Phillip K. Dick is too famous to use less than his whole name

The other day, I heard they were doing a “Total Recall” remake. Then I heard they were casting Collin Farrell in it, and I became much more interested in it — but completely disinterested in ever actually watching it.

That’s not a knock on him in particular, but the more I learned about the movie, the more I came to think it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I care for.

I say that as at least a nominal Phillip K. Dick fan, master of paranoid science fiction that he is. I say that as a fan of the original Total Recall, a 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle directed by Paul Verhoeven, master of exceptionally violent, smart action sci-fi movies. And I say that as someone who isn’t bothered – in concept, anyway – of the seemingly endless parade of sequels, remakes and reboots that have overtaken modern Hollywood.

I just don’t think I’d like the new film. The reviews so far seem to bear that out, but a lot of very smart people weren’t fans of the original when it came out, and if you’re not a fan of three-breasted hookers and ultraviolence you wouldn’t either.

It’s a strange word to use – “original” – because the movie is still an adaption of the Phillip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” That was set on earth about a man who wanted to go to Mars and couldn’t; the 1990 film (supposedly) actually sends our protagonist to Mars; the 2012, Len Wiseman-directed one changes a lot of other things but sticks to Earth. There’s even a novelization of the 1990 film, written by Piers Anthony.

There was once a brilliant and original concept by Phillip K. Dick, but with each retelling, it seems a little less original and little less brilliant.

But then nothing actually originates, does it?

Certainly not in Hollywood, but not even inside the skull, not even in the magnificent and more than slightly crazy skull of someone like Phillip K. Dick. Everything is a reaction and a reinterpretation of what a person has experienced in life and found in fiction. All of that goes inside and bounces around and comes out as something else.

Sometimes it’s better, a lot of times it’s worse, but it’s always different.

Major films, and to a lesser extent other movies, operas and plays, are different from other forms of fiction in that they’re collaborative projects. They require dozens or hundreds of thousands of people that each change and homogenize the outcome. They’re an enormous investment.

The oldest, the most flexible, the most effective, and in some ways the most fun form of storytelling is still the telling of a story. It only really survives now in the form of a joke. But still there you see it, where the twist is always the same for the same joke, but nothing else about it is. People add and remove characters, change the setting, change endless details.

And they can because it doesn’t take a script writer, a director and a gaffer to do it.

Almost every joke at its root is impossibly old, but what makes it new or original is just whether you’ve heard it before. When you retell it, it doesn’t have anything new about it, just what it was plus all of the old stuff bouncing around your head already.

Not everybody can tell a good joke, and very few people can manage to make a good movie, but remakes are one of the best things we do.

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