>> Saturday, May 31, 2008
Which is sort of a shame, because Ubik is one of PKD's most cinematic novels. The writer himself had a treatment he'd been toying with throughout the 1970s when he died in '82. The novel has a barreling-forward chase plot, the fun, mindfucking twists are (for PKD) relatively straightforward, and the way in which the book handles some of PKD's favorite themes (particularly entropy) are well-suited for visuals. (One of the ideas in PKD's treatment, apparently, was that the film would use increasingly old stock as the movie progressed, to give everything a progressively distressed and faded look. I'm not sure that would have worked the way Dick meant it to, i.e. at all, but it's an interesting idea that conveys the kind of feel the film could have--and digital production means a similar effect to what PKD wanted could be achieved if the director of Ubik decides to go that particular route. Mostly, I throw this in as an illustration, not an endorsement of the concept.)
The problem, of course, is that nobody has ever done a good PKD movie. Don't start writing your comments yet. Blade Runner, the movie you were thinking of when you started to object to the first sentence of this paragraph, doesn't even keep the original title of the novel it's supposedly based on, preferring to steal a title from a William S. Burroughs treatment about organ thieves. It does keep some character names and a semblance of the plot, but little of Dick's basic themes. It also, I regret to say, isn't as good as you think it is. And now I duck.
Is it safe to come out? No? Yes? Maybe if I stay behind this couch?
Blade Runner is a phenomenal movie, one of the best bad movies ever made. It's a classic, a gorgeous vision of a dystopian future with a look that's permeated modern culture in a way few movies ever do. And it has an utterly shitty script. Seriously. Go watch it again, and this time close your eyes to Ridley Scott's utterly spectacular visuals. That is some of the worst dialogue penned for a science fiction movie; it makes parts of Attack Of The Clones sound like poetry, and I exaggerate not.
Tyrell: Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris...
Deckard: We call it Voight-Kampff for short.
Do you really? I mean, okay, technically "Voight-Kampff" is one syllable shorter than "empathy," but how is it easier to remember? And the movie is full of stilted dialogue like that.
Bryant: Christ, Deckard. You look almost as bad as that skin-job you left on the sidewalk.
Now you're going to say, "Yeah, but what about Roy Batty's monologue when he's dying? That's pretty good." You mean the one Rutger Hauer wrote himself, sort of the way Robert Shaw wrote his own "Indianapolis" speech in Jaws? Yeah, those are the best lines in the movie.
The dirty little secret about Blade Runner is that it would have been an absolutely terrible movie but for Ridley Scott and Syd Mead. What am I saying? Mead alone couldn't have saved Runner, genius though he is, if it had been directed by nearly anyone other than Scott.
The other two great PKD-movies-that-aren't-PKD movies are Total Recall, understandably despised by many PKD fans, and Minority Report. Recall is a fun movie, and captures a certain garishness that showed up in a lot of PKD stories (particularly the early ones), and a scene in which Arnold Schwarzenegger blows someone up with his detached head is even reminiscent of a scene in Ubik in which a character floats up to the ceiling and explodes. But Recall isn't really a PKD film any more than Runner is, Runner is only acknowledged by more PKD fans because Runner is an obvious piece of artistry. (And lacks subtlety. When we see the hovering police cars and flame-drenched industrial landscape during Runner's first several seconds, we know something special is happening. Paul Verhoeven, meanwhile, is easily one of the most misunderstood directors in Hollywood, possessing a fine subtlety that's frequently missed by viewers and critics.) Recall is ultimately the product of its star in much the same way Runner is a product of its director; they are a Schwarzenegger movie and a Ridley Scott movie, not Philip K. Dick movies.
As for Report--when I first started writing this, I had two movies listed. Then, when I was getting hyperlinks from IMDB I saw I'd overlooked Minority Report yet again. It's a very good movie, and actually quite faithful to the source material. And it's fairly forgettable for some reason. Who knows why. Spielberg is a genius, one of my favorite directors, and Tom Cruise is really a quite good leading man despite... despite... we all know, don't we? Can we call them "faults" and move on? Report is a pretty film, well made, interesting premise... ah, there's part of it. One problem with Report is it's a short story, shortish film premise stretched out to a two-and-a-half hour long chase. You could work the whole thing into a forty-seven minute long episode of the '90s version of Outer Limits if you really wanted to, easy.
All of which leaves me feeling a little queasy about a film version of Ubik.
Knowing my readership, some of you might be thinking about John Scalzi's recent piece about book-to-film adaptations. He's right and all, but it's sort of beside the point I'm trying to make here, assuming I have one. The piece I linked to originally, from SFFMedia, called this "good news for fans of quality science fiction," a matter that remains to be seen. And the other PKD adaptations I discussed above are all good, solid, enjoyable movies when divorced from their source material--one of them is even justly regarded as a classic despite some considerable flaws (incidentally, some of those flaws may be part of the reason Blade Runner was a flop when it was released--it took some time before audiences could look past the trees to see the entire forest, to tweak the cliché ).
Here's what I really think about the whole thing, though it took me a long time to get here: Ubik is a fantastic book, one of PKD's best and one of his most accessible (not always the same thing with PKD, I'm afraid). If you haven't read this book, go buy it. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Even if you're not a PKD fan: Ubik is as good a place to start with PKD as just about any. Read it, enjoy it, and we'll see if anyone even goes to this movie if it ever gets made.