According to the biography at his Web site (www.philipkdick.com), between 1952 and 1982 when he died, science-fiction author Philip K. Dick wrote thirty-six novels and five collections of short stories. Ironically, after struggling in relative obscurity for much of that time, it was only on the eve of his death that Hollywood discovered him. Now, Hollywood seems determined to mine his fertile material for everything it’s worth. For instance, it was upon a P.K. Dick story that “Blade Runner” (1982) was based, as were “Total Recall” (1990), “Screamers” (1995), “Minority Report” (2002), and the subject of our present discussion, “Impostor” (2002). Obviously, Hollywood honchos know a good thing when they see it, so I’m sure we can expect even more of Dick’s stories dramatized in the future. Let’s hope they succeed better than “Impostor.”
The movie is based on a Dick short story, and therein lies the crux of the problem: too little material for too much screen time. For a better, more-focused treatment of the short story, I suggest you skip down and read my comments in the “Extras” department. In any case, what we have in “Impostor” is primarily a chase. After the first fifteen minutes of introduction, the main character is chased for the remainder of the movie, right up through the final frame. You want a more detailed account? OK, the character gets chased a lot. There’s more running and chasing going on in this film than in “Marathon Man,” “The Running Man,” and “Run Lola Run” put together. I wasn’t so much entertained when it was over as I was tired.
If you’ve seen “Minority Report,” you’ve already seen the basic premise of “Impostor.” Apparently, Dick was big on the idea of the seemingly innocent man accused of a crime he protests he did not commit and the man’s attempts to prove his innocence through the rest of the story. It worked for most of Hitchcock’s films, too, so why not here? The “why not” is easily answered: It’s because “Impostor” gives us no one to care about, nothing of interest to follow, and nowhere to go that we can’t foretell an hour in advance. And this despite the formidable acting presence of Gary Sinise in the title role and the experience of action director Gary Fleder (“Kiss the Girls,” “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”) at the helm.
So, what’s it about? In the year 2079 the Earth is at war with another planet, Alpha Centauri 1. For protection against Centaurian air raids, all major cities have been covered with shields, domes, that enclose them, or cocoon them is more like it. One of the Centauri’s sneaky tricks is to secretly send cyborgs down to Earth, replicants who look identical to real Earth people, who kill the earthlings and replace them to do their mischief. Sounds a little like Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers,” but there’s a catch. One of the replicants is supposed to have already replaced a high-level government scientist, Spencer John Olham (Sinise), and, according to Earth’s Intelligence, the replicant is set to explode in the presence of Earth’s Chancellor. This is news to Spencer John Olham. He’s just quietly walking to work one day in the Defense Lab, minding his own business, when he’s suddenly arrested, strapped down, and about to be torn apart by a machine looking for a bomb implant in his heart! Now, here’s the dilemma for Olham and for the audience: Is he really an alien replicant or has a colossal mistake been made? Olham knows who he is, and it certainly isn’t a robot. But on the other hand, all of the alien replicants have been programmed to believe that they really are who they say they are. Is Olham real or is he Memorex? Shades of “Total Recall” here. Is it a dream or isn’t it?
Olham hasn’t the time to find out at the moment because he’s about to be ripped open. Naturally, like all good heroes, even if they’re nuclear physicists (or maybe especially if they’re nuclear physicists), he escapes a squad of guards, kills a few innocent bystanders in the process, including his best friend, Nelson (Tony Shalhoub), and takes off into the countryside. His job now is to prove who he says he is, who he knows he is. To do this he must make a crucial test on himself, an infallible examination of his humanness, that can only be done at the hospital that his wife, Maya (Madeleine Stowe), conveniently works at. Coincidences pile on coincidences as the movie goes on. I don’t want to give anything more away, but let me warn you the story line is filled not only with coincidences but with plot holes.
