Gilliamís Dick: A Fictional Review of Ubik

by Richard Raymond, © 2000



So now, at long last, we finally get to see that lost classic of SF cinema: Terry Gilliamís hitherto unreleased 1979 adaptation of Philip K. Dickís classic '60s science fiction novel UBIK. After the deposition of the Shah of Iran, brother-in-law of the filmís co-financier, and the subsequent confiscation of the nine-tenths-completed footage by the Islamic Republic, it is only now, two decades on, that grindingly intricate legal proceedings have eventually enabled the belated resumption of postproduction, followed by a cinema release, albeit sadly limited.

But, cutting to the chase, does UBIK live up to its myth? Letís just say that, unlike the Ďroided-up TOTAL RECALL, or the mediocre SCREAMERS, this one gives BLADE RUNNER a bladerun for its money. Very nicely-cast indeed are Jeff Bridges as smalltime Dickian everyman Joe Chip, Barbara Hershey as the obligatory Dark-Haired Mystery Girl Pat Conley, and none other than Orson Welles as their enigmatic boss and father thing, Glen Runciter, who is supposed to be dead but certainly doesnít act like it.

Welles is also credited on the film as ĎCreative Consultantí. As Gilliam readily admits: "Orson would direct my direction. And who would want to stop him? I was in awe of the man. Who wouldnít be? And there was this strong physical resemblance between Orson and Phil - the beard, everything. It was great! Wonderful! Ideal! And to have that and a screenplay actually written by Phil and the, not messed around with, but improved, cinematically, by Orson - well what can I say - apart from FUCK FUCK FUCK that it had to take this LONG to get out there and be seen ..!"

Co-producer Jean-Pierre Gorin, a onetime Godard collaborator, originally commissioned the screenplay adaptation from Dick back in Ď74. Dick did the job in three weeks. Francis Coppola agreed to underwrite the production. Alas, as happens most of the time in the movie world, things fell through. Eventually, however, Gorin managed to cobble together a complex international coproduction deal, with the intention of directing. And then a chance meeting at Cannes ended up with Gilliam, an avid PKD fan, literally going down on bended knee and begging for the job. Gilliam had, at that time, directed only one full-length live-action film, the Pythonesque JABBERWOCKY, which Gorin just happened to have seen and been impressed by. Says Gorin: "Something, I donít know, told me it was the correct decision to make, to hand UBIK over to Terry. I donít know, I donít know what it was. Instinct."

His instincts were good. The film, though flawed, is nonetheless little short of a masterpiece. Not that BLADE RUNNER really qualifies on that score, either. Once upon a time, Scottís film was generally underrated; now, perhaps, it tends to be a little overpraised. Granted, the dumbing down of source material goes with the Hollywood territory, and dogma has it that visual media should cater to the senses rather than the intellect. But just read the novel and realize how much meat was omitted, from the Penfield Mood Organ to Mercerism to the Electric Sheep itself. And Iím still not quite certain whether Harrison Fordís performance is painstaking or poor - but then, maybe thatís sort of apt. Donít mistake me - I love the film, but what I hate is the thought of K.W. Jeterís slickly-marketed BLADE RUNNER II and lll spinoffs outselling and burying all those genuine PKD novels like MARTIAN TIME-SLIP and THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH. There is so much more to Philip K. Dick than Syd Mead cityscapes, backlit Ridley Scott info-overload and Vangelisí BLADE RUNNER BLUES, however lush and seductive.

And if you come to UBIK expecting a kind of proto-BLADE RUNNER atmosphere, maybe bearing in mind the look of Gilliamís later BRAZIL, then youíll be sadly disappointed. Visually, UBIK is harsher, cheaper, scuzzier, more TAXI DRIVER squalor than TV ad prettydirt. In fact at times it looks positively Ken Loachian, real kitchen-sink SF. The original modest budget is well spent, every Joe Chip fifty-cent piece of it up there on screen, and, with Coppola having recently stepped back in to lavish on the postproduction some state-of-the-art CGI effects, the Dickian crumbling realities and matter-reversions are rendered to perfection, and grip all the more in such a quotidian context.

