The Films of Philip K. Dick
by D. Scott Apel


The hottest writer in Hollywood today has been dead for 20 years.

Maybe his original titles don't ring any bells: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, for instance, or "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." But who hasn't heard of Blade Runner and Total Recall?

Minority Report is only the latest film adaptation of the work of Philip K. Dick, science fiction writer, cult figure and eccentric philosopher. In more than 40 novels and 150-plus stories, Dick explored what he called his "Grand Themes": What is really real? and Who is really human? And he did so with an imaginative intelligence which has captivated readers worldwide for half a century.

These themes are often present in film adaptations of his writing as well, with varying degrees of success, including these movies based on the work, life or influence of Philip K. Dick:

Minority Report (2002), tells the tale of a precognitive police force that predicts crimes and arrests perps before they've committed their psychically foreseen misdeeds. Report is poised to become one of the summer's biggest blockbusters, but the film's star, Tom Cruise, and director, Steven Spielberg, owe a significant debt to Phil Dick's suspenseful story. The bare threads of the yarn beg to be expanded into a feature-length action flick - an action flick filled with enough clever plot twists to satisfy even the most intelligent genre fan.

In Minority Report, the answer to Dick's constant question "What is reality?" hinges on the reality of the future. Is a foreseen future really real? Is it inevitable, or can it be changed? Dick's clever answer - logical, inevitable, yet utterly unpredictable - brings this story to an intellectually satisfying conclusion.

Total Recall (1990) stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker in the near future who takes a "mental vacation" to Mars via a memory implant. But the brain-print has the reverse effect: instead of implanting false memories, it inadvertently uncovers real, blocked memories of his former life as a leader of the red planet's rebel forces. Or is his experience actually the story in the implant? Director Paul Verhoeven's flawed but engaging adventure borrows heavily from the first half of Dick's original story, but discards its subtle, even deeper strange loop of memory retrieval in favor of tongue-in-cheek spy-fi action.

Screamers (1996) are what the soldiers on war-torn planet Sirius 6B call their ultimate killing machines, mobile sword-bots with chips for brains. But the "good guys" built these independent creatures too smart - they're using their electronic brains to design their own evolution, creating creatures who can pass as human, but who retain their basic goal: kill humans. Screamers, director Christian Duguay's fairly faithful rendition of the story "Second Variety," ponders another of Dick's big questions: Who is really human, and who is merely masquerading as human? While the story ends with a grim irony, the film version's final twist, with its echoes of Blade Runner, is just as emotionally satisfying and in harmony with Dick's overall answer.

Impostor (2002) stars Gary Sinise as a world-class weapons designer who wakes up one morning to discover he's been replaced by a bomb-toting pod person, and that he - the original! - has been ID'd by his paranoid government as the enemy clone. Sinise's scientist must escape the manhunt and prove his innocence, reclaiming his own life and identity while halting the alien threat. While director Gary Fleder's predictable chase flick was tepidly received by critics and fans alike, it does once again illustrate one of Dick's two major themes: To be human means more than merely assuming the outward appearance of a human.

Blade Runner (1982), perhaps the finest adaptation of Dick's works to date, ironically bears slight resemblence to its source material. But the novel's central question - What does it really mean to be human? - remains the heart of this affecting, thoughtful and atmospheric classic. Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, lived just long enough to see a pre-release cut of the film. He loved it.

So much has been written about Blade Runner and its various incarnations (including Ridley Scott's director's cut, which changes the ending and eliminates the film noir-style narration) that little more can be said. Fans know all the trivia and all the backstage stories.

Except, perhaps, this one: Late one evening in August, 1981, Phil called me at my home in Silicon Valley from his home in Santa Ana. After chatting for a few minutes, he came to the point.

"You know," he said, elucidating precisely, "that Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, has been filming the movie Blade Runner, based on my book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep..." (Yes, he actually talked like this.)

"Yeah," I said, "I've been keeping up with that."

"Well, Ridley Scott called me recently and wants me to come up to Northern California to meet him and Harrison Ford, who's starring in the film..."

"That's great," I said.

"Well...I was wondering if maybe I could talk you into going along with me..."

"I'd love to," I said. "Why, do you want an entourage?"

