The Total Recall remake starring Colin Farrell (from the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) got a batarang, right in its face — audiences either chose to see The Dark Knight Rises for a second time or, despite the cool futuristic trailer, simply stayed home. They didn’t care to see a watered-down version of arguably one of Philip K. Dick’s most thematically satisfying works.
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, like Gotham City’s champion, came up from the pulps. He wrote, literally, like a madman (by the word), and cranked out hundreds of pieces for such magazines as Fantasy & Science Fiction, If, Galaxy and a slew of others lost to the dust of time. He toiled in what was considered in the ’60s and ’70s as the science fiction ghetto.
And within that ghetto, he created a world all his own, weaving alternate realities long before virtual reality and William Gibson’s cyberpunk movement took hold in the ’80s. A writer’s writer, he did manage to claim the Hugo Award for the 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for 1974’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. But it was Ridley Scott’s cyberpunkian visual chamber music in Blade Runner (from the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) that gave Dick a whole new audience, beginning with its release, sadly, just months after his death at age 53 in 1982. Thus began the PKD film industry.
The list is mostly forgettable: Screamers (1995) (based on the story “Second Variety”), Impostor (2001), Paycheck (2003), Next (2007), and The Adjustment Bureau (2011), which is currently doing the rounds on premium cable networks. These films pretty much share a common DNA: Critics withheld unanimous praise, and audiences didn’t come out in waves to see them. Analysis? Some PKD stories simply aren’t meant to run at 24 frames per second.
You’ll find a quartet of Dick movies that didn’t suck because they each, in their own way, reinterpreted the basic PKD message: Reality might not be what you think it is, and, worse yet, you might not be who you think you are. Blade Runner, Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), and A Scanner Darkly (2006) each got something right from the source material. Collectively (for now at least), they form the best of PKD on film. Whatever their failings, each managed to capture some shard of the Dickian multiverse, from extreme paranoia to shifting realities to a future oddly reminiscent of our present.
There are quite a few theories from critics and fans alike as to why this new Total Recall failed. Though I haven’t seen the film, the answer is already clear: It’s not Dick — at least not the one you’ll read on the page. How could it be?
His very best works are a skilled telepathy, dumped right from the hard drive of PKD’s limitless imagination to your own cerebral cortex
you jack into a Philip K. Dick novel the way Neo jacked into the “Matrix,” the way Alice slipped down the rabbit hole — it’s expanded consciousness, and truly, the best cinema could ever hope to do is to pass us the 3-D glasses and hurl us into Dick’s world, whose reality is always questionable.
Forget whatever movie Hollywood’s got lined up on the conveyor belt of warmed-over, sloppily assembled seconds, and do yourself a favor: read PKD. Raw. Unfiltered. He’ll give you a widescreen adventure worthy of the IMAX; he’ll twist your perceptions around; he’ll (gasp!) make you give damn about the characters.
You could almost speculate that if the author had lived a little longer — or, better yet, a lot longer — he would have become a real force in Hollywood. It’s an upside-down universe in which Dick writes the screenplay adaptations of his own novels, gives us mind-bending cinema, and redefines what a science fiction film could be. Alas, that is not our reality.
If you have them on your shelf, pull out those worn copies of The Man in the High Castle, Ubik and Valis. If you don’t own them already, it’s about time to get copies. Because that’s as close as you’re going to get to the mind of Philip K. Dick — it’s what’s real. —Cornelius Fortune