Monday, August 6, 2012

The Future is Dick

Thirty years after his death and Philip K. Dick is still getting screen credits. Perhaps we're growing closer to him, as John Dolan said of Celine. Or maybe we've just got no good writers left in this country and have to keep going back to this American Balzac for fresh ideas.

Those of you enlightened enough to already be familiar with PKD can skip this part, but I'd like to just hit some of the highlights he predicted. The gross global warming of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the black centrist President from Chicago of The Crack in Space, the 99% kept under the thumb of a craven oligarchy through blatant lies, the total information awareness of really any story. If Dick were still writing today he wouldn't be lumped in with science fiction because all his visions would be our daily reality.

Total Recall was my first exposure to Philip K. Dick. Purists may sneer at that, but Verhoeven's film actually gets quite a bit of Dick's common themes about the malleability of reality. To ten-year-old me it was all violence and triple boobs, but re-watching it over the years I started to see the subtle hints Verhoeven stuck in that all was not as it seemed. There's not a single point of the climax not explicitly described in advance, lending an ambiguity to what appears on screen. And since Verhoeven's made himself a career out of deconstructing the action hero fantasies of sci-fi nerds, it makes perfect sense that the triumph of Douglas Quaid is just a delusion brought on by the dream machine slowly lobotomizing him. The original Total Recall isn't just a kick-ass action film, it's a fine translation of Dick's ideas and the smartest movie Schwarzenegger's ever done - along with Last Action Hero where he tells himself his movies suck.

"And what's with the accent? You've been here thirty years!"

So they remade it. And it's not half bad. Every critic and their sockpuppet is busy comparing it to the original but you don't care about that - unless you're an asshole - so I'm just going to stick to why this film deserves your time.

2012's Total Recall opens in proper sci-fi fashion with a brief prologue, detailing the rotten state of the world which we all expect the hero to fix within two hours. So far so good. It's actually a pretty clever set-up - the First World now so directly controls the Third World there's a highway through the planet between the two points for E-Z exploitation and synthetic police drones stalking down every street. A major plot point concerns the hero taking all those drones out so they can't menace people anymore. Good, classic social commentary stuff.

Then we get to meet said hero, an unremarkable day laborer from the exploited global south in the seventh year of a strained marriage and wishing for something interesting to happen for once. So he goes to fantasy dealership Rekall, where hilarity ensues.

"This is the RIAA! Step away from the BitTorrent client!"

And by hilarity, I mean it turns out he can't get his fantasy of being a secret agent - fantasies can't overlap with reality due to some technobabble about "That's how brains get fried" - and a SWAT team immediately charges in so he can kill them all. And said wife is an undercover agent who's been monitoring him. Guess it's time to save the world with his dream girl...

...Except that's the rub. She literally is his dream girl and she picks him up for a high speed chase at a ludicrously convenient time. Total Recall hits every post-Bourne action movie cliche at such a rapid clip, it could very well be the delusion of some shlub who's seen too many of these movies himself. Though it's hard to go just on this, as Len Underworld Wiseman ain't exactly one for subtlety.

But this film still nails the much more important theme of Dick's original work - that yearning to be special by inconsequential nobodies. "He awoke - and wanted Mars," is how "We Can Remember It For You wholesale" begins and it perfectly captures that very American longing to be everything beyond our reach. Of nobodies who desperately wish to be somebody. Colin Farrell's Doug Quaid goes from being a nothing factory worker to being a globally revered superspy, playing both sides against the other and killing his harpy wife without consequence. He even gets to play the piano!

A pure ego trip - just like the ads promised.

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