Sci-Fi Master Philip K. Dick’s … Cinematic Influence

Philip K Dick was one of the 20th century’s most innovative and productive Sci-Fi writers, and his imagination has had a hugely important impact on modern cinema, with filmmakers returning to his work for inspiration, time and time again. Born in 1928, he died at the age of 54 in 1982, having published over 40 novels and approximately 120 short stories. Sadly he also passed away during the filming of the first cinematic adaptation of one his creations, unable to enjoy the first visual interpretation of his work.

‘Blade Runner’ based on his novel ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ (written in 1968), would change the Science Fiction landscape in cinema forever, bringing with it a new audience and wider appreciation of Dick’s work. The irony being that throughout his life, he had for the most part lived a relatively modest existence, with his writing only reaching a niche market, while a number of his peers achieved far greater success.

Philip’s start in life was tragic, as his infant twin sister died of malnourishment due to their mothers lack of guidance on how to properly care for the arrival of two babies. His parents divorced soon after and Phil lived with his mother, whose dependence on daily prescription pharmaceuticals would be a habit he would mirror in later life. His teenage years were fuelled on an obsession with European classical music and pulp fiction magazines, filled with early Sci-Fi tales from writers such as H.P Lovecraft, Jules Verne and H.G Wells.

His adult life was chaotic. His quest to find the perfect female companion resulted in five failed marriages, although he was blessed with a number of children. During periods throughout the 1950’s, as he was grinding out the majority of his short stories, he would find himself feeding his family on cheap horse meat from a local pet store, in order to save money. He would take amphetamines in order to be able to stay awake and write at night, sometimes producing novels in a matter of weeks, while having to counteract the crashing lows of the drug with a concoction of other medications, to try and keep the panic attacks, hallucinations and bouts of crippling depressions at bay.

Philip fully immersed himself in the Californian drug culture during the zeitgeist of the 1960’s and 70’s, finding admirers of his work from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary, and The Beatles’ John Lennon who once paid a passing interest in creating a film version of his novel ‘The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch’, although sadly this never came to fruition. However during this time his drug use also blurred the lines of of his reality, and the paranoia that seeped through his stories effected his own mind, with suspicions at points that he was a target for both the FBI and KGB. A perceived conversation with God would hugely impact his final decade, but a life long relationship with therapy could not stop a number of suicide attempts, as well as spells in drug rehab facilities and psychiatric wards during his twilight years.

At the end of his life before succumbing to a stroke, Philip lived alone and experienced his largest financial windfall, due to the sale of the film rights to ‘Do Androids Dream ..?’. However he seemingly had no need for riches at this point, and gave away much of this money to charity. Professionally however, he found somewhat of a resurgence of interest in his work, and had he lived on through the 1980’s and 90’s, would have experienced a whole new level to his career, as Hollywood started to make its way through his back catalogue.

In 1981, Dick theorised that to write ‘good’ Science Fiction, an author must create a world in which there is a distinct conceptual dislocation separating it from reality, and with a ‘new idea’, intellectually stimulating the reader, invading their mind with the possibility of something they had not yet thought possible. He viewed Science Fiction as a collaboration between writer and the mind of the reader, together sharing the joy of discovery. Interestingly he did not view popular grand space adventures such as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ as Science Fiction, but rather fantasy adventure stories. In his tales, there was always still an important link to reality, in which to help connect the reader to his world.

Because Phil wrote many of his stories with hast and in an amphetamine fuelled haze, there was always a unique quirkiness to his story telling, which was often told with jerky dialogue. His stories were gritty and character based, focusing on ordinary citizens trying to make their way through his futuristic vison of the world. Stories that largely questioned the perception of reality, philosophical mysteries soaked with paranoia and plot twists, with Phil no doubt placing himself at the heart of his main characters, many of which were metaphysically tortured men.

