Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (1966)

Philip K. Dick's 1966 short story provides the source material for the 1990 Schwarzenegger picture directed by Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall. Perhaps because of its brevity the story feels less Dickian than either "The Minority Report" (half again bigger) or the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (He sure could pack the words into some of these titles!) What's interesting to me is that, of the three movies that originally came of these properties, Total Recall comes closest to sustaining the way a Dick story moves. Blade Runner and Minority Report, by comparison, feel more like the work of their directors (Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, respectively) fitted out with "Dick touches." It may not really be so surprising that producer Ronald Shusett and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon had fastened on the story so long ago they purchased the rights while Dick was still alive. Shusett and O'Bannon were also principals on the original Alien movie. The Dick story is a simple riff on false memory medical procedures around which a slightly unsavory cottage industry has sprung, like tanning salons in strip malls, offering "realistic" memories of nice vacations, which is both less expensive than the cost of traveling and also saves time for convenience. The medical procedure is reminiscent of the one in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. To make this story a blockbuster movie they riffed on a theme Dick only suggests in the story, turning it into an elaborate and bewildering spy / adventure / paranoid / surreal tale that barely makes sense even when you're keeping up. Lots of things, such as the Johnny Cab, feel like Dick but are not—the Johnny Cab is also extraordinarily prescient even for 1990. This suggests to me that Shusett and O'Bannon brought a sense of Dick with remarkable clarity to the picture. It couldn't have hurt that they were able to work with one of the largest budgets yet at the time for a movie. The thing thrills with money—spectacular effects and very big explosions. Way too much violence and gore, in fact, or "action," would have to count as one of the picture's weaknesses. But a lot of thought went into spinning this little story into a full-blown feature movie that was true to Dick—"inspired by" Dick and his story, as they put it in the titles. If it veers dangerously close to meat-headed action—the money, again, which among other things paid for Arnold Schwarzenegger—it's always so full of tricks and surprises that it never really lets you go. Which is equally true for Dick literary properties, come to think of it, except the "meat-headed action," for which swap in ... I don't know. Time travel slipstream alternate-reality paradoxes? It's a good blend. Go directly to the movie.

In case it's not at the library (and in other anthologies).


  1. Thanks for this. I've always said that Total Recall has some of the most Dickian moments in film, topped later by Minority Report and Scanner Darkly but until then the best PKD movie.

  2. Thank you! Still hoping to get to A Scanner Darkly.