If a futuristic militarist government had the power to wipe your memory clean and then implant false memories, would you be the same person? How would you ever know your true self, your true reality? And if we implanted false memories in an android, would it believe itself to be human? Would it be human? Futurist science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was a prophetic individual who asked such questions about memory, identity, and humanity. He questioned not just these things, but reality itself, all the way leading up to his death 40 years ago this month of March.
His brilliant, often noirish stories are futuristic dystopian nightmares, and most of the film adaptions of them have been dark high-tech visions of interplanetary wars and fascist governments. His popularity surged again when his great alternate history novel The Man In The High Castle was developed into a series from Amazon Prime Video, with Ridley Scott as executive producer. The story involves life in a dystopian America after the country loses World War II and fascists and the Japanese run America.
His work has truly taken off in feature films, though. Many great Philip K. Dick adaptations (Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly) are masterpieces, but with literally two dozen direct adaptations (and many looser ones) of his 44 novels and 121 short stories, not all of these movies from Dick’s work could be iconic classics. These are five of the weakest Philip K. Dick movie adaptations.
Screamers is the worst of the Philip K Dick adaptions, and is based on the short story “Second Variety.” Peter Weller (Robocop, Naked Lunch), stars in Christian Duguay’s film, which takes place on another planet rather than on Earth as in the original story. Weller’s acting is excellent, but not strong enough to carry a fairly poorly written and not very exciting plot. There are a few good scares and some interesting scenery but otherwise, this film felt longer than necessary and inferior to the original story.
For the most part, Dick’s stories translate well into action-packed science fiction films that make you think, but that is not the case here, in a tale of androids who can only be detected by the sounds of their screams. These beings become sentient and eventually evolve so that they are indistinguishable from humans, bringing up such familiar Philip K. Dick themes as identity, reality, and humanity.
4 Radio Free Albemeuth
Based on two Dick books and featuring Dick himself as a character (one of the books is semi-autobiographical), Radio Free Albemuth boasts the worst special effects in any Philip K. Dick movie, although it is a decent film overall, probably best known for featuring rocker Alanis Morisette as the character Sylvia. Jonathan Scarfe plays Nick, a typical Dickian protagonist who suffers from disturbing nightmares and visions which somehow represent a paranoid truth.
This is an alternate reality film, where there is a world war. Nick learns he is a member of a secret society of citizens of the world who are receiving transmissions from a spaceship. Sylvia releases a song that contains subliminal messages from the secret society that will possibly bring needed change and perhaps revolution. Scott Wilson plays the fascist leader of America in this odd, messy film.
Impostor is a 2002 film based on the story “The Impostor” by Philip K. Dick from 1953, where the characters all have cell phones! It’s a great example of the author’s accurate predictions of the future of Earth and technology. Gary Sinise is Spencer Olham, a scientist who is falsely accused by the sinister and reactionary Major Hathaway, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who works for the repressive forces of ESA (Earth Security Association, one of many shady and shadowy government organizations found in the paranoid world of Philip K. Dick) of being an alien.
Not just any alien, but an enemy alien who murdered the real Spencer and is now passing himself as the man, with the goal of assassinating a high-ranking Earth official. Gary Sinise is thus put in the impossible position of proving he is who he is, and not an impostor. Or is he actually an android with implanted memories who is simply unaware he is not human, and carrying a time bomb? The ending is full of surprises and revelations, though the middle hour is largely a misguided waste and the film was viciously panned upon release, with the A.V. Club calling it “one long, dull chase scene.” As always, Dick’s characters deal with things like memory, identity, and reality.
Next is a 2007 Lee Tamahori film based on “The Golden Man” by Philip K, Dick and starring the always interesting Nicolas Cage, here playing Las Vegas magician Cris Johnson with the power to see two minutes into the future. He makes money on the side by gambling, using his skill to tell the future and win money, while developing an obsession with a woman played by Jessica Biel. The great Julianne Moore plays an agent who wants to use Johnson’s power to stop a nuclear attack. Biel is fantastic here, and also appeared in the 2012 remake of Philip K. Dick’s Total Recall.
1 Total Recall (2012)
In 2012, Len Wiseman directed Total Recall, a remake of the superior and much more popular 1990 film of the same name, which is based on the 1966 Philip K. Dick story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Colin Farrell plays Dennis Quaid, who goes to the Rekall company which specialize in giving you memory implants of your wildest dreams come true. He decides to purchase the memory of a spy in the ongoing civil war, however before they can implant the memories he is attacked, as apparently he actually is involved in the uprising against a tyrannical government controlled by the maniacal Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).
Kate Beckinsale plays Lori, an agent who hunts Quaid down, despite his belief that they have been married for seven years. Melina (Jessica Biel) saves him and he eventually learns that she might be his true love. She is a warrior at heart and Biel, as always, is terrific in the part. The film is overly long; it is two hours and could have been 80 minutes, and too much of the fighting is boring and repetitive. Ethan Hawke is wonderful, but idiotically only appears in the extended director’s cut, which makes a too-long movie even longer. Stick with the 1990 original, one of the best Philip K. Dick adaptations.
While many films use a grim dystopian setting, some find bright utopias to be more interesting, even if they lead to difficult questions about society
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