Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—Imposter

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my previous column, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I thought I’d delve into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will try to stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and aim to focus specifically on the films themselves.

In watching the eleven adaptations of his work, there are some themes that rise to the top.  He is very obsessed with fate and the soul; in fact, all of these films can probably be split into one of these two themes with the occasional overlap. Most of the “fate” films focus on the question, “If one person has knowledge of the future, does that change the outcome of the future?”  The “soul” films tend to focus on someone who is not normal, usually a cyborg of some sort, and whether they have the ability to feel, care, and grow. In other words, what makes us human?

Next up . . .


Imposter (2002)—Gary Fleder (dir.)

Based on the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, Imposter follows Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise) in a dystopian future run by a fascist dictator. Spencer is a scientist who works on a government team building weapons in the earth’s war against evil aliens, and the plot kickstarts when he is accused of being an assassin sent by the aliens to kill the chancellor. He spends the rest of the film trying to clear his name.

On his journey toward the truth, he is pursued by Major Hathaway (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is convinced Spencer is not who he says he is. All the while, Spencer is trying to convince his wife, Maya (Madeline Stowe), he is the man she loves and working with a freedom fighter, Cale (Mekhi Phifer), to get the test results he needs to prove his innocence. It’s The Wrong Man with a sci-fi twist.

Set up with a small budget, the film has a few fun action pieces, and you can tell Gary Sinise is giving his all. This was originally a completed short film that was going to be used as part of a sci-fi trilogy, but when that project didn’t get the funding, the short was expanded with scenes added in. You can definitely feel the padding in a good chunk of the movie.

Gary Sinise as Spencer Olham

Gary Sinise as Spencer Olham

The set design is intriguing and definitely feels lived in. There’s also a subplot dealing with the haves and have-nots: the rich live in cities protected by domes and the poor live outside the cities in the areas bombed out during the war. There is a definite contrast between the two, but unfortunately the film doesn’t really want to focus on this.

This is a film that has a lot of potential, but its origins as a short film don’t help it. It does feel like the middle part of the movie has been stretched, and