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The extraordinary world of Philip K Dick on the big screen #BladeRunner2049


The great American science-fiction writer Philip K Dick's work has never been as popular as it is today. His prescient, frequently paranoid dystopian visions of the future and meditations on identity have also chimed with generations of filmmakers.

There have been multiple adaptations of his work for film and TV, and Dick's influence can be felt on countless other productions.

Right now, Channel Four is screening Electric Dreams – a series based on his short stories. To get you in the mood for Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049 – surely one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year – here's our run-down of the key big-screen adaptations.

Alas, Mr. Dick never got to see any of them. He died 35 years ago, four months before the release of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and was only able to view extracts from the film that would make him a household name.

Blade Runner (1982)

Source: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, novel, 1968

Contemporary critics were sniffy, but the look, style and tone of Ridley Scott's enduringly popular sci-fi noir proved massively influential.

Set in the rainswept LA of ultra-futuristic, er, 2019, and brilliantly soundtracked by Vangelis, this first and greatest of all Dick adaptations cast the young Harrison Ford as ex-cop Deckard, who's charged with tracking down and eliminating a bunch of off-world 'replicants'.

But is Deckard himself a replicant? That's a question fans have been puzzling over for the last 35 years.

It's just possible that Blade Runner 2049 will provide a definitive answer. Matters are complicated by the fact that, at the last count, there were seven different versions of Blade Runner.

Ridley Scott's definitive 'final cut' – confusingly, he had no control over the 'director's cut' – received the full 4K treatment for its recent cinema reissue. 

Total Recall (1990, remade 2012)

Source: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, short story, 1966

Arnie Schwarzenegger's finest couple of hours, in which he's humble late 21st century construction worker Doug Quaid. Or is he?

The big lunk is tormented by nightmares about Mars, so he visits Rekall Inc, a company that implants memories of holidays. He's then persuaded to take a fully-fledged 'Ego Trip', casting him as an undercover agent rooting out a conspiracy on the Red Planet. Or could this be a reality glitch too?

Adapted by Alien writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Paul Verhoeven's ultra-violent, 18-rated movie gifted Arnie some of his best one-liners (“Consider that a divorce!") and is a bona fide sci-fi action classic. Which is more than can be said for Len Wiseman's anaemic, 12A-rated 2012 remake with Colin Farrell.

Screamers (1995)

Source: Second Variety, short story, 1953

Total Recall screenwriter Dan O'Bannon also scripted this low-budget Canadian flick.

Set on the war-torn planet Sirius 6B, it casts original RoboCop Peter Weller as a commanding officer whose attempts to negotiate a truce are hampered somewhat by the presence of self-replicating 'screamers' that slice'n'dice their targets, having tracked them by their heartbeats.

A minor Dick adaptation, it has nonetheless acquired a cult following and spawned a straight-to-DVD sequel in 2009.

Impostor (2002)

Source: Impostor, short story, 1953

Originally conceived as a taut short film for an aborted sci-fi portmanteau, this shoddily expanded B-movie spins a familiar tale of Dickian identity parianoia.

Gary Sinise is a vengeance-fuelled, Einstein-quoting weapons developer who's just come up with a Really Big Bomb to destroy unseen alien attackers that have forced mankind to retreat beneath fortified domes. Enter Vincent D’Onofrio, sporting a sinister goatee and accusing him of being an alien impostor who’s little more than a walking bomb.

It's not entirely awful, and the notion of an impostor whose undetectable internal explosives only ‘coalesce’ at the moment of detonation chimes chillingly with current concerns about suicide bombers.

Minority Report (2002)

Source: The Minority Report, short story, 1956

Spielberg did Philip K Dick for this classy, satisfying, unusually intelligent 2002 summer blockbuster.

It's 2054 and murder has been eliminated by precognitive mutants who can see crimes before they are committed. Which is nice. Trouble is, one of them announces that Pre-Crime Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is about to bump someone off. Naturally, he goes on the run, while attempting to figure out who set him up.

Paycheck (2003)

Source: Paycheck, short story, 1953

Ben Affleck was something of a post-Gigli laughing stock when he starred in John Woo's rather forgettable film, which took a typically intriguing Dick premise and bolted on a standard-issue action thriller with breathtaking lapses of internal logic.

Here's the great set-up: in order to preserve corporate confidentiality, giant corporations require their leading research scientists to have chunks of memory wiped after each project. Dastardly tycoon Aaron Eckhart then offers software genius Affleck a whopping $94 million in return for three years of his life.

Three years later, our hero awakes to find that he has signed away the rights to his loot and has just 19 everyday objects left as clues to what went wrong.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Source: A Scanner Darkly, novel, 1977

Richard Linklater brought this most personal of Dick's novels to the screen using the ‘interpolated rotoscoping’ technique he pioneered with Waking Life.

As so often with Dick, the story seems ever more timely with each passing year. In the near future, the populace is so gripped by government-induced fear that two out of every ten Americans have been covertly recruited to spy on the other eight. One of them is Substance D junkie Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who wears a 'scramble suit' that conceals his identity even from his handlers.

It's a febrile social satire that retains the author’s pitch-black humour, paranoia and all-too-relevant cynicism towards prohibitionist rhetoric.

Next (2007)

Source: The Golden Man, short story, 1954

Lee Tamahori turns a vintage Dick short story into yet another sci-fi action thriller.

Nic Cage plays a fella who's blessed with limited precognition. This means he can see just two minutes ahead. But he's started having visions of a woman who's further into his future, and has attracted the attention of a government agent who wants him to use his powers to prevent a terrorist attack.

It's all fairly familiar stuff, but has much fun with its protagonist's ability to flip through outcomes so he always says the right thing and avoids bad guys' punches.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Source: Adjustment Team, short story, 1954

"What you think of as free will is merely an illusion of free will," intones Terence Stamp in this cosmic conspiracy theorist's wet dream of an ultra-high-concept sci-fi romance.

Matt Damon enjoys a meet-cute with Emily Blunt and then runs into her again. But this isn't supposed to happen, because it's in defiance of The Chairman's Plan, as administered by The Adjustment Bureau. Our Matt's warned off, but it's not long before he's running around Bourne-style, wearing that trademark frown.

Director George Nolfi keeps it all romping along agreeably enough, carefully avoiding the danger of getting bogged down in the minutiae of what is, in essence, a pretty absurd central idea.

Blade Runner 2049 hits Cineworld on 5 October.