The Man in the Sci-Fi Castle: Films and TV shows inspired by Philip K Dick
Ian Winterton | On 17, Dec 2016Reading time: 8 mins
“If you think this universe is bad, you should see some of the others.” – Philip K Dick.
Science-fiction visionary Philip K Dick’s novels are typically hallucinatory explorations of how humanity will fare in a world increasingly ruled by technology, oppressive governments and malevolent corporations. His big, bold ideas give first breath to concepts now commonplace not just in fiction but in scientific reality – space exploration, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, alternative universes. But Dick, who was beset for periods of his life by nightmarish visions, was more interested in inner than outer space; his tales take place as much in the mind of his protagonists as the so-called real world. Dick plunges us into places of paranoia and fear, where everything – even our own consciousness, our own universe – might be revealed as fake.
Both unsettling and darkly funny, Dick’s fiction was lauded in the sci-fi community early on – his 1962 classic The Man in the High Castle receiving a Hugo Award – but it wasn’t until later that Hollywood, and the Western World, embraced him. Tragically, Dick never got to see it. The ground-breaking Blade Runner, based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released in cinemas in June, 1982; Dick died from a stroke three months earlier, aged only 53.
As The Man in the High Castle returns for a second season, we look back at some of the many films and TV shows inspired by the mad genius. We’ve all seen Blade Runner, but have you seen all of these?
Total Recall (1990)
“Get your ass to Mars.”
Based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall is possibly the least cerebral adaptation of the author’s work (and in a world where Paycheck and The Adjustment Bureau exist, there’s no shortage of competition). In the hands of director Paul Verhoeven, Dick’s plot – bored construction worker Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes a virtual vacation to Mars and discovers he’s a renegade secret agent, whose last mission was on the Red Planet – is used to kickstart a brash action flick full of eminently quotable lowbrow dialogue. (“Consider that a divorce,” grunts Arnie after killing the enemy agent posing as his wife.) It might not please Dick purists, but it’s cinema nirvana: Arnie on top, scenery chewing (and smashing) form, fantastic special effects and, dude, a topless chick with three boobs.
Total Recall (2012)
“If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?”
Everything the 1990 classic isn’t, this Total Recall sees Colin Farrell moping about in a dark future that so wants to be Blade Runner but isn’t. Bogged down in faux geopolitical witterings – the Colony (Austrlia) is striving for independence or something – this is dreary and plodding stuff. Some passable action sequences aside, you’ll be begging for someone to pull the plug on your REKAL machine.
“I don’t know, Spencer. Maybe you are a bomb. Just don’t blow up in my face.”
Based on a 1953 Dick short story of the same name, Imposter is set on an Earth ravaged by an alien invasion. Living within shielded domes, humanity lives in fear of the invaders, who have never been seen. After his spaceship crashes, Spencer (Gary Sinise) begins to suspect that he may actually be an alien weapon in human form. More notable as the story where Dick began exploring the idea of replicants he’d later use as the basis for Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, as a movie, it’s pretty minor. But, with solid performances from Sinise, Madeleine Stowe, Vincent D’Onofrio and Tony Shalhoub, and a decent if unflashy script, this is worth a watch for anyone after a sci-fi fix.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
“Now in the dark world where I dwell, ugly things, and surprising things, and sometimes little wondrous things, spill out in me constantly, and I can count on nothing.”
Based on Dick’s 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly is set in a traditionally Dickesque future where embittered cops operate on behalf of an authoritarian regime. Detective Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is attempting to bust a drug-running operation but falls victims to a new narcotic, Substance D. Under its influence, he does what the majority of Dick’s protagonists do: starts to question his very existence. A movie of its time, director Richard Linklater utilised what was then a cutting-edge computer technique to give live action footage a cartoony sheen, blurring the lines between reality and hallucination. It’s a confusing watch – hey, maybe even deliberately – but, as you’d expect from a film featuring Robert Downey Jr as a drug-addled madman, it’s never dull.