Here we take a look at the essential dozen finest film adaptations so far, to have come from the extraordinary imagination of a man who saw a unique and sometimes terrifying future, and is undoubtedly a true master of the genre … starting where it all began :

1. // Blade Runner (1982)

It cannot be under estimated just how important the influence ‘Blade Runner’ has had on Science Fiction cinema, with director Ridley Scott (Alien) creating an exquisite vision of the future. A 2019 Los Angeles cityscape imagined some 37 years earlier, with beautifully shot rain soaked streets, drenched in neon colours. A future-noir film that visually is a master piece of the early 1980’s era, accompanied by a perfectly matched and iconic synth-wave musical score from Vangelis.

Harrison Ford, hot off the back of starring in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’, plays the lead role of Rick Deckard, a former ‘Blade Runner’ who hunted and ‘retired’ rogue replicants. The replicants are almost indistinguishable Human like androids, who have been created primarily as labour slaves working in off world colonies, in a time when Earth is becoming a largely uninhabitable environment. Rutger Hauer (The Hitcher) plays Roy Baty, a replicant who leads a number of others in a violent uprising on Mars, before travelling home to Earth with the view of blending into society to live out the reminder of their life span. Deckard is bought back into bounty hunting by his former superiors at the LAPD, after their current Blade Runner is killed by one of the returning replicants, during the emotional response test used in order to determine whether the subject is human or not.

Both the movie and Dick’s initial story focus on Deckards inner struggle of the role he plays in ‘retiring’ the androids, his emotional turmoil in separating man and machine, and questioning his role in deciding on their right to exist or not. He also has to deal with the confusing lust he feels for attractive female replicants. This element of his character is played out in the film by his relationship with Rachel, played by Sean Young (Dune), a new ‘Nexus 6’ model android, who has been enhanced with false childhood memories, meaning that she is not self aware, falsely believing that she is indeed human. In the book she uses her sexuality in an attempt to manipulate Deckard, while in the film after some initial apprehension, she gives herself to him, forming a relationship which makes him question his superior’s orders even further.

2. // Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Hollywood returned to the Blade Runner world 35 years later with ‘2049’, a sequel brought to life by visionary director Denis Villeneuve (Dune), sympathetically recreating the visual feel and tone of Ridley Scott’s original. Ryan Gosling (Drive) plays K, a self aware super advanced replicant, in an age where it is acceptable for him to live a respected existence within society. He is also a Blade Runner, hunting his own kind for the LAPD, albeit subservient to his Human superiors and somewhat thought of an expendable asset.

The film explores the theory touched on in the first movie and source material, of the human relationship with and sexualisation of the replicants, while further introducing the idea of their ability to naturally reproduce, as 30 yr old buried bones of a female android are discovered, showing that she has been pregnant and subject to a C-section delivery. K is tasked with investigating and destroying all evidence of the female, and to locate and retire the child, as the fact a replicant has reproduced must be covered up and never become public knowledge. K states ‘I’ve never retired anything that has been born before, to be born is to have a soul’. He spends the rest of the film challenging the very being of his own existence.

His investigation leads him to the events of the first film and the relationship between Deckard and Rachel, the Replicant he had met and fallen in love with. Eventually in the final act he meets with Deckard himself (with Harrison Ford returning to the role), where it is suggested that the events of the first film and his relationship with Rachel was engineered and manipulated all along, in order for a human and the advanced replicant to come together to create a child. From here the movie plays out to a thrilling climax, answering many questions and cult fan theories, which had evolved over the proceeding years since the original film was released.

3. // Total Recall (1990)

Following on from ‘Blade Runner’, Hollywood turned to one of Dick’s many short stories for their next big budget adaptation. ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’ was written in 1966, and in less than 20 pages told the story of Douglas Quail, an ordinary man who dreams of visiting Mars, where only the rich are able to travel. He settles for an artificial trip by way of memory implants at ‘Total Rekall’, who offer him a 100% believable two week experience, where he will not only have visited Mars as himself, but as a secret agent. However the procedure ends up uncovering real memories of a past life as an assassin, and it turns out his memory has been erased by the shady government agency that he used to kill for … all is not as it seems.

