Do androids dream of disappointing movies? | Philip K. Dick on film

With the release of the Total Recall remake, we examine other Philip K. Dick adaptations – from Blade Runner to The Adjustment Bureau.

More human than human: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – with its neon-infused noir landscape – remains the benchmark Philip K. Dick adaptation.
More human than human: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – with its neon-infused noir landscape – remains the benchmark Philip K. Dick adaptation.

"Hollywood likes Philip K. Dick for really stupid reasons," fellow science-fiction writer Minister Faust had said in a documentary about the influential - and somewhat disturbed - literary pioneer.

For while Dick's stories are consistently mined for their intriguing central ideas - they've even given rise to the adjective 'phildickian', denoting a kind of paranoia arising from oppressive technologies - the Hollywood machine has a very phildickian tendency of farming them into dumb explosion-rich blockbusters.

With the release of Total Recall this week, we examine how true Faust's claim really is, with a round up some of the most popular big screen adaptations of Dick's unsettling and often surreal vision of the future, and the human psyche.

Blade Runner (1982)

Adapted from: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Ridley Scott's defining film has ensured that, no matter how dismal subsequent adaptations of Dick's work ended up being, fans could always look to Blade Runner for reassurance.

Despite a number of cosmetic changes to the novel - with its neon-infused cityscape and film noir-tinged cinematography, 'Runner is a detective film where Scott's tale is an all-out piece of surreal satire - the atmospheric and affective piece of speculative cinema received Dick's blessing.

Tragically, however, the author died of a stroke four months before the premiere.

Total Recall (1990)

Adapted from: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966)

More famous for Ah'nuld Schwarzenegger getting into interplanetary action hijinks amid assorted freakery like women with three breasts and other grotesque cosmetics, Robocop director Paul Verhoeven certainly has fun with the source material, though Dick's ruminations on state surveillance and the nature of identity gets drowned out by all the action... much like its remake.

Minority Report (2002)

Adapted from: The Minority Report (1956)

While it's arguably far too polished to properly transmit the full emotional scale of Dick's paranoid vision, this Tom Cruise-starring, Steven Spielberg-directed box office hit is a dignified enough development of Dick's short story - which hinges on an ethical rather than an existential question: would a technology that could 'predict' crimes be morally justified?

Paycheck (2003)

Adapted from: Paycheck (1952)

To be fair, the source material of this second-rate John Woo thriller can't really be counted among Dick's best, as the swapped-identity tale was probably cranked out for a quick buck and sold to one of the many genre magazines the financially unstable Dick often peddled his prose to.

But neither is it helped by the likeable but consistently uncharismatic Ben Affleck in the lead, whose awkward chemistry with the hit-and-miss Uma Thurman ensures this is a damp squib.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Adapted from: A Scanner Darkly (1977)

It took the imagination of cult director Richard Linklater to rehabilitate Dick's Hollywood image with this visually striking, true-to-the-novel ensemble piece.

Employing the technique of 'rotoscoping' (which fuses animated visuals directly onto live-action actors), 'Scanner puts Keanu Reeves's protagonist into a schizophrenic wringer, adequately presenting Dick's jittery vision. Linklater's earlier rotoscoped feature, Waking Life, was an investigation of the psychological phenomenon of waking dreams - certainly an appropriate phildickian exercise, if there ever was one. And Reeves'spresence is reminder that, with their emphasis on a humanity compromised by mysterious technological oppressors, The  Matrix trilogy owes at least a spiritual debt to Dick's work.

Next (2007)

Adapted from: The Golden Child (1954)

...and we're back to the duds. Omnipresent hack actor Nic Cage meets mercifully non-prolific hack director Lee Tamahori (The Devil's Double) for a mediocre, and critically-panned, tale of a man who can see into the future. While it's likely to get buried under a deluge of similar crap on Cage's own CV, many critics were bemused by the participation of Julianne Moore - usually a Hollywood actress who can be counted on good choices for roles. Just as she does in this week's Total Recall remake, Jessica Biel takes on a supporting role here.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Adapted from: Adjustment Team (1954)

Could it be? A Philip K. Dick-inspired romantic comedy? An unlikely brew, but this stylish caper, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, more or less manages to cook it up. With a rakish antagonist courtesy of Mad Men's John Slattery, the film retains Dick's parallel-reality concept, but rather than catapulting it into crass action territory, it morphs it into something altogether lighter, and more gentle.

Read our review of Total Recall.

You managed to completely overlook "Screamers" with this list. While, it's certainly no Blade Runner, it's a hell of a lot better than some of the other garbage that has been translated to the big screen. In my opinion, it's a very underrated movie anyway.