The Expanse (2015 – TV)
“You know what I just can’t figure out? We make it all this way, so far out into the darkness. Why couldn’t we have brought more light?”
This VODzilla.co favourite – see our review here – definitely has the flavour of Philip K Dick. Set in a solar system colonised by humanity and run by unscrupulous corporations, its hard-boiled Neo-noir detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) is the direct descendant of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’s Deckard.
Minority Report (2002)
“I’m not a murderer. I’ve never even met the man I’m supposed to kill.”
Minority Report is loosely based on Dick’s 1956 short story of the same name. The Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise as Precrime officer John Anderton is a stone-cold, if overly slick, big budget classic. Its 2015 TV sequel, starring nobody you’ve ever heard of, not so much.
The Matrix (1999)
“Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead – only try to realise the truth.”
This mind-bending movie masterpiece from the Wachowskis has Dick running right through it – and we don’t mean Keanu Reeves. Computer hacker Neo (Reeves) discovers – in one of the best twists in cinema history – that his entire reality is computer generated. Why? So the evil sentient machines running the planet can use humans as living batteries, of course. It’s as bonkers as it is brilliant, notable both for its ground-breaking bullet-time special effects and for bringing philosophical musing on the nature of reality to a mainstream audience. Although we can’t help wondering why the Machines used humans as a power source when, say, wiring cows up might have been easier… The Moo-trix, anyone?
Written and directed by Duncan Jones (formerly Zowie Bowie, son of David), Moon is distinctly Dick-esque. Sam Rockwell stars as lunar mining operative Bell, whose solitary and claustrophobic existence is in service of a faceless corporation. Slowly, his sanity starts to unravel. A taut screenplay and superb effects that belie its modest budget, Moon is a smallscale modern sci-fi classic.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
“Meet me in Montauk.”
Although springing from the lunatic mind of Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shares many themes with Philip K Dick’s work. Whereas most movie adaptations of Dick’s fiction replace the author’s title with something snappy, here Kaufman – by quoting from the poem Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope – comes up with something wilfully verbose (one can only guess how many times execs begged him to come up with something shorter). Joel (Jim Carrey) meets a girl on the train, Clementine (Kate Winslet), and they fall in love. It transpires, though, they’ve not only met before but already had their full relationship and, to avoid heartbreak, each has had their memory erased by a futuristic memory-wiping company. Told in flashback, with flashes of surrealism, we watch as Joel changes his mind during his procedure and tries to hang onto his memory of his darling, Clementine. It’s like Total Recall retooled for a rom-com and then viewed through the gibberingly insane prism of Kaufman’s imagination. With visuals to match courtesy of director Michel Gondry, it’s utterly mad, but also succeeds in being a poetic and heartbreaking exploration of love. A modern classic.
“At 4pm this afternoon, Prime Minister Michael Callow must appear on live British television on all networks, terrestrial and satellite and have full unsimulated sexual intercourse with a pig.”
Whether it’s exploring where society’s current obsession with social media might lead, trial by TV, android replacements for dead relatives or various computer-generated realities, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian nightmares certainly have more than a tang of Dick’s fiction about them. Some episodes are better than others (and some of Season 3 are stinkers – see our reviews here) but Season 1’s opener The National Anthem (with its notoriously prescient “Prime Minister shags pig” storyline) and Season 2’s twisty-turny virtual reality murder mystery White Christmas are near perfect – that is, they’re as horrifying as they hilarious.
Ex Machina (2015)
“One day, the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa.”
Alex Garland, novelist and screenwriter behind 28 Days Later and Dredd, makes his directorial debut with this tightly wound chamber piece. Taking place entirely within the isolated lodge of a billionaire tech entrepreneur, it’s a meditation on the rights of the artificial human, and what their creation means for us mere mortals. Stunning special effects and a fine, economical script (also from Garland) make this both compelling and chilling. It’s not a Dick adaptation, but the author would approve.
Season 1 and 2 of The Man in the High Castle are available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Read our reviews here.