go to a common place,' he said in a 1972 speech. 'But it is not the grave; it is into life beyond. The world of the future.' It is there, in the minds of grateful readers — and, however diluted, on the huge mindscreen of the movies — that Phil Dick lives.

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