Why is it that Philip K. Dick movies always suck?
Ok, that’s not entirely fair. “Blade Runner” is pretty great, but it took three swings to really hit the ball. “Minority Report” might be a good movie, I honestly haven’t decided, and am in no rush to watch it again. “Total Recall” was popular enough that most people kind of overlook the fact that it sucked. The remake sucked so badly no one could pretend not to notice. “Screamers” was horrible. “Paycheck” was so horrible that even though I saw it only like a month ago, I can barely remember it. “A Scanner Darkly” was more distracting than good. “Next” had Nicholas Cage in it, and sadly you don’t need to know more than that these days*. “Confessions d’un Barjo” might be a good movie, but it’s in French and I’m in Nebraska, so if it is, I’ll never know. I honestly didn’t know “Radio Free Albemuth” had ever been filmed until just now, and I probably would have at least heard of it if it was any good.
If I’m honest, the absolute best adaptation of a PKD story into film form is “The Adjustment Bureau.” Even with the cop out Deus Ex Machina ending, and taking a ton of liberties with the story, it’s more true to what’s important about the story than to the hokey-jokey one-note premise. In essence, not only is it a wonderful little film, but it’s better than the story it’s based on.
Unfortunately, we’re not here to talk about that today, we’re here to talk about “Imposter,” a deservedly-forgotten little turd...
No, wait: One more observation first. Movies are not books and books are not movies. Every movie based on a book is merely *based* on it, an adaptation. I don’t expect movies to be literal translations of books or short stories. Exactly how far they can effectively stray from the source material isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, it’s more a case-by-case thing.
“Blade Runner” has basically three-and-a-half things in common with the really dense-packed novel it’s based on, yet it’s a classic. “Adjustment” is a vast expansion of a sub-par story, yet it works. “Total Recall” has about ten minutes of Philip K. Dick in it, and 110 minutes of bang-bang-bang-pow-bang-screw you-pow-pow-pow-bang-bang. It’s a typical Paul Verhoven crapfest. “Screamers” was a fairly literal interpretation of one of my all-time favorite short stories, and it’s just crap. “Paycheck” is (From what little I can remember) pretty close to the original short story in detail, though it’s padded out ridiculously and pumped up on steroids. I haven’t decided if “Minority” is a good movie or not, but most people seem to like it, and it takes some huge liberties with the plot. (There is no savagely murdered child in Dick’s version, for instance) The point being that, if I’m honest, the best PKD movies tend to be the ones that take the root concept, and then run wild with it. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, though, as I said. But more often than not.
So, of course you just *know* that “Imposter” kinda’ has to be a pretty literal interpretation, don’t you?
I’m torn about the spoilers on this one. The movie came out 13 years ago, no one’s heard of it, it’s forgotten, and it’s based on a straight-ahead action story that has exactly ONE twist. It’s a good twist, though. The problem is that the story doesn’t really bear repeated reading. It’s a “one hit and throw it away” kind of high, not something you revisit for a buzz over and over again.
I’m quite fond of it just the same. It may not be the first PKD story I ever read (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly what was the first) but it was undoubtedly the first one I ever *HEARD* of**.
The curse of making it, then, is that the movie only works if your audience has never read the story, which kinda’ makes it hard to appeal to fans who, by definition, have. This isn’t really a problem you’ve got with “Blade Runner” or “Adjustment,” in which the ending isn’t so gimmick-tied. (And to be fair, “Adjustment” does kinda’ blow it in the end). If you know what’s coming, this is honestly one super-tedious flick to watch. And they tip their hand pretty early on, at that. And THEN, after all that, they backpedal the ending. Losers.
In fact, this film was originally intended as a 30-minute cinematic short, part of an anthology movie called “Light Years” that fell apart in production. To salvage their investment, the (Partially-filmed) short was given more money, expanded by 200%, and defecated into theaters just in time to be a good write off for the end of the fiscal year. It shows. Honestly, the only parts of this movie that ‘count’ are the first fifteen minutes, and the last fifteen minutes. The sixty in between are just one long, largely-irrelevant chase sequence.