‘Total Recall’ was released in 1990 and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator) in the lead role, taking the premise of Dick’s short story and expanding it into a thrilling action/chase film, showing the mission to Mars (not featured in the original text). Directed by Paul Verhoeven who’s style on the smash hit ‘Robocop’ (1987) in merging hi-intensity action with grotesque body horror, was deemed perfect for the studios vision. The Movie was made at the peak of Schwarzenegger’s star power, bringing Philip K Dicks work to a new mainstream audience, despite the movies R rating thanks to its over the top use of gratuitous violence.

The expansion of the story very much keeps in line with Dick’s recurring theme of paranoia. Douglas Quaid (as he’s known in the film) does not know who to trust, being forced to question his whole existence with a constant blurred line between fantasy and reality. Further recurrent aspects of Dick’s work are prevalent with the setting split between Earth and the off world colony on Mars, and the unravelling of a mystery with twists and turns, keeping the viewer constantly guessing on the outcome.

4. // The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

‘The Adjustment Bureau’ arrived on screen in 2011, directed by debutant George Nolfi (screenwriter for The Bourne Ultimatum) and starring Matt Damon (The Departed) as New York politician David Norris, destined to become president. The film shows a period of his life where his political ambitions require the assistance of mysterious ‘Clerks’, a secret organisation whose role in the world is to create ‘adjustments’, making sure that people stay on plan to follow their destiny and reach their full potential. This could vary from manipulating events so that someone misses a bus, or by spilling their coffee to delay them from being somewhere at a certain time. The Clerks have been keeping an eye on the human race since the dawn of time, intercepting free will to keep the world turning, and watching disaster unfold (world wars, fascism, depressions) when they step back and allow humans to live without their help.

One day after arriving earlier at work than he was ‘supposed’ to, David stumbles across the existence of the Clerks, being exposed to their operation. He is sworn to keep their role in the world to himself or there will be dire consequences for him. David Norris then falls in love following a chance meeting with the mysteriously captivating Elise Sellas, played by Emily Blunt (Wolfman), but learns that pursuing a relationship with her will ultimately see him lead a life that does not reach the presidency. The Clerks make it clear they will do everything in their power to keep them apart, and he is warned to forget about her. But his desire to pursue and reconnect with her proves stronger than anything else … the film poses the question as to what is more important in life, ambition or love? As well as exploring the theme of destiny, and the choices we make in life, questioning the concept of our free will.

The movie was adapted from Dick’s short story ‘The Adjustment Team’ (1953) which in typical fashion tells the story of an every day man (in this instance a real estate employee) as opposed to a future president, and focuses on the one part of the film where David Norris witnesses the Clerks at work making adjustments in his office, and then the subsequent encounter, as what he has witnessed is explained to him. The story is quick and to the point, and the film adaptation takes this scene and extends into a highly enjoyable movie, which is without a doubt one of the finest screen adaptations of Dick’s work so far.

5. // Minority Report (2002)

‘Minority Report’ asks us to imagine a world without murder. Written by Dick in 1954 and set in 2054, the Pre Crime police department are stopping murderers committing their crimes before they happen, thanks to futuristic visions provided to them by three psychic pre cognitive mutants. The philosophical question at heart being, is it justifiable to arrest and detain a person for a crime they have not yet committed? The ‘Minority Report’ relates to when one of the pre cogs foresees a different vision to the other two, alluding to the possibility that a number of detainees may possibly have lived an alternative future in which they did not commit the crime they were punished for, bringing the whole organisation and its justice system to its knees, should it’s existence become public.

Starring Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible) in the leading role of John Anderson, and with support from Colin Farrell (The Recruit) as professional rival Danny Witwer, the story focuses on Anderson who is the founder of the Pre Crime unit, becoming the subject of one of the mutants visions, predicting that he will murder a man he has never met before. Cruise is forced to go on the run from his own colleagues, in an attempt to clear his name, as he tries to piece together just what on earth is happening … questioning whether he has been framed and why, or is he indeed destined to commit murder?

