Casting a Timeless Shadow


It has been 20 years since the seminal sci-fi film "Blade Runner" first burst on the scene with its cyberpunk prophecy of a dehumanized 21st century. The dark and dank depiction of L.A. as a technological wonder and existential wasteland--part noir and part sci-fi--may owe its aesthetic to director Ridley Scott, but its vision is that of the late author Philip K. Dick.

It was Dick who was responsible for the thrust of this much imitated paranoid parable: What is reality? And what does it mean to be human? It's no wonder, then, that Dick's fingerprints are all over our science-fiction culture: "The X-Files," "The Matrix," "A.I.," "Eyes Wide Shut," "Vanilla Sky," "The Truman Show," "Waking Life," "Gattaca," "12 Monkeys" and the upcoming "Simone," about a computer-generated actress, all have been influenced by Dick's sensibility.

And that's not counting the other adaptations of Dick's works: "Total Recall" (Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to a travel agency for a virtual vacation and leaves with a destructive memory implant), "Screamers" (Peter Weller fights a war with a self-replicating killing machine), "The Imposter" (Gary Sinise may or may not be an android suicide bomber) and now "Minority Report," which opens Friday. "Minority Report's" director Steven Spielberg and its star, Tom Cruise, have fallen under Dick's spell with this yarn--loosely based on a Dick short story that was adapted by screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen--about a pre-crime unit in Washington, D.C., that utilizes precognitive mutants to catch and convict murderers before they commit their crimes. Cruise plays the hotshot cop that becomes the pursued pursuer when the "Pre-Cogs" target him.

"I don't think I tried to adapt [Dick] with 'Minority Report'--I just took his brilliant premise and ran with it," offers Spielberg. "The template sort of became self-determination versus destiny. And that's what interested me the most: If there is something in the stars, can you reconfigure them to either survive or write your own ending?"

Spielberg is well aware that the Dick zeitgeist has permeated the sci-fi genre since "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall" (1992). Which is why he purposely avoided referencing the two films again to avoid any obvious comparisons, though he knows "Blade Runner" like the back of his hand. "Where I thought 'Blade Runner' succeeded brilliantly was in its style and its look. I thought Ridley did the most brilliant job of his career with its lighting ... there really wasn't much of a story to tell."

That wasn't Dick's fault. If anything, there was too much story to tell in the clever novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" that served as the basis for "Blade Runner." The title alone is enough to keep you up late at night trying to ponder its philosophical connotations. Which is precisely what the always unsettling Dick had in mind.

Dick intentionally tried to get under readers' skins with his mind-bending, Kafka-esque short stories and novels. Born in Chicago in 1928, he lived most of his life in California and was a passionate advocate of science fiction. Dick was addicted to amphetamines as a result of depression he suffered in the '50s and often wrote under the influence of the drugs. He died in 1982 of a stroke, just a few months before the opening of "Blade Runner," the first film adapted from his work.

Thanks to "Blade Runner," though, which became an instant cult classic--Harrison Ford plays a desensitized bounty hunter who hunts fugitive androids (known as replicants in the movie) that act more human than humans--Dick was suddenly on the mainstream Hollywood map where he has remained ever since. Currently there are at least two other Dick adaptations in development, including "A Scanner Darkly," about drug addiction, with "Waking Life's" Richard Linklater reportedly signed to write and direct.

"Dick stands very high in the [science-fiction] pantheon," says Brian Aldiss, a Dick admirer and author of the short story from which "A.I." was based, "Super Toys Last Summer Long." "His early fascination was that he provided a counterbalance to the triumphalism of the Robert Heinlein kind of fiction. Phil talked about the bums and derelicts of society. As one of the bums, I preferred him.

"Dick is noir. He wrote about the early drug culture and the paranoia gripping the world during the Cold War; those concerns have proved enduring."

According to Paul Williams, a rock journalist and close friend of Dick's who interviewed him for Rolling Stone magazine in 1974, Dick was an intense, disturbed yet sweet person with a great sense of humor. "His goal was to pierce through the veil of what is only apparently real and get at what is real," Williams says. "Because he was more and more interested in exploring mystical experiences he had early in 1974, he wrote more than a million words of notes compulsively. It scared him. He actually thought he spoke to God."

But in interviews, Dick discussed another profound impact in his life: reading about the Jehovah's Witnesses who typed the list of names marked for extermination in a Nazi death camp after they were targeted too. Dick was struck by what he called the lists "machine-like quality of pathology" and this interest in the process of dehumanization defined his oeuvre.

"He was definitely a post-modern thinker," says Paul Verhoeven, who directed "Total Recall" and initially developed "Minority Report" as a sequel before it eventually wound up with Cruise and Spielberg. "He had this philosophy that there exists two realities, what we dream and what we experience as reality, with no interpretation favoring one or the other. This is what I chose to explore in 'Total Recall,' the feeling that we cannot say what really is the truth."

The trick with adapting Dick, suggests screenwriter Gary Goldman, who collaborated on "Total Recall" and an early draft of "Minority Report" with Verhoeven, is to be as subversive as possible, because that's the essence of Dick. "The problem with making a Hollywood movie is that it affirms existing ideals. But Dick's work ... is not a morality tale."

Spielberg made "Minority Report" more his own by focusing on the personal and the political, with Cruise coming face to face with his haunted past and the civil rights implications of his pre-crime system. Yet coming on the heels of "A.I.," "Minority Report" is not as much of a departure for the director as one would think, despite its creepy undercurrent and visual bombardment.

For instance, the theme of parents losing children and obsessively trying to reconnect with them is one of Spielberg's strongest threads. "I've done that a lot, going all the way back to 'Sugarland Express,' " he admits. "The whole idea of divorce and the disenfranchisement of family is a huge fear of mine. It's also something that makes me a better father and a better husband in my own life because I can safeguard that from ever happening by being more attentive to my family. That's the dye in me that doesn't wash off."

The film's strange, gritty look, an homage to film noir, however, represents another stylistic breakthrough for Spielberg. "Rather than going for a black-and-white look, which I did in ['Saving Private] Ryan,' I used a 'bleach bypass' process, which takes all the color out of the face, because people with rosy cheeks and good complexions tend to undermine the tone of the scene they're in, forcing filmmakers to use blue and green light, which we hate to do. So the process gave me that sort of forsaken and barren look, which I really wanted for this story and had never done in a movie."

"But the template that I used for this movie more than anything else was 'The French Connection.' Very simply, I loved the way Billy [director William Friedkin] made the most New York film anybody's ever made, in my opinion, and then threw away New York. It's just environment. And because I was making this story on the future with these toys, I wanted to spend a lot of money on the toys and then throw them away. I wanted to use the film as a philosophical jumping off point to embrace the future for a second, establish the world and then throw it away and tell the story."

Spielberg found something even more personal in "Minority Report" that reverberates throughout Dick's work--the fear of losing control: "The big thing that really sparked me was that if I could know what would really happen tomorrow, would I want to find out? I went to an astrologist when I was just a kid at Universal, when I had my first office and my first secretary. It was around 1969. I foolishly gave her my birth date and all the other information she needed to do a five-year chart. And everything came true.

"I vowed at the end of that I would never, ever want to know again what was just around the corner. Ever. Of course, I fear that and the more I fear something, the more I'm attracted to it."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday June 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 259 words Type of Material: Correction "Minority Report"--Ron Shusett helped develop an early draft of the movie "Minority Report" along with screenwriter Gary Goldman. Shusett's name was left out of a story about the making of the film that appeared in Wednesday's Calendar. Shusett and Goldman are both executive producers on the new Steven Spielberg-directed film.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World