First though, in 1982, came Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (based on the 1968 novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), which everybody has seen, a seeping, hissing noir, Harrison Ford’s face of aggrieved and childish bafflement as he tries to work out whether his girlfriend is a “skinjob,” Rutger Hauer talking about attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion while synth-notes sadly chime and a huge TDK sign glows neon behind him in the rain. Scott, fresh from Alien, knocked this one out of the park. But was it Dick? Hard to say. Blade Runner is boiling with dark New Wave ambiance; Androids, like the bulk of Dick’s writing, exists in a sort of airlock dryness of atmosphere, a near-vacuum in which the physical world barely registers and the caperings of Mind are proportionately amplified.
Next was Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), a gaudy enlargement on the 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Full of sex (Sharon Stone, a sheen of sweat on her collarbone) and boisterous profanity (“I’ve got enough shit in my head to fuck Cohagen good!” “Was that your wife? What a bitch!”), vibrant in its cheese, Total Recall had the character of a riposte or retort to the portentousness of Blade Runner. It also had Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose massive comic density undercut any sense of Dickian anxiety, even when he was thrashing in identity crisis and shouting, “This is the best mindfuck yet!” The ’80s seeped through the film in puffed hairstyles and jangling bangles, in lycra and in sets redolent of early MTV. “Screw you!” bellowed Arnie, impaling a bad guy on a whirling drill bit. (In an earlier incarnation of the project, Patrick Swayze was the star and Bruce “Driving Miss Daisy” Beresford the director: they were building sets in Australia when that one went belly-up.)
TOTAL RECALL: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s massive comic density undercut any sense of Dickian anxiety.
There was also, in 1992, the French-made Confessions d’un Barjo (“Unseen by me,” as Stanley Kauffmann at the New Republic is fond of putting it), an adaptation of Dick’s novel Confessions of a Crap Artist. Then came the trough, the two turkeys: 1996’s Screamers, in which the papal dignity of Peter Weller’s face was undone by an ill-fitting space helmet, and 2002’s Impostor, featuring Gary Sinise — torso, hairpiece, grimace — in endless flight from an operatically overacting Vincent D’Onofrio. The Dickishness in these two movies was in their hack desperation, their sweaty low-rent-itude: the pulp writer in Dick would have related, one feels, to hard-working journeymen like Weller and Sinise. The year 2002 also saw Spielberg’s Minority Report, a grand, austere variation in silver and blue on the theme of a modest little Dick story from 1953. Tom Cruise, that thespian steamshovel, went powering through it, having qualified for the Dickworld through his subscription to the gnostic pulp of Scientology. A year later came Paycheck, and the numb lyricism of John Woo. The trademark white dove that beats its silent passage through the whining bullets . . . the motorcyclist bursting in slow motion through the pane of glass . . . zzzzzz.
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