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) who had been at the top of his game for 25 years, the visual effects were groundbreaking for the time and the film fast paced as Anderson races against the clock to prove his innocence. The combination of Spielberg and Cruise meant that ‘Minority Report’ was the biggest box office success created from Dick’s writing since ‘Total Recall’ some 12 years earlier, and spearheaded a new wave of interest in his stories ability to do big business in Hollywood.

6. // A Scanner Darkly (2006)

‘A Scanner Darkly’ was one of Philip K Dick’s later novels, which had been set to to hit the big screen with an earlier failed Terry Gilliam production. It tells a complicated tale, set in a near future 1990’s California (Dick wrote the novel in 1978) where ‘Substance D’, a highly addictive and mentally deliberating synthetic drug, is sweeping through society. The main character Bob Arctor, is an undercover narcotics agent (code name Officer Fred) who while meeting with colleagues wears a ‘scramble suit’, a highly sophisticated disguise which allows him to keep his true identity a secret.

To blend in with his subjects as best he can, Bob uses ‘Substance D’ which naturally effects his mind, making his deep cover work less than straight forward. To confuse matters further, Bob’s home and circle of friends are the subject of his own scanner surveillance investigation, and after cameras are installed in his property, Bob is required to lead a bizarre double life, made only possible by the scramble suit. The usual Dickien paranoia starts to seep in as Bob (or is it Fred?) starts to suspect both his friends and superiors are onto him. Dicks writing in ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is chaotic, as was a trademark in his later years, with rambling, drug fuelled, non-sensical conversations between the characters taking centre stage, and the film sticks faithfully to the original text for the most part, also making it a slightly disorientating but endearing watch for the viewer.

In 2006 Director Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused) successfully brought the film to an audience with Keane Reeves (The Matrix) in the lead role, and a fine supporting cast inc Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man), Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers) and Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice). However no one appears as they ever have done before due to the fact that the film was shot digitally, and then animated using a technique in which animators traced over the original footage frame by frame, creating a unique colourful visual style. Both the film and novel end with a note penned by Dick, paying tribute to friends who were either deceased or experiencing psychosis following a lifestyle of experimenting with drugs. The meandering conversations written by Dick mirror his own experiences during a certain time in his life, when his home provided a carousel of incoming dope fiends with who Dick chose to associate, making this somewhat of an autobiographical work.

7. // Total Recall (2012)

In 2012, a reimagining of ‘Total Recall’ directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld) was brought back to the cinema. A glitzy looking spectacle, heavily influenced by the visual feel of ‘Blade Runner’, removing the model effects and body horror of the original, in place of a greater use of CGI. The film stars Colin Farrell in his second Philip K Dick role, stepping into the mighty shoes of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid (an upgrade on his earlier supporting role in ‘Minority Report’).

The film is a reimagining as opposed to a remake, completely removing the key element of Mars from both the original film and Dick’s text, and replacing with a story set at the end of the 21st Century, where the Earth has been ravaged by chemical warfare leaving two main settlements for humans to live on, The United Federation Of Britain (covering Europe) and The Colony (Australia). Workers travel from one end of the Earth (The Colony) to the other, via ‘The Fall’, a transportation system linking the two areas through the centre of the planet. We quickly learn that the leaders of The United Federation Of Britain are oppressive, and that a resistance movement are conducting terrorists attacks in the name of the workers from The Colony.

Douglas Quaid in this version is an assembly line worker whose character has dreams of doing something greater. He reads James Bond stories on his commute, and is curious to learn more about ‘Rekall’ where artificial memory implants may provide escapism from his mundane reality. This set up mirrors the original film and the focus of the Recall experience from Dick’s text is played out well across both. As you might expect there are a nice selection of Easter Egg nods to the original movie, nicely linking the two films together. Although as this version plays out post Rekall visit, it takes its own direction, visually impressive and with some stunning action sequences.

