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11 of the best (and worst) screen adaptations of Philip K. Dick
Hollywood’s obsession with Dick shows no signs of slowing down.
Hollywood has been engaged in a love affair with cult science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick for over three decades now, beginning with Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Blade Runner in 1982. It hasn’t always been pretty—there have been some serious clunkers, as you’ll see—but it’s also given us some genuine cinematic classics. And Hollywood’s obsession with Dick shows no signs of slowing down.
Fox’s Minority Report TV spinoff just debuted, and Amazon Prime has a series based on Dick’s classic alternate history tale The Man in the High Castle arriving in November. There’s even a Blade Runner sequel in the works, for good or ill. With all that Dick on the horizon, and no doubt many more Dick-related puns to be made, we here at the Dot will be your guide through the history of Dick on the big and small screens, and where you can feast your eyes upon it. (OK, I’ll stop. Maybe.)
1) Blade Runner (1982)
When Dick finally made the leap to the silver screen, he did so with a bang, with his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? serving as the basis for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While the flick was a critical and box-office flop at the time, it’s pretty much the definition of a film that ages well, having become a beloved cult hit that’s influenced countless filmmakers in the decades since. Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a retired android hunter—or “blade runner”—in a bleak, stylish future where so-called “replicants” are illegal on Earth but used offworld for everything from slave labor to combat to prostitution. When a group of replicants sneak planetside, led by the charismatic but deadly Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Deckard is called out of retirement to put them down; replicants don’t get trials. But the deeper he gets into the investigation, the more troubling it becomes, all the more so when he meets Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant who doesn’t realize she’s a replicant. That previously unimagined possibility throws everything Deckard took for granted into question.
Thirty-plus years later, Blade Runner remains one of the best science-fiction films ever made, and it holds up marvelously, especially if you get the chance to see it on the big screen. Director Ridley Scott has released several versions of the film over the years, but we recommend checking out his Final Cut, which is available on Amazon and iTunes.
2) Total Recall (1990)
While Blade Runner is a serious exploration of the nature of humanity, identity, and free will, Total Recall… isn’t. Serious, at least. Loosely based on Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Total Recall stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, an average Joe construction worker in a future where average Joe construction workers sometimes look like Austrian bodybuilders and are married to women who look like Sharon Stone. Doug is obsessed with taking a vacation to Mars, but he can’t afford it on his rockbreaker’s salary. So he decides to do the next best thing: have the false memories of an epic Mars trip implanted in his brain by a virtual travel service called Rekall. He gets more than he bargained for when the procedure goes wrong, either awakening previously buried memories of Quaid’s real life as a Martian secret agent or sending him into a fantastic mental adventure while his body languishes in a coma, depending on which interpretation you prefer. There are crosses, double-crosses, mutants, ancient alien terraforming machines, three-breasted hookers, eyeballs protruding comically on stalks, and a scene where Arnold pulls a tracking device the size of a golf ball out of his sinus cavity. It’s batshit insane in a way that only a Paul Verhoeven movie can be, but it’s hugely watchable, gleefully embracing all the fun and ridiculousness the 2012 remake abandoned, to its detriment.
3) Screamers (1996)
They can’t all be gems, can they? The 1996 sci-fi thriller Screamers is most memorable for the fact that the screenplay was written by Dan O’Bannon, who also penned both the original Total Recall and a little flick called Alien. Sadly, that pedigree couldn’t save Screamers from being screamingly mediocre, earning only $7 million in worldwide box office. Still, the movie has earned a cult following over the years, and it spawned a sequel called Screamers: The Hunting, in 2009. Based on Dick’s short story “Second Variety” (first published in Space Science Fiction in 1953), Screamers is set on a distant world known as Sirius 6B. At one point it was a thriving mining colony, but a long conflict between the workers and the corporation in power has left both sides undersupplied and desperate. Worse, the fight unleashed the so-called “screamers”: intelligent, self-replicating killing machines that track targets by their heartbeat before carving them to ribbons. And here’s the really bad news: The screamers are evolving…
4) Impostor (2002)
Impostor had the bad luck to release six months before the vastly superior Minority Report, but it’s not actually a terrible movie: It’s got a solid lead performance by Gary Sinise, and a decent twist, albeit one most people will probably see coming a country mile away. Impostor is based on Dick’s 1953 short story of the same name and is set nearly 50 years after humanity came under attack by an alien civilization from Alpha Centauri. The weird thing: Even after all these years, no one has actually seen a Centaurian. Needless to say, paranoia is rampant, with Earth cities hiding beneath force shields and a totalitarian government wielding power. To make matters worse, now the aliens have unleashed a plot to send human-looking replicants armed with powerful internal “u-bombs” to infiltrate the government and assassinate key players. Spencer Olham (Sinise) is a weapons designer, in theory one of the people working hardest to keep Earth safe from their enemies. Unfortunately, an intercepted Centaurian transmission leads the Earth Security Agency to become convinced Olham is actually one of the replicants… and its team is perfectly willing to dissect him to prove it. Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?