All the while, Olham is pursued by government troopers led by a Major Hathaway (Vincent D’Onofrio). Turns out D’Onofrio’s character is the most intriguing in the movie. Hathaway is a combination good guy/bad guy. He’s doing his job and thinks he’s doing right, but is he just a bit too zealous in his desire to rip people open first and ask questions later? A final character of any importance is Cale (Mekhi Phifer), a bounty hunter out to capture Olham and turn him in for a reward but instead becomes a reluctant ally. Unfortunately, Cale seems more of a distraction than a fully realized role, and his presence in the long haul seems merely superfluous. And how is it that every character in an action flick knows how to fight so well? From scientists to street people, they all know kung-fu and karate and can withstand all sorts of punches, kicks, and falls. Only in the movies, I guess.
Let me wrap this up with the look of the film, which does nothing to lighten the load. Taking his cue from “Blade Runner” in particular, director Fleder has filmed almost everything in the dark, at night. Supposedly, the domes over the cities allow for little actual sunlight, so Fleder has an excuse for the noir tone, but it gets very depressing very fast. I mean, even the interiors of buildings are dim. Can’t they afford lights in the future? What’s more, Fleder’s editing keeps everything in motion at all times and produces a dizzying rather than an exhilarating effect.
To complement the blurry-eyed direction, the picture quality is equally blurry. Most of it intentional, in the same way that Spielberg bleached out his canvas for “Minority Report.” Look for lots of grainy, metallic, iron-gray interior and exterior shots; lots of murky, gloomy spaces; lots of soft, obscurely lit scenes. Even the people in the film seem to have a sickly pallor about them, as though they, like the film stock, had been washed out. Of little compensation is the very ordinary 1.74:1 screen size, enhanced for 16×9 televisions.
The sound fares a little better than the picture in a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround configuration that places a good number of sonic effects in the rear channels. Unfortunately, the audio has a dynamic range so wide and a bass so loud and deep, it’s hard to know where to keep the volume set. Turn it up to hear the actors’ voices clearly and the next background noise will knock you out of your chair, if not damage your speakers. This condition begins with the opening credits, which are accompanied by a series of thunderously subterranean low notes that if not turned down will rattle dishes in the next building. It’s very wide ranging sound, indeed, and perhaps too much of a good thing for anyone interested in following the plot of the film via the spoken word. But since there isn’t much plot, anyway, maybe just enjoy the sound effects and music and forget about the actors’ conversation. However, I did like the well-placed surround noises, with plenty of things going bump in the night–scurrying feet, gunshots, dripping water, explosions, voices in crowds, rockets, and, of course, what passes for the inevitable helicopter of the future.
As for bonus items, there are only a few. The first is the most intriguing. It’s an original “Impostor” short film lasting thirty-seven minutes, made up of the beginning and concluding bits of footage from the “Impostor” film itself. I have no idea who made this short subject or why; there are no credits for it. But it makes for a better movie experience than the actual theatrical release because it trims all the excess fat and cuts right to the meat. Maybe it follows more closely the original Philip K. Dick short story, I don’t know. My colleague, Eddie Feng, tells me the short film was originally meant as one segment in a collection of three short films to be released as one movie, but the studio liked it so much they decided to expand it into a movie by itself. In any case, the half-hour version is worth a look on DVD. Then, there’s a twelve-minute featurette called “The Impostor Files,” which includes interviews with the filmmakers and behind-the-scenes shots of the filming. A few “Sneak Peeks” are next, six pan-and-scan trailers for other Buena Vista DVD releases, followed by a scant fifteen scene selections, and an “Impostor” trailer, again in pan-and-scan. English is the only spoken language provided, but there are Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I remember ex-champ George Foreman once remarking that no matter how good a boxer is, if he keeps on fighting, he will eventually lose. It’s the law of percentages. I suspect the same thing is at work with the stories of Philip K. Dick. If Hollywood keeps filming them, some of them are bound to be duds.
If you’re really a P. K. Dick fan and have already bought his other films on disc, you may want to get this one if only to complete your collection. But if you’re interested in GOOD Philip K. Dick science fiction, I’d go for “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” or “Minority Report.” “Impostor” is a wearying affair that pales in comparison to these other Dick movies; indeed, “Impostor” seems better suited to late-night viewing on the Sci-Fi Channel than to serious and repeated watching on DVD. Accept no Philip K. Dick substitutes: “Impostor” is an impostor.