8. // Paycheck (2003)

Following the box office success of Spielbergs ‘Minority Report’, ‘Paycheck’ arrived just one year later in 2003, directed by John Woo (Face Off) and starring Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting) in the lead role of Michael Jennings. The film adaptation was lifted faithfully (until the final act) from Dick’s short story of the same name (written in 1952) in which Jennings agrees to 3 years of contract work for the sum of $92m, on the understanding that his memory will be wiped at the end of his work, essentially trading a proportion of his life, for life changing money … posing the question, what is more valuable, riches or time?

On completion of his assignment, as Jennings attempts to cash in on his ‘Paycheck’, he faces the realisation that for some reason he chose to forfeit his riches in exchange for a bag of seemingly meaningless knick knacks. With no memory of why he would have done this, it seems that he has been set up. In the process of investigating exactly what went on in the preceding years, he is also captured by the FBI who inform that he has been working for a dangerous organisation involved in industrial espionage and murder, and that metaphorically, his finger prints are all over the damning evidence.

In typical fashion, Jennings finds himself escaping from his captors, this time with the aid of the various trinkets that had been supplied to him (by himself) instead of his ‘Paycheck’, and he must figure out what is happening and why, while trying to understand what it was he had been involved in, before having his memory wiped. Jennings realises that his former self must have some how seen into the future in order to be able to provide his present self with the exact tools to escape and investigate the past, creating a sci-Fi paradox or ‘Time Scoop’ as Dick refers to it in his text. He discovers that he had been involved in engineering a mirror into the future, highly illegal and at the centre of the mystery, with the realisation that the ability to see into the future, will ultimately lead to the downfall of mankind.

9. // Screamers (1995)

In 1953, Dick’s short story ‘Second Variety‘ told of a future near decade long war between America and Russia, which had all but decimated Earth into a wasteland. The Russians were in control until the Americans invented small robot killing machines known as ‘Claws’, which turned the tide of the war in their favour. The Claws seemingly started to take on a life of their own, but did not attack the American soldiers due to protective radiation emitting tags, that they wore around their wrists. One morning a Russian soldier is killed by a Claw while on a mission to deliver a message inviting an American commander for peace talks. The commander having read the message travels by foot to the Russian base, meeting a small orphaned boy named ‘David’ on the way, allowing him to tag along.

However on arrival at the base Russian soldiers kill the boy, who it turns out was in fact a sophisticated and advanced version of the artificial androids, created by the robots themselves who are developing AI, and who would have infiltrated the Russian camp before allowing a hord of identical ‘David’ killing machines in to cause devestation. The movie version ‘Screamers’ (1995) was the third adaptation to be produced from Dick’s work, directed by Christian Duguay (Scanners II) and starring Peter Weller (Robocop). The film moves the war between the USA and USSR on Earth, to a civil war on an off world colony.

From here the story stays relatively faithful to the original text, accentuating a feeling of paranoia akin to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, as soldiers from both sides start suspecting that one of them may not be who they seem, as it appears the robots are creating further human like varieties to try to confuse and infiltrate them. The endings of the novella and film take very different turns, and the movie very much went under the radar compared to ‘Blade Runner’ and the original ‘Total Recall’. The budget is also noticeably less, but it still stands as a highly enjoyable mid 90’s Sci-Fi film with a B movie feel, which in 2009 spawned a sequel, ‘Screamers : The Hunting’, following on and expanding the story beyond Dick’s text.

10. // Imposter (2001)

Set in the year 2079, Earth has been at war with an Alien race for many years, and is protected from continued attacks by an outer dome shield that covers the planet. Based on a short story of the same name written by Dick in 1953, his tale is based around the character of Spence Olham, a military scientist who one morning on meeting with his colleague and a stranger from the government, is swiftly arrested. Spence is informed that he is a synthetic humanoid android, sent down by the Alien ‘Outspacers’ and who has murdered the real Spence Olham and assumed his identity. Further to this he is told that he has a catastrophic nuclear bomb inside of him, which will detonate upon hearing a verbal key phrase.