5) Minority Report (2002)
What if you could predict murders before they happened? Based on Dick’s 1956 short story of the same name, Minority Report is set in Washington, D.C., in 2054, where Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) heads up the PreCrime department, which uses the visions of three semi-catatonic psychics to track down and arrest potential murderers before they can do the deed. Needless to say, PreCrime is a controversial initiative, but the murder rate is way down, and PreCrime is on the cusp of going nationwide. Then Anderton finds himself on the pointy end of PreCrime when the precogs predict that he’s going to commit cold-blooded murder in 36 hours. Anderton goes on the run, desperate to prove his innocence even if that means tearing down the system he helped build.
Minority Report is easily my pick for the second-best Dick flick on this list, right behind Blade Runner. Director Steven Spielberg serves up a twisty, propulsive sci-fi thriller with a compelling mystery at its core, a well-realized and surprisingly prescient future world, and dynamite performances by Cruise and Samantha Morton, who plays the precog Agatha. The only major problem with Minority Report is the ending, which could have leaned more heavily on the moral ambiguity the rest of the film traffics in. Still, it’s a great way to kill two hours and packed to the gills with cool visuals and interesting ideas.
6) Paycheck (2003)
Hollywood next served up yet another forgettable interpretation with Paycheck, based on Dick’s eponymous short story from 1952. Ben Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, an expert at reverse-engineering technology. It’s the sort of work that involves secrets powerful corporations would like to keep to themselves, so he undergoes a memory wipe after every job. When Allcom CEO James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) approaches him about a top-secret new gig, Jennings is intrigued enough to sign on for a multiyear contract. Three years later, the job is complete, but things are not as he expected. Apparently he signed away his $92 million payday before having his memory wiped, and all his personal possessions are gone, replaced by an envelope filled with random items. Before he can figure out what’s going on, he’s being pursued by the FBI, wanted for murder, with only a sympathetic scientist named Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman) as an ally. What the hell happened during those three years? Paycheck has a pretty great premise, but in execution it’s forgettable (no mind wipe required), currently sitting at 27 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Paycheck is available streaming on Netflix Instant.
7) A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Philip K. Dick published his novel A Scanner Darkly in 1977, only five years before his death at the all-too-young age of 53. By that point in his life, Dick was struggling with mental health issues and vivid hallucinations that he interpreted as paranormal/transcendental experiences. Needless to say, his writing became even trippier than it traditionally had been, and A Scanner Darkly is no exception.
A Scanner Darkly is set in a dystopian not-too-distant future where a powerful drug called Substance D has overrun the United States and the totalitarian government makes use of constant and intrusive surveillance throughout daily life. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narcotics agent—one who’s gotten himself thoroughly hooked on the substance he’s supposed to be helping destroy. Worse, his constant use of the drug is slowly splintering Arctor’s personality and very sense of identity… possibly beyond repair. Indie legend Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) adapted and directed Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, bringing it to life with rotoscoped animation that well suits the brain-bending nature of the source material. In addition to Reeves, Linklater’s cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder.
8) Next (2007)
After the indie cool of A Scanner Darkly, Hollywood’s Wheel o’ Dick swung back to the forgettable end of the spectrum with Next. Loosely based on Dick’s 1953 short story “The Golden Man,” Next cast Nic Cage as Cris Johnson, a small-time Vegas magician with the ability to see into the future… but only two minutes ahead. Normally that sort of weak-sauce superpower might exile him to membership in, say, the Great Lakes Avengers, but in this case he can also see different ways that two-minute window might play out. So he can see which paths will result in success and which will wind up with him getting splattered by a semi or whatever. Sadly, those abilities weren’t able to direct him to a better screenplay. Remember that awesome sequence in Minority Report when Agatha helps Anderton elude the pursuing police by repeatedly guiding him out of their line of sight? Next is like that but for 96 minutes and not nearly as good and with Jessica Biel instead of Samantha Morton. Next…
Next is available for streaming on Netflix Instant.
