Philip K. Dick vs. Hollywood, Part 1: Second Variety

Philip K. Dick’s work had been hot property for Hollywood studios for decades.  It’s not all that surprising to see why.  Most of the works that made it to film feature a novel concept, around which a skilled screenwriter can spin a compelling story.  This works best on short stories, relatively unburdened with Dick’s musings on governmental tyranny, the perception of reality and questions of one’s identity.  But even so, Hollywood’s track record with understanding Dick’s work is rather abysmal.  In this series of articles, I’ll explore the movie adaptations of Dick’s stories, one by one.

Second Variety takes place on a post-nuclear war world, around the region of Normandy.  The remains of the Soviet and United Nation armies and their allies are at an impasse.  The UN forces are able to hold off the Soviets by relying on autonomous robots that prowl the land and kill everyone who doesn’t wear a bracelet that emits a certain kind of radiation.  These robots are self-replicating in deep underground factories, while the governments and surviving population got relocated to the Moon.

One day, a Soviet soldier is spotted close to a UN base, is promptly dismembered by the robots, but the soldiers discover that he was carrying a truce proposal and invitation to discuss a possible end to the conflict.  The commanding officer goes off to meet with the Soviets.  Along the way, he is joined by an orphan boy, David, who is hiding in the ruins of a nearby town.  As he approaches the Soviet base, the defenders blow David to pieces, revealing that he is a mechanical being, a “Variety 3” robot designed in the automated factories, made to fool humans and be immune to the radiation bracelets.  There are only three survivors near the Soviet base: a prostitute and her two soldier customers who were out of the base at a time when a David gained access to the base and opened it to other robots.  Most of the bases had fallen before, when Variety 1 (a wounded soldier in need of help) gained access.

The Soviet soldiers assume the truce was called to form a common defense strategy against the robots.  They are also deeply paranoid, as the varieties suggest a second variety, which nobody had seen yet.  Due to that paranoia, one soldier kills the other, only to find out he’d been human after all.  The UN commander, the Soviet soldier and the prostitute all make their way back to the UN bunker, only to find out it had been overrun, too.  In the ensuing battle, the prostitute uses a handmade bomb that destroys all of the robots, and in the aftermath, they find out that the Soviet soldier was a robot.  The commander and prostitute make their way to a secret shelter that houses a rescue ship to the Moon.  As the commander is injured, the prostitute convinces him to give up his seat on the rocket, so that she can get to the moon base and organize help.  Once she is gone, he finds the remains of the Soviet soldier and discovers that he had been designated Variety Four, which meant the second variety was still unaccounted for.  The robots finally find him, and among them are two identical prostitutes.  He realizes that he unleashed a killing machine on the last human outpost.  His last thought is a realization that even though the robots will inherit the Earth, they already started devising weapons – the bombs that destroy other varieties – to kill each other, and the cycle of killing will continue.

This is not one of Dick’s best stories, but it’s readable, straight-forward and deeply atmospheric.  The descriptions of an irradiated European battlefield, the conditions the soldiers must endure, and the town ruins all provide for some effective visuals.  The fact that this is humanity’s last stand only raises the stakes on mankind’s survival.  The actual physical journey of the UN commander follows the linear structure of the story, and so it is easy to follow.  Dick questions of what is human and what is not, and the final thought further blurs the line of how to define humanity in the first place.  Machines, after all, had become sentient, fully autonomous beings capable of killing their own kind, just like humans.  Unfortunately, the final reveal of Variety Two had been telegraphed so far ahead that the story offers no surprise for an astute reader.

It was maybe this simplicity of the story that drew a movie studio film it.  And while they followed the story quite well, they butchered the parts that really mattered.

First of all, the setting had changed, from Earth to a mining colony.  The background of the conflict doesn’t matter much, but the fact that this is a backwater conflict among factions that were long abandoned by their home planet makes the movie feel insignificant.  Why should the viewer care about a few soldiers, instead of the entire mankind?  What follows, however, is very close to the book, down to large portions of the dialog.  The only significant deviation is the addition of a second soldier to accompany the commander, and the lack of a wounded soldier robot until much later in the story.  Where it all falls apart, however, is the ending.  The movie first goes for a cheap jump scare when the most dangerous robot is resurrected just in time for a final confrontation.  Then the second variety is revealed when the rescue ship is still on the ground, and two Second Variety robots fight it out among themselves.  Because, you see, one of them fell in love with the commander, and is now helping him escape, at the cost of her own life.  He finally escapes, and the movie fades to black.

The final cop-out ruined the movie for me.  It indicated a fundamental misunderstanding of Dick’s end lesson: that sentient robots are just as evil and short-sighted as humans.  They go on destroying humanity, only to replace it with exactly the same thing.  There is also no hope for humanity: it will self-destruct.  The movie is trying to humanize the robots by breaking their programming and making them experience love, which in turn gives them capacity for self-sacrifice.  That is the exact opposite what I felt from reading the short story.  Combined with the change of scale, mankind’s last stand versus a local conflict, the movie felt insignificant.

Screamers, the movie adaptation of Second Variety, is in a sense a more faithful adaptation of Dick’s works than most of the others.  It takes the basic premise and keeps it relatively faithfully.  Parts of the movie are almost direct copies of Dick’s work.  It completely misunderstands Dick’s point and misstates his scale of things, but that’s still relatively minor to some of the more prominent movie adaptations of his work.  Screamers is worth watching right after reading Dick’s story, if only to see how good this poor movie adaptation is, compared to most of the others.

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