Gary Sinise (Forest Gump) stars in the lead role of the adaptation directed by Gary Fleder (Things To Do In Denver When Your Dead), who cannot believe what he is hearing, despite being told that the Android will have been implanted with the subjects memories, and would not be aware that he is not the real Olham. In typical Dick fashion Olham escapes his arrest, and then finds himself in a race against time to locate the androids crashed spaceship, in the hope that he can find a dead cyborg to prove that it had not completed the mission of killing him and assuming his identity. Naturally with this story coming from Dick’s imagination, he starts to question his own existence and whether he is or isn’t still human, keeping the viewer guessing until the end. The film came just prior to ‘Minority Report’ and although one of the lesser known movie adaptations, stays true to the original text, while enhancing the story into an enjoyable sci-fi film, and with the underrated Sinise in fine form.

11. // Next (2007)

In 2007, ‘Next’ directed by Lee Tamahori (Mulholland Falls) and starring Nicholas Cage (Gone In Sixty Seconds), told the story of Las Vegas lounge magician Cris Johnson, who has a form of telepathy, allowing him to see two minutes into his own future. This makes it particularly easy for him to play his audience, whilst also doing well for himself at the Casino’s Black Jack tables. His ability is picked upon by the FBI who send agent Julianne Moore (Hannibal) to recruit him, in order to help with the pending threat of a stolen nuclear missile.

The movie is very loosely based on idea presented in Dick’s short story ‘The Golden Man’ (1953), although all that was taken and developed was the premises of a telekinetic, being able to see a short time into the future in order to manipulate events in their favour. In Dick’s novella, the ‘Golden Man’ is a mutant who is tracked down and captured for testing by a government agency. Dick eloquently describes from the mutants point of view, how it looks into the futures to analyse the outcome of various different paths it can take to escape, seeing his death in one vision, and his successful escape in another, and then choosing the right way to go.

We see this mirrored nicely in ‘Next’ as Johnson foresees his own death, and how many different versions of himself labyrinth their way through the finale, as he and the FBI agents work their way through an industrial warehouse, dodging snipers, as they aim to bring down the terrorists, and save their hostage played by Jessica Biel (who also appears in the 2012 Total Recall). The focus in Dick’s story is of the paranoia of man upon the discovery of a mutant with such powers, and what it means for the future of mankind now that we are not at the top of the evolutionary gene pool. Whereas the film places Nicholas Cage’s character at the heart of the story, dealing with his emotions as he navigates his way through life with the gift, and what the impact of knowing, and changing the future has on his existence.

12. // Natural City (2003)

By 2003, Philip K Dick’s influence had reached Korean cinema with the release of ‘Natural City’. The film is set in 2080 and in a world ravaged by war, where a colony of humans and their subservient replicants live together, in a new metropolis built upon an ocean. With advanced AI but a shortened life span of just a few years, a Replicant rebellion begins against the oppressive human masters. The film is an expansion on themes set out in ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ and is heavily influenced by the visuals created in ‘Blade Runner’. Set against a back drop of a beautiful rain drenched city, and with many of the original scenes and characters recreated in homage to Ridley Scott’s classic film, ‘Natural City’ ultimately offers a differing storyline, in that the main character is a military soldier involved in fighting against the rebellion, as opposed to a bounty hunter working for the police.

Directed by Byung-Chun Min and starring Yoo Ji-Tae (Oldboy) in the lead role of R, the main theme expanded on in ‘Natural City’ is that of the relationship between human and android. R falls in love with a beautiful android dancer Rea, who only has 3 days left before she is due to expire and subsequently he questions his own military role, fighting against the symbiont rebels. We also see a reflection of ‘Blade Runner’s simulant Roy Baty and his self analysis of what is means to live, played out by Rea (played by Rin Seo) as her life span counts down. It is these recurrent themes than run through ‘Natural City’ both Hollywood ‘Blade Runner’ films and Dick’s original text, unquestionably linking them all together.


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