9) Radio Free Albemuth (2010)
Originally written in 1976 but not published until three years after Dick’s death, Radio Free Albemuth pulls numerous elements from the author’s own life, including the visions/hallucinations that so defined his final years. In fact, Dick himself is a major character in both the semi-autobiographical book and the film. Set in an alternate version of 1985 America, Radio Free Albemuth finds our country under the thumb of the ruthless, paranoid President Fremont, a dictator who crushes all resistance against his regime. Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) is just an ordinary guy, a Berkeley record store clerk who happens to be good friends with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham). When Nick begins experiencing strange dreams and visions, he becomes convinced they’re more than just tricks of the brain; he believes he’s been contacted by an alien intelligence. Soon he meets another woman (Alanis Morissette) who also claims to be in contact with the intelligence—which Nick calls VALIS—and he becomes entangled in a conspiracy working to counter the oppressive forces that have overwhelmed the nation. And it only gets weirder from there.
Radio Free Ablemuth is available to stream on Netflix Instant.
10) The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Based on Dick’s 1954 short story “Adjustment Team,” The Adjustment Bureau stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a U.S. congressman who meets a beautiful, beguiling woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) with whom he feels an instant connection, but he fails to get her number. A few weeks later, he meets her again, and this time he gets her information. It must be fate, right? Well, “fate” has a few things to say about that, in the form of mysterious men who infiltrate David’s life and explain that they represent “the Adjustment Bureau,” a secret organization working outside of time and behind the scenes to orchestrate “the Plan.” It seems David and Elise aren’t meant to be together, and they’re mucking that Plan up by re-entering each other’s lives. David refuses to accept that, but how the hell are you supposed to fight the powers that have been pulling the strings behind most of human history and which can follow you pretty much anywhere? The Adjustment Bureau unfolds as a clash between free will and predestination, with David demanding the right to make his own choices, even if those choices take him down a bad path. It’s smart, funny, thrilling, and makes the best use of magic doors since Monsters, Inc.
11) Minority Report (2015)
Oh, Minority Report. I had such hopes for you. The whole concept of being able to predict and prevent crimes before they happen is ripe for even deeper exploration than the movie was able to give it, and the notion of catching up with older versions of the precogs could also be intriguing. Unfortunately, based on the pilot, Fox’s sequel series manages to fumble damn near every opportunity. Every element of this show is a crappier version of what was done in the films, from the precogs themselves, to the at-the-time brilliantly prescient technology, even down to those creepy spider-droids, which here are replaced by much goofier flying models. Neither of the leads are particularly charismatic or compelling, and they even make a goddamn Tinder joke. Hopefully the show will find its footing, but if it doesn’t happen in the next episode or two, I won’t be sticking around to find out. Honestly, there are just so many shows that deal with this sort of material better. If you want a badass near-future police procedural that deals with emergent tech and features a pair of likable leads, go watch Fox’s canceled one-season wonder Almost Human, which you can snag on Amazon. If you want a significantly smarter and more mature exploration of precrime, watch Person of Interest, which just hit Netflix. As for this show, avoid it like a redball.
If you must, you can watch Minority Report the series on Hulu.
12) The Man in the High Castle (2015)
Last but not least, Amazon is set to release a high-profile series adaptation of Dick’s alternate-history “what if the Nazis won World War II?” classic The Man in the High Castle in November. It began life as a potential miniseries for Syfy, with Ridley Scott and X-Files veteran Frank Spotnitz producing, but eventually landed on Amazon as part of that company’s aggressive push into original content. Set in 1962 in a United States divided between the Nazis and the Japanese, The Man in the High Castle follows several different characters from among the ruling class, the oppressed American masses, and the simmering resistance movement. With only the pilot to judge it by, The Man in the High Castle has already made a solid first impression, earning excellent reviews and currently sitting at a 94 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (You can watch the acclaimed pilot if you’re an Amazon Prime customer; the full first season will premiere on Amazon on Nov. 20.)
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailer Vault/YouTube
David Wharton is a journalist and film critic with over 15 years of experience. His reviews for the Daily Dot focus on original movies and series produced by streaming entertainment services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. He lives in Texas, where he works as the online editor of DSNews.com