My Life As A Feminist – Don’t Mess With Philip K. Dick

So, I dragged a good friend of mine to see this film, because it looked intriguing, adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick, and it had Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and John Slattery (who can do no wrong):

I owe my friend an apology. We should have gone see Rango instead, it could not have been worse. This movie was terrible in a lot of ways. For one, if you are going to have a story based on the idea that individual fates are all controlled by some entity that needs to ensure that people do what they are “fated” to do, otherwise, the ripples are countless and can be catastrophic, then, such an exclusive focus on one single individual makes no sense.

Also, I almost puked when one of the members of the Bureau explains to the main character that humans were given free will at the end of the Roman Empire, and what did that produce? The Dark Ages. So, everything got under control until 1910 (I’m sure that everything was dandy in-between), and then, WHAM!, two World Wars. Hello, Euro / Americano-centrism. I guess non-Western civilizations never counted. And all these Bureau members are SO white dudes (except for the token black guy, who is also the one who (1) falls asleep on the job, provoking the incident that starts the whole plot, and (2) betrays the Bureau.).

But mostly, what bothered me was the major, MAJOR patriarchal and sexist perspective. You see, the character played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt keep bumping into each other, and are attracted to each other, even though it’s not part of The Plan. But the only character with any agency in this is Matt Damon / David Norris. Norris is the one who gets all the attention of the Bureau to give up his relationship with Emily Blunt / Elise Sellas. She is denied any agency in this story. She gives him her number but he loses it, so, they don’t bump into each other for three years even though he’s easy to find, what with being a public figure and all. No, she does nothing, not even find him to kick his ass.

Then, at their next meeting, she tells him of her passion for dancing. He attends a show where a Bureau member causes an accident that lands her in the hospital with a minor sprain. David is then convinced to let her go so she can fulfill her destiny as world-class dancer and choreographer. See? It is not up to her. It is up to him to make that choice. And so, he dumped her at the hospital, without telling her. Same deal… she does not look for him (he’s campaigning for a US Senate seat, so, he’s again easy to find, right?). Nope.

Then again, months later, Norris reads her engagement notice to some other schmuck in the newspaper. He again seeks her out, because he knows that he should be the one marrying her. And this leads to the stupid ending where the Chairman decides to let them be together, because, you know, they really love each other (BARF!).

So, throughout the movie, Elise has zero agency whatsoever. All she does is talk a bit smack to Norris, dance (that’s the only thing she’s ever cared about, we are told), and wait patiently in-between encounters. Norris, on the other hand, spends the whole movie running around, bumping into Bureau dudes, getting help from the token Black dude, and overall getting his way, in one form or another. And Elise’s fate is a matter for him to decide.

I have read enough Philip K. Dick stuff to know that, yes, most of his novels and stories are told from a masculine perspective. But that was the 1960s. If you are going to adapt one of his stories with so much licence, because FSM knows that the film is VERY different from the short story, then, get a 21st century upgrade in there.

And by the way, this last point goes for another really messed-up adaptation of a great short story  – Button, Button – from another great writer – Richard Matheson – that tuned into a shitty movie – The Box.

And in both cases, it seemed to me that the people in charge of the process of turning a short story into a full feature film screenplay just didn’t know how to expand the original story in a way that would have been (1) faithful to the tone and atmosphere of the original, and (2) made sense.

2 thoughts on “My Life As A Feminist – Don’t Mess With Philip K. Dick

  1. Hey,

    I have a quick question about your view here. This question isn’t really criticism; instead it is genuine curiosity.

    First of all, I agree with you regarding the “Bureau” itself and how it is very Eurocentric and patriarchal, and that this definitely hurts the story. I’m curious though why the fact that Matt Damon’s character has agency but Emily Blunt’s does not is an issue or is sexist. It is not as though Blunt’s character is the only one one without agency, or that woman are the only ones without agency. Instead, Damon’s character is an anomaly in that he has agency, so why does that character’s sex or gender matter here?

    I realize that movies are full of male leads and “damsels in distress”, but I don’t believe that a male lead equals a sexist viewpoint. Again, I agree that the “Bureau” itself was very patriarchal and pretty damn sexist, but I can’t see how Damon’s character being the only free one reinforces this. If a writer is writing a movie with a single lead, is the writer or resulting movie sexist if that single lead is a man? Would the movie have been less sexist if Blunt was the lead and the only one with agency, and, if so, why? Should writers feel the need to write in a female lead no matter what to bring things into the 21st century, even if that results an entirely different story that is neither more sexist or less (because, obviously, the inclusion of a capable female lead hardly makes a sexist movie not sexist, at least not on its own, e.g., any number of revenge or horror films with a strong female lead)?

    That aside, I do recognize that Blunt’s character probably could have been less…cliche-filled, generic female love interest? I mean the “dancing is all she cares about” bits, while probably not meant in such a literal way, were a bit much. But, then again, there are people (men, women, male, female) who really are like that, so I’m not so sure that makes it more sexist either…is it the writer’s responsibility to avoid depicting certain types of people (floaty, airy, single minded, etc…) out of fear of being sexist? Or, perhaps, the constant association of that type of person with women has made that sexist?

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. I’m feminist myself, I suppose (I agree with most of the movement, but I can’t say I’ve ever identified myself as feminist, if you know what I mean), and I’ve noticed a lot of feminist writers who seem to view a male or masculine perspective as a negative thing in and of itself, and I disagree with that. I’m a “white cisgender man”, but in my humble opinion it’s better, for feminism and the politics around feminism, to encourage female leads and perspectives without acting like male leads and perspectives are sexist or bad. Both, in a vacuum at least, are perfectly acceptable and not inherently sexist. I think. A book or movie can have a male lead and a masculine perspective, while still viewing and treating woman as equals, as real people who are just as important.

    As a side note, I hope this doesn’t come across poorly…the Internet can do that sometimes, particularly when such heated topics (of which feminism is, for better or for worse) are discussed. Also, this was typed on my phone, so please excuse any erroneous autocorrects :)


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