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Monday, December 31, 2007

Philip K. Dick in the movies

One of the things I like to do here is take a look at the stories or novels that inspire current movies. The stories usually win the comparison --though not always: most of the Harry Potter movies have been fantastic, while the originals are only so-so. (Feel free to disagree in the comments!) I recently got my hands on a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick ("Selected Stories of..."), a fun collection of Cold War dystopic stories.

Let me talk about three of them.

"The Minority Report"

When I went to see the movie, I thought -- well, there's a chance they'll pull off a good sci-fi movie. Nah. I suppose it wasn't a bad action movie, and well, it wasn't remotely as bad as "I, Robot" (oh, Isaac! How unkind fate has been to you!), but sci-fi? Three pre-cogs vote on the best future, and the movie doesn't even address the idea of alternate futures? No one is uncomfortable with the morality of jailing people who haven't yet committed a crime? Does it occur to no one that maybe, just maybe, if you told people, hey, we know you're about to kill someone, then maybe they wouldn't do it? Did anyone put any thought into this movie at all?! Other than the product placement team??!

(All right, I had to get that out of my system. Bottled it up for years. Phew. I feel better. It's OK. But: gah!)

The story, also titled "The Minority Report", is quite short. I won't give it away; the ending goes in quite a different direction than in the movie. But at least the characters acknowledge the difficulties -- physics, ethics -- in a world where people are jailed before they commit a crime. And best of all, the main character actually knows something about the system he's using. Apparently Tom Cruise never even knew the pre-cogs disagreed! Who put this guy in charge?!

No, wait -- let me finish -- ow -- can't suppress -- the truth, man -- mumble mumble...

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"

Don't worry folks, everything is now under control. The unfortunate outburst you just witnessed has been... dealt with. Ahem.

Well, here I have to admit that I never saw Total Recall. (Seriously. I don't get cable under the bridge.) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Total Recall was an action movie -- and I think it took place on Mars, yes? (I did once catch the last five minutes or so, but that was a long time ago -- I may be wrong.)

The story is quite quaint, probably more interesting as a foil to a movie than as a story in its own right. It's intended to amuse; there's almost no action. The main character, Quail, can't afford to take a trip to Mars, so he decides to sign up for a faked-memory program. The company will give him fake memories and plant a few mementos in his house: Quail will have memories of being sent as a spy to Mars, an agent for Interplan -- a real adventurous trip to Mars! Unfortunately, when Rekal, Inc. sedates him, they learn he actually did go to Mars as an agent for Interplan and had had his memory mostly wiped.

Oh, shit, they think, and do what any reputable company would do: "Sorry, pal, the procedure didn't work. We're refunding half your money. Please don't come back. Have a nice day!" slam!

And so the fun begins!


Again, a very short sci-fi story drawn out into an action movie. (Yes! A movie! Same name. With that guy from CSI.) The movie itself is not bad -- not bad action, not bad sci-fi. It's not great, because it doesn't delve into any really interesting ideas. The kernel is there, true, but it's not examined well.

Both the story and the movie start out the same: Spence Olham gets arrested by his good friend Nelson -- military intelligence believes Spence Olham was replaced by a booby-trapped robot from Alpha Centauri, and naturally want him... taken care of.

Olham isn't thrilled about this plan. He manages to escape temporarily, but he must convince his friend, his wife, and even himself that he is who he thinks he is.

It's a neat idea. Unfortunately neither the story nor the movie really gets into it. What if everyone believes you are already dead, and you are a deadly simulcrum? How could you convince them otherwise? How could you convince yourself? The movie takes the technological route ("X-ray in ward 2, stat!"), the story takes the plot route ("Dammit, I'll find the real robot myself!"). Neither delves into the psychology -- wouldn't it have been great to read about a man tortured by self-doubt?

But never mind -- short stories serve as a little sandbox for ideas, a place for playing. For real depth, we must turn to novels. (For a more critical review of the stories discussed here, you might try The Modern Word).

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