Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Impostor" (1953)

I think there's a name for the type of story Philip K. Dick has written here—not exactly doppelganger, and mistaken identity isn't it either. On an Earth at war and under constant attack by aliens from Alpha Centauri, Spence Olham works in some kind of war industry engineering capacity. On his way to work this morning he finds himself arrested as a spy and saboteur, charged with being a robot impersonating the real Olham and armed with an embedded implanted U-bomb (which sounds pretty scary). They take him to the far side of the moon to confess and detonate. But Olham escapes. He wants badly to straighten it all out. The military intelligence that led authorities to Olham indicates the U-bomb is triggered by a spoken phrase. For fly-through readers it's hard to tell how Dick the narrator is playing it. He appears to have no suspicions about the Olham we're traipsing along with. Yet I leaped immediately—perhaps knowing it's a Dick story—to wondering if Olham weren't the robot. Anyway, spoilers, he is, the triggering phrase is "but if that's Olham," and the last line of the story is, "The blast was visible all the way to Alpha Centauri." Nyuk, nyuk, get it? I love the way Dick blows the whole planet to smithereens for the sake of a punchline. In 2001 a movie was made out of it directed by Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) and starring Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stone, and Vincent D'Onofrio, with a cameo by Rosalind Chao, aka Keiko on Star Trek. As a live action story it's a bit too much to blow up the planet so they don't. D'Onofrio is basically fine-tuning his Law & Order: Criminal Intent shtick, so at least he seems to be having a good time. You get the impression they thought based on a story by Philip K. Dick plus lots of action scenes and doomsday mood would get them over, but sadly no. The movie is not as good as the story, as usual, but this time the story is not even above average. The point of it seems to be as a jokey anecdote but maybe you can't make a movie like that. I do like the story of a robot that doesn't even know it's a robot, that's the type of story I was trying to think of—see also Blade Runner, of course, which I imagine could have been part of the pitch here. Impostor does have some interesting ideas about personalized advertising that were developed much further and better the following year in Minority Report. This story is just minimally a head trip—that's the problem. The Dick brand (so to speak) is so restrained as to be almost invisible. Almost—because there is that nice thing about the sentient robot that doesn't know it's a robot.

In case it's not at the library.

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