01 April 2004

Impostor

After reading Kathi Maio's recent review of various movies based on Philip K. Dick stories, I rented the DVD of Impostor, based on Dick's 1953 short story of the same title. She laments the quality of such PKD-inspired films as Minority Report and Paycheck and calls Imposter "the genuine article".

Methinks Ms. Maio is a tiny bit desperate for a good PKD film, and therefore her critical judgment has suffered. Imposter is not a good movie, unless you find an interminable series of chases and unlikely escapes to be entertaining. Almost every other reviewer in the world panned it, the studio buried it, and viewers didn't view it.

Of course, good -- even great -- films sometimes get badly reviewed, thrown down the drain by the studio or distributor, and shunned by audiences. Impostor, though, deserves its fate.

I would not have any issue with Ms. Maio if she didn't claim that this was a good adaptation of Philip K. Dick. I don't mind people liking movies I loathe. But to say this film does justice to PKD, that this is "the genuine article" is ignorant wishfulness. Let's look at one of her paragraphs in depth:
With Sinise and D’Onofrio in the principal leads, you should already be heading for the video store.
Yes, because Mission to Mars and Bark were such great movies. (Both Sinise and D'Onofrio are capable of excellent work, but actors have very little control over whether a film is good.)
But this movie has more than solid acting to recommend it. It actually seems more interested in Dickian ruminations into the nature of reality and human identity than it does in blowing things up.
A few people saying, "Who am I?" and "I thought I knew him," do not add up to "Dickian ruminations". And, since everything blows up in the end, that does seem to be what the movie is interested in. Everything moves toward that. Lots of chases and gun battles, too -- at least 50% of Impostor is made up of badly-staged and horribly-photographed chases and fights, none of which have anything to do with PKD.
Although guns are fired and explosions do occur, Impostor isn’t afraid to slow things down a bit and substitute a bit of old-fashioned suspense for some of the standard-issue Hollywood violence.
If you consider Gary Sinise running through dark alleys and corridors for ten minutes at a time to be suspenseful, then this movie was made for you. Some of us call it "filler", but if you want to call it "suspense", go ahead.
This movie is even brave enough to end on a very disquieting note.
Brave is making a movie that will get you villified or killed; having a downbeat ending just means you're not being produced by a major studio (or you're being produced by a major studio desperate for an Oscar).

What's disturbing about the ending is its political implications. The original story was, of course, produced during some of the lovelier, livelier years of the Cold War, and certain elements are similar, but the movie makes D'Onofrio's character far more bloodthirsty than he is in Dick's story, and he utters a few lines which sound like John Ashcroft talking about gay Iraqis. The ending, though, shows D'Onofrio and the government (led by "Big Sister") to be correct in all their fears, and so a movie which started out seeming like a critique of governmental paranoia and xenophobia ultimately reinforces and supports it.

What has happened to Philip K. Dick in Hollywood is quite sad. Even Blade Runner simplified the original book so much as to make it nearly unrecognizable, and though the film (still) looks great, it is hollow at its core.

One of the problems may be that Hollywood has made more movies from Dick's short stories than from his novels. While some PKD short stories are quite good -- "Colony", "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" (all the more reason to loathe Total Recall), "The Electric Ant", "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon", and some others -- most of them are minor and gimmicky, especially compared to the best of his novels. Filmmakers love the short stories because they usually center around one basic idea, allowing the screenwriter to use the idea and pad it with action sequences and hundreds of millions of dollars of special effects. Yawn.

What makes Dick's best work so good is not only that it contains a provocative central idea, unsettling atmosphere, and surprising twists and turns, but that it explores the ideas. The best work feels, if anything, too short. It doesn't stop with the common questions of "What is reality?" and "What is human?", but rather starts with them and examines every possible path they lead to.

Being a devout PKD fan, perhaps I will never be satisfied with a movie from his stories or novels, because much of the effect of his books comes from the way the language used to describe the characters' perceptions unhinges from the established reality of the narrative. The last pages of Ubik, for example, deliver an effect that would be extremely difficult to replicate through a visual medium (though Dick did write a screenplay of the book).

I may never be satisfied with a movie from PKD material, but I would still prefer to see better films made from them than Impostor, which is not "the genuine article", but rather a desperate and meretricious fake.

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