"Well..." he hesitated, "it's more like...moral support. I'm scared to meet these guys, you know? I mean, Ridley Scott is a big Hollywood director, and Harrison Ford is a major talent... I'm afraid I'd be out of my league with people like that. So if I have a friend around to stop me from saying anything stupid..."

"Out of your league?" I said. "Phil, these are guys who admire your work enough to invest several million dollars and a year of their lives into it. And now they want to meet you. They'll probably treat you like a Hollywood star yourself."

"Oh, [expletive deleted]," he mumbled.

"OK, OK," I backpedaled, "look at it this way: They'll probably treat you like an equal and feel they're elevating themselves in the process. If my opinion means anything to you, I say: Do this thing."

Eventually he went and met with Scott and Ford. By himself. I had to read about it in a sci-fi magazine. My sales pitch was just too damned effective.

The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick (2000), the only documentary on Dick, turns one of his own Big Questions on the man himself, asking What is really real about Philip K. Dick? Beyond being "the most brilliant sci-fi mind on any planet" (as author Paul Williams tagged him in a 1975 Rolling Stone article), was he also a philosopher? A mystic? Or a madman?

This micro-budget labor of love, produced and directed by Mark Steensland, interviews a number of people close to Dick (including fellow cult sci-fi author/philosopher, Robert Anton Wilson) about the origin and meaning of a series of mysterious religious visions which came to him late in his short life, as well as his attempts to analyze them and their effect on his career and final writings. While the effort is heartfelt and the information fascinating, this one can only be recommended to die-hard fans hoping to learn a bit more about Dick's eccentric inner life. (Non-film sources exploring Dick's life which are recommended include Jason Koornick's website, philipKdick.com, Larry Sutin's comprehensive biography, Divine Invasions and Paul Williams' book of interviews with
Dick, Only Apparently Real.)

Hollywood has only just begun to mine the depths of Phil Dick's extensive body of work. But the film industry is catching on fast. At this time, three additional Dick works have been optioned for future production: "King of the Elves," a children's story; the novel A Scanner Darkly, optioned by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney; and the short story "Paycheck," optioned by Paramount. And for true - as they call themselves - "Dickheads" who can't wait for future films, there is always Phil's own screenplay adaptation of his novel Ubik. (Although it is currently out of print, rare used copies sell online for over $300.)

In addition to the films made directly from his writing, it is easy to see the enormous influence Dick's work has had on modern science fiction movies. Dark City, eXistenZ, The 6th Day and The Matrix, for example, all explore, in "phildickian" metaphors, his key concerns of true identity and genuine versus counterfeit reality. Among the films most obviously influenced, we can include:

The Lathe of Heaven (1980), the nightmarish story of a man whose dreams can change reality, but do so with ironic and unexpected results when manipulated by a do-gooder psychiatrist. Lathe - recently released on DVD after being unavailable for nearly two decades - was the first made-for-PBS TV movie, and is based on the novel by Ursula LeGuin, who has freely admitted that this was her attempt to write a Philip K. Dick novel.

Vanilla Sky (2001), the recent Tom Cruise vehicle, and Abre los Ojos (1997), the film on which it is based. Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenabar's story could easily be called an homage to Dick's novel, Ubik. But, alas, to explain why would spoil the surprises of both films and the novel! Proof must be left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader.

"What is really real?" "Who is really human?" Profound questions, indeed - profound enough to require a lifetime of reflection, and far too deep for most escapist movies. For Philip K. Dick, his Grand Themes were more than mere intellectual exercises. They were questions of existence with which he wrestled throughout his entire life, both professionally and personally. He put a bit of his soul into the best of his work, because he was literally writing for his survival: physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual. The insights he developed and the passion he instilled in his work shines through in the best film adaptations.

But one additional question remains: Did he ever find any answers? To at least one of his weighty queries, the answer is a resounding "Yes." His ultimate response to the question "What is reality" encapsulates the hallmarks of his best work: smart, funny and grimly true.

"Reality," said Philip K. Dick, "is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."


D. Scott Apel (www.impermanentpress.com) is the author of Philip K. Dick: The Dream Connection and Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.


Copyright: D. Scott Apel
Used with kind Permission