But when Worlds Collide
Said George Pal to his Bride
I’m going to give you some terrible thrills.
–Science Fiction Double Feature Picture Show
My collection of movies on DVD rivals my all-too-large book collection. While I might not have seen a movie in a movie theater until I was into my teens¹, I’ve been making up for it ever since. Heck, I even took a film class in college for the fun of it. I suppose you *could* call me a movie nerd, if you wanted to push the point.
So, in this space, I am going to talk about genre movies. Movies just released in theaters as well as movies on demand and on DVD. These will be as much thinking about the movies as much as reviewing them. My goal is to get you to find out what I think of a movie (and if it is worth your time) without necessarily spoiling it.
So let’s get started.
This time out, I would like to talk about three genre movies that came out this spring that tie together the idea that Philip K Dick, after the fact, really is a giant of Science Fiction. His influence has become more and more clear as movies based on his sensibility and worldview, as well as his oeuvre, are made. You don’t find many movies these days going for a Clarke aesthetic, or an Asimovian perspective, and Heinlein has not been represented in the cinema well.
Philip K Dick, however, with his world-bending viewpoints, with characters unsure of just what is real and what is not, and mysterious forces beyond their ken affecting their lives has proven fertile inspiration to screenwriters in Hollywood. Movies inspired by his work have differing levels of science fiction speculation, of course, but the core sensibility and aesthetic is unmistakable. If you thought that Dick’s influence stopped at Blade Runner and Total Recall, think again!
Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra stars Liam Neeson, January Jones and Diane Krueger. Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, who is visiting Berlin for a medical conference with his wife Liz (January Jones). A left bag at the airport sets off a chain of events and an accident leaving the good Doctor in the hospital, suffering from a coma and without any proof of identity.
Upon waking, his efforts to return to the hotel and the side of his wife pull the rug out from under his feet, as another man has assumed his identity and his wife does not recognize him. Who, or what has stolen his life, and to what purpose? Dr. Harris and a reluctant Gina (Diane Krueger) move heaven and earth to unravel the mystery of what is going on. As one might expect, his attempts to regain his life are met with severe response by mysterious forces, and Dr. Harris and Gina must struggle not only to regain Martin’s identity and life, but merely survive.
Unknown is not based on a Dick work directly, but were he alive, he would recognize many of the tropes and ideas he uses in Unknown. Certainly, the fact that the movie is primarily an action thriller does not deny the fact that a protagonist, suffering from memory loss and suddenly unrecognized for who and what he is by anyone and everyone fits comfortably into the twisted, slippery reality a world that Dick created. Out of the three movies here, certainly this is the least genre of the three, but there are enough genre elements that science fiction can comfortably claim Unknown into its fold.
The Adjustment Bureau, directed by George Nolfi, and starring Matt Damon and Emily Blount, is actually based on a Philip K Dick short story, “Adjustment Team”. I suspect that Bureau sounds larger, more sinister and more dangerous than a mere team, and that is why the movie’s title is different.
Damon stars as David Norris . He’s a pugnacious, rising Brooklyn Congressman and candidate for the Senate in New York. A scandal just before the election has doomed what was a solid shot at the office. Election Night, he has a fateful encounter with Elise (Emily Blount). This encounter inspires him to launch into a concession speech that seems destined to propel him at the next open Senate election.
All the while, mysterious men seem extremely interested in his doings. When one of them fails to, as pre-arranged , spill coffee on his shirt, the two characters meet again. The problem is, the Adjustment Bureau is watching the threads of reality, and it is their decision that, for the greater good, never the twain should ever meet again. Breaking protocol, the Adjustment Bureau brings David to a place seemingly out of time and space and warns him never to try and contact Elise again or suffer ghastly consequences.
However, being a pugnacious Congressman from Brooklyn, do you think David would permanently give up Elise? Forget about it! Elise proves to be no shrinking wallflower, either, and both find themselves fighting fate’s agents for a chance to be together.
I’ve seen theological interpretations of the Adjustment Bureau that do not seem too far off from Dick’s own brand of spirituality. The idea of the members of the Adjustment Bureau being one of the types of angel certainly does fit in with what we see in the movie, and the Chairman behind them certainly could *be* God, but it is all left open to interpretation. Reality-meddling higher level beings messing with humans and their history?Well, Dick has explored that idea in other stories besides the story that inspired this movie, most notably (and bizarrely) in “Faith of our Fathers”.
I’ve also seen this movie characterized as a rare bird in Hollywood these days—a romance involving characters above 25. The two leads do have chemistry together, and one can believe that both of them would fight fate and its agents for a chance to be together, consequences notwithstanding.
Last, we come to the highest budget of these movies, Source Code,starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Faminga, Jeffrey Wright, and Michelle Monaghan. This is the sophomore directorial effort from Duncan Jones, who directed the very well done and received Moon.
Reality and what it really is hits the viewer and the main character,Captain Colter Stevens, right from the start. The Afghanistan war veteran finds himself unexpectedly on a train to Chicago, in a body not his own, not knowing how he got there or what he is supposed to be doing. Where is his unit and who is Sean Fentress, the man whose face he sees in the mirror? An explosion on the train eight minutes later and Colter’s return to his body raises more questions than it answers.
As the scenario unfolds and the true nature of who and what he is becomes clear, the central mystery of just what the Source Code does is as important as his ostensible mission. Again, like many a Philip K Dick novel, questions of what reality is, and if one reality perceived is more real than another are explored in the context of the movie. I hesitate to talk at length about this movie, since Source Code is one of those movies, like Jones’ earlier effort, that being fully aware of the plot and the details of the situation spoils the first time viewing experience. It is clear for my own part that I would like to see the movie again, and see if I can piece together clues that I may have missed on my initial viewing.
All three movies, in my opinion, are worth your time to seek out and watch, although all three have different things on offer. See Unknown if you want your science fiction and Dickensian influences relatively light, and are instead in the mood for an action thriller where Liam Neeson kills people who have it coming to them. The Adjustment Bureau is for those of you who are looking for a strain of romance into your science fiction. Finally, Source Code is the one to see if you want to see a (relatively) big budget action picture from a director who has, fortunately, avoided a sophomore slump.
¹For those curious, it was Metalstorm 3D: The Destruction of Jared Syn. The second movie I saw in the theater was Return of the Jedi.