But the thing that really stands out is the film-makersí determination to capture Dickís vision, for good or ill, with no sell-out simplifications. Watching UBIK, itís as if STAR WARS had never been declared; as if American SF in the cinema had, instead, matured, gone European. Here is a film that is quite unafraid to bewilder, to go about its business without giving twelve monkeysí fucks whether or not you know exactly what is going on and why, any more than poor Joe Chip does. Littered with talk of "protophasons" and "Anti-ketogeneses", interspersed with manic liney-screened QVC-style commercials for Handy Sprayable Ubik, the omniproduct/panacea that will save us all, and shot through with bizarre irruptions on the part of Welles/Runciter - "Jump in the urinal and stand on your head. Iím the one thatís alive. Youíre all dead" - the film makes few concessions to todayís hip, soundbite-seasoned audience, let alone the average 1979 cinemagoer. One can only suspect that, had UBIK been released at that time, it would have sunk without trace. Even today, on the back of the BLADE RUNNER mini-industry, it seems likely that the film will be no more than a cult success; itís just too ... well, perhaps French is the word. (As, to a lesser but still commercially deleterious extent, is BLADE RUNNER itself.) And bugger all money has been spent on marketing it - probably the decisive factor nowadays.

The UBIK source novel, written in 1966 (the same year as Electric Sheep) has a basic plotline one might describe as a kind of rich manís Steven King scenario: a nasty kid named Jory insidiously infiltrates and wrests control of the technologically-supported deep-frozen limbo-worlds inhabited by his fellow quasi-deceased, slowly-fading "half-lifers" at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium run by Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang (portrayed briefly in the film by a distractingly cast yet uncharacteristically subtle Mel Brooks.) Pitted against malevolent, lonely young Jory are, among others, hapless untermensch Joe Chip, his slightly sinister psychic girlfriend Pat, the dead/alive/ubiquitous old Gene Runciter, and Ella (a young Susan Sarandon) Runciterís Ubik-dispensing half-lifer wife, Ella is a kind of ultimate airline stewardess figure, effortlessly capable, maternal, nearly always there when you need her. As for Ubik itself, well, the closing titles, voiced by Welles - just before Runciter finds Joe Chipís face on every coin in a handful of loose change - tell us: "I AM UBIK. BEFORE THE UNIVERSE WAS, I AM. I AM THE WORD AND MY NAME IS NEVER SPOKEN, THE NAME WHICH NO ONE KNOWS. I AM CALLED UBIK BUT THAT IS NOT MY NAME. I AM. I SHALL ALWAYS BE." Intoned with all the mellifluous richness Welles would habitually lend to descriptions of "voluptuous olorosos" and probable princes among lagers, this final declaration is all at once frisson-inducingly profound, irritatingly opaque, and screamingly camp. Perfection.

One can easily imagine UBIK going through the standard Hollywoodization process and emerging as a clean, lean, routine SF/horror thriller, pumped-up and chase-driven, with its calculated quota of set-piece violence, "Letís get outta here!" lines and female nipple-exposure. All the spraycan stuff would have to go, of course - too much of a head trip, and yet the title could still be retained if it scored high enough market research-wise. (An effective title doesnít actually have to mean anything concrete, just connote and suggest and conjure up the right kind of mood.) As a matter of fact, a 1984 Dennis Quaid SF thriller, DREAMSCAPE, plays very much like the Jory v. Joe Chip premise watered-down to piss-weakness.

But both Gorin and Gilliam are mavericks, not Tinseltown players, and while UBIK may have been shot partly in LA (and partly in Luton, of all places - but thatís a story on its own) it bears about as much relation to your average Hollywood pseudo-SF flick as Wub fur does to crimplene. Dickís screenplay was filmed pretty much as he wrote it, with Wellesí contributions all surprisingly respectful and apposite, the work of a skilful editor rather than a competitive egotist. Reportedly, Welles loved Dickís ending for the film: the film stock itself regresses from colour to monochrome to silent, and then disintegrates.

Originally, Dick himself was slated for a cameo appearance, but one of his numerous attacks of acute agoraphobia kept him confined to his Santa Ana apartment for the duration of the shoot. As it is, though, the initially amusing Dick/Welles resemblance gives the PKD-conscious viewer an eerie sense of Dickís own omnipresence. Orson Welles is Glen Runciter is Philip K. Dick; there is a merging of personae, so utterly seamless, so beautifully right and, somehow, so simultaneously Dickian and Wellesian. It seems such a pity that the two men never actually met. Both, by the Seventies, were labelled "burnt-out genius": Dick claimed to have Been Contacted By Something Higher, and Welles couldnít get a film finished, or sometimes even started. Wellesí interest in SF is well documented, most famously illustrated by his 1938 WAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast. Dick, too, was fascinated with the whole notion of fakery; as Tom Disch has observed, he enjoyed the artistry of the con artist - something Welles was often accused of being, a supreme F-for-Faker. And both men suffered comparable frustrations in getting works published/released. Would they have got on? Kindred spirits, or too close for comfort?