That needn’t be the kiss of death. “Duel” is really nothing but a chase sequence. “Road Warrior” has a chase that eats up a whole act, and is one of the most glorious things ever filmed. The chase in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is over twenty minutes long, and is really the action centerpiece of the film. But there’s no risk here. There’s no “Oh my God, I identify with Dennis Weaver so strongly, this could happen to me!” There’s no, “I honestly don’t know if Max is going to live or die.” There’s no, “Man, this chase is so completely over the top, and it just keeps getting better and better.” Nope. This is just a chase.
Chases work based on our ability to identify with the protagonist. We’re scared for him or her, or we’re anxious that they might not get the thing they’re chasing after, or that they might not get the thing chasing after them. We feel their fear or elation, their stress becomes ours. This isn’t a problem the short story had, but in this movie, the world and experience of the protagonist is so far outside our own, and so contrived, that it’s impossible to feel much of anything for him.
That’s a shame because Gary Sinise is a pretty good actor. If anyone could pull it off, it’d be him. Vincent D’Onofrio I’m less sold on. I’m not sure if he’s *good*, but he’s generally at least interesting. Director Gary Fleder is utterly unable to get a decent performance out of either of them.
Speaking of whom, Fleder’s directorial choices run the gamut from “Transparently derivative” to “Really, Really Annoying.” I sympathize to a degree: he signed on to do a short and got stuck with a feature that had barely one act’s worth of script, he’s got a puny budget, and this wasn’t a priority project for the studio, and honestly the guy isn’t even a B-list director (Check out his filmography). I get that he wasn’t really motivated. Even still, there’s no excuse for some of the stuff he pulls here.
The film simultaneously rips off “Blade Runner” and “Starship Troopers.” In the dime-store “Blade Runner” category, we’ve got a noodly, synthy score that, unlike Vangelis, has no real soul, and underscores the emotions and action not at all. We’ve got the word “Replicant” tossed around several times. There’s lots of scenes of people running down hallways lit from apparently-randomly-swinging lights outside, but without any real sense of shot composition. We’ve got the “What is human?” question is front-and-center, but remarkably dumbed down. (In the short story, it’s the entire point). In the “Troopers” knockoff category, we’ve got the transparent Hollywood-style fascism, the reliance on “News Footage”, and the actual same armor they wore in the Verhoven movie. No, really. They rented the costumes! We’ve also got the relentless, faceless alien enemy and the “I’m a psycho, but I’m a psycho for the good of the people” aspect of the brutal authorities. It’s just terrible.
Set design is…odd. It doesn’t make much sense. People appear to be living in sort of campground log-cabins which are bigger on the inside than the outside. Public buildings look more like hotel lobbies than hospitals and laboratories. There’s an oddly German Expressionist chapel in one scene, but apart from that the set design makes no impression. The visual FX are basically video game level. The rest of this world – everything after the first 15 minutes and prior to the last 15 – is an endless series of boring abandoned factories, neglected hallways, and random industrial spaces.
I could go on, but at some point listing a films failures make it appear more interesting than it actually is. Suffice to say, if you chop out the middle hour and edit the bookends together, it’s an ok – but not great – short. As a feature, it’s a complete waste of time.
Last word: I get that it’s cheap, I *LIKE* cheap. Some of my favorite films of all time were made for budgets that wouldn’t even get you a pretty call girl in LA. Cheap is good, in that it often inspires creativity and narrative energy far in excess of what you get from more polished productions. Not here, though. This is just…cheap. Really, the hooker would have been a better use of the money.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?
Who cares? No. Actually, they won’t because this movie makes ‘em look like Warmongers and Fascists and Vincent D’Onofrio, which no one really wants.
Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and is at work on several other projects. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support! ANd, hey, if anyone knows how to embed these links so they don't take up twenty miles of space, that'd be keen, too!
*- Honestly, it’s hard to believe he’s the same guy who starred in “Birdie” and “Matchstick Men,” you know? Nick, what happened to you? You used to be so good!
**- Specifically, on page 51 of “Space Wars, Worlds & Weapons,” Copyright 1979. It’s an oddly disjointed little art book that I hope to review at some point in the future, either on Republibot or on my own website, in the not-too-distant future.