Sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) enjoys a minor cult following for his exhaustive tome (more than 50 novels and five volumes of short stories) which mixes the genre’s usual devices of androids and spaceships with deeper journeys into paranoia and hefty doses of caustic humor. Hollywood has occasionally tapped into the Dick oeuvre, with the blockbusters “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” owing their foundation to Dick’s short stories; Dick’s writing is also the basis of the upcoming Gary Sinise film “Impostor” and the long-delayed, Spielberg-helmed “The Minority Report.”
Beyond the keyboard, though, Dick lived a life that was far more fascinating than any space opera he created. Five failed marriages, excessive drug addictions, and intense delusions, which included the belief that he was living parallel existences, possessed his life and eventually wrecked his health and sped him to a premature demise. Dick’s tortured life would make the subject of a great film, but unfortunately the new documentary “The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick” misses the mark considerably.
Filmed on borrowed Beta equipment with a budget of less than $10,000, “The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick” is certainly one of the cheapest (and cheapest-looking) feature films to snag a theatrical release. The film is basically an A&E “Biography”-style documentary, with an endless parade of talking head monologues in which Dick’s friends, fans, acquaintances and observers offer less-than-remarkable commentary on his life and writing.
This is truly a waste, since Dick the writer offered a wealth of memorable published work as well as the still-unpublished 8,000 page “Exegesis” which he spun from his numerous “mystical” experiences. Many of these experiences were rooted in a 1974 encounter with a pharmacy delivery girl, whom Dick claimed had zapped him with a light bolt from the Christian-fish necklace around her neck and permanently halved his existence into simultaneous adventures in ancient Rome and contemporary Orange County, California. Clearly this is a curious situation, to put it mildly, but the film presents it in a very la-dee-da way which is even stranger than the delusion itself.
Despite his fame, Dick was fairly elusive in his lifetime when it came to cultivating media relations, and much of his legacy was boosted relatively late in his life after a 1975 Rolling Stone profile. Dick himself was never interviewed on camera, and it would seem the sole recording of the man came in an audiotape for a magazine interview. The filmmakers tried to compensate for the lack of visuals on their subject in the most ridiculous manner: they’ve incorporated the audio chat into the film by creating an animated version of Dick (seated behind a manual typewriter) to give a face to the voice. Unfortunately, the animated Philip K. Dick is so stiff and badly drawn that it creates unintentional humor, which throws the film off-kilter. If the filmmakers wanted bad animation, it would have probably been quicker, cheaper and more entertaining to run some public domain Crusader Rabbit cartoons instead of bothering with this silly solution…and Dick would probably have preferred Crusader Rabbit to the dull caricature presented here.
Die-hard fans of Philip K. Dick may find some interest in this little documentary, which hits theaters in February. For those seeking greater insight, however, it may be best to check out his voluminous writing or log on to the excellent web site [ www.philipkdick.com ] to learn more about the man rather than sink time and cash into this small, forgettable offering.