So much for Welles. But what of Gilliam? Despite his admission that Welles often back-seat directed, it is clear that the Python person saw to it that the novelís Dickian humour shines through. (Whereís the humour in BLADE RUNNER, give or take the odd origami erection, or slice of Rutger Hauer ham? It might even be said that TOTAL RECALL did better in this respect.) But in UBIK we duly get, among many other lovely moments, Bridges/Chip bickering with his conapt door, which - in a withering English butler voice supplied by an uncredited Graham Chapman - threatens to sue if not tipped generously at each condescending opening and closure. In itself, a classic sketch.

Wisely, perhaps, the outlandish modes of attire detailed in the book have been toned down; nevertheless, their sheer Seventiesishness still hits the heights of retro-chic. And maybe itís best to draw a discreet veil over most of those hairstyles. (Thatís where BLADE RUNNER was lucky, in contriving to be postpunk and spiky, thus avoiding the silly, floppy moptop look that marred the Beatles, Luke Skywalker, the remade Flash Gordon and even Fordís own schoolboy-haired Han Solo. Stuart Sutcliffeís German girlfriend has a lot to answer for.) But then, we were talking about intentional humour, an attribute the film displays in spades. One might even go so far as to say that at times it refuses to let you take it with anything like the seriousness it deserves, preferring to joke about its ultimate subject-matter - death - rather than opening up to the pain, permitting the piece to resonate as it should. Dick wasnít a glib writer, an action man content to skim, to dance lightly around Big Questions; he wanted Answers. In many ways, his goals were more those of the philosopher than the storyteller. And to consider UBIK as merely a sophisticated meta/pataphysical comedy fails to do it justice. That said, Gilliam does get the balance about right most of the time, perhaps more so than in any of his other films. So maybe itís just me, nitpicking, straining to be seen as insightful.

As with the cinematic James Bond and the Bond of Ian Flemingís novels, it has become difficult to separate off the Philip Dick world from that of BLADE RUNNER. Dick wasn't preoccupied with wet streets, shadows and neon, any more than Fleming put a pun gun in Bondís shoulder-holster. Dick had flying cars, yes, and Voigt-Kampff machines, and Nexus Sixes, but the Chandler/Bogart ambience, the nods to Fritz Lang, Tarkovsky, Bertolucci and, not least, Welles - BLADE RUNNER opens with all the graphic authority of CITIZEN KANE - are a product of Ridley Scottís wish to place his work within certain filmic traditions, over and above any search for a "cinematic equivalent" for Dickís literary "feel". Perhaps this is no bad thing; the sheer dark beauty of the film, its breathtaking style, created a brand-image for, in equal measure, Philip Dick and Ridley Scott, and brought Dickís work to a far wider public. However, because of this very stylishness, every other Dick adaptation seems oddly lacking, strangely insipid, much as - for me at least - all of Clint Eastwoodís westerns after the DOLLARS trilogy feel annoyingly incomplete without the directorial plan of Sergio Leone and the music of Ennio Morricone. So, on first viewing, Gilliamís UBIK strikes one as shockingly ugly, and therefore un-Dickian. It is surprisingly hard to set aside Scottís take on Dick and approach Gilliamís film on its own terms, as though sitting down to watch it in 1979. Going back to the book is a help, as is seeing the film a second or even third time, and allowing it to establish itself as the deepest filmic venture to date into PKD territory. Remember that one great scene in TOTAL RECALL, that standout Dickian moment when the little man walks in and announces that he has been inserted into Arnieís fantasy to close it down - and then, by exuding perspiration, shows his claim to be a colossal bluff? Although you wonít find it in Dickís original story, the scene is quintessential. Gilliamís UBIK boasts a dozen such reversals. The overall effect is exhausting yet exhilarating - intellectually exhilarating, whereas BLADE RUNNER is, primarily, aesthetically exhilarating. Dick isnít exactly known for "fine" writing, so it could be argued that the UBIK film, aesthetically modest, conceptually flamboyant, better reflects the Dickian scheme of things. But then again, where would Dick be, sales-wise, now, without BLADE RUNNER, that cinematic equivalent of the beautiful receptionist, the gorgeous lead singer, the killer logo? What if UBIK had come out first, with Scottís film remaining unreleased ..?

And what if Gilliamís UBIK exists only in some alternate world, not dissimilar to this one, quite close enough to be tricky to distinguish? The world of mis/disinformation. Or what if there really is a UBIK film, here, in this world, unbeknown to me, that my researches havenít succeeded in uncovering? Or what if I believe Iíve been fooling you, but havenít at all? But what if, on the other hand, you yourself are not equipped with sufficient background knowledge to detect all the chunks of invention? "So?" you say. Well, as both Orson Welles and Philip K. Dick would advise, consider the implications.

(Terry Gilliamís film UBIK opens soon in a parallel universe near you.)