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Ranked: Philip K. Dick Adaptations from Worst to Best
We commissioned a PKD expert to review Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, and more.
By Gabriel Mckee
Philip K. Dick's mindbending science-fiction writing has inspired many Hollywood projects, including this month's The Adjustment Bureau. Said adaptations have ranged widely in fidelty to their souce material; they've also ranged widely in quality. To assess them, we brought in critic Gabriel Mckee, author of Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick.
10. Next (2007)
Based (nominally) on "The Golden Man" (1954)
When adapting a story, this is what not to do. Dick's story is about a silent, golden-skinned mutant who can foresee and choose between the infinite possible outcomes of his actions, but has utterly sacrificed his humanity to animal instinct. Next somehow turns this into a story in which Nicolas Cage plays a psychic stage magician on the run from the FBI. The film throws out every single aspect of the story it's ostensibly based on, including the title; it's a mystery why they bothered paying for the story rights at all. This would be forgivable if it were a good movie. It's not.
9. Paycheck (2003)
Based on "Paycheck" (1953)
Ben Affleck plays an engineer who has his memory erased every time he finishes a project; it's the ultimate confidentiality agreement. He wakes up from a particularly mysterious assignment to find he's signed away his savings, leaving himself only an envelope full of what appear to be worthless items. This naturally makes him curious about what the project was, so he infiltrates the corporation that hired him, a task for which he needs — aha! — the assorted detritus he left himself in that mystery envelope. In the process, he gets chased a lot, and some things explode. Paycheck isn't so much bad as drab, but maybe it's appropriate that a movie about erased memories should be so forgettable.
8. Impostor (2002)
Based on "Impostor" (1953)
Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise) is a government official who designs weapons for use in a war against vicious alien invaders from Alpha Centauri. The aliens have started using an insidious new tactic: sending android bombs that look and act human to the planet's surface, where they can infiltrate sensitive targets and explode. The military thinks Olham has been replaced by one of these bombs, so he goes on the run and tries to prove he's human. If the film feels a bit uneven, it's because it was expanded from a forty-minute short intended as one third of an anthology. Sinise is a believably Dickian everyman, but the movie doesn't dig quite deep enough into its questions about identity.
7. Screamers (1995)
Based on "Second Variety" (1953)
Peter Weller plays a military commander on a distant mining colony where robots have teamed up and turned against their human creators, decimating the population and laying waste to the planet's surface. The few human survivors have taken to hiding out in underground bunkers, which means the robots have started getting devious. They've designed new android bodies for themselves that the humans will trust — that ten-year-old boy clutching a teddy bear is actually a robotic killing machine. In other words, this Canadian-produced action flick is a B movie. But it's a pretty good one, and it adequately translates the menace of Dick's original story.
6. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Based on "Adjustment Team" (1954)
Politician David Norris (Matt Damon) has just lost his first Senate campaign. A chance encounter with an impulsive young woman (Emily Blunt) inspires him to improvise an unforgettable concession speech that sets him on a path to the Presidency. He encounters her again a few days later, but it seems the forces governing our world didn't intend him to see her again. Before he knows it he's being followed by mysterious figures in fedoras who can bend reality to their will. Norris has deviated from "the Plan," and his dogged insistence on following his heart may be putting the future of the world at risk. Adjustment Bureau bears little resemblance to its source material, but it's definitely clever. Still, at points it gets a bit silly — the aforementioned fedoras have magic powers, for one thing — and it can't escape feeling a bit like a rom-com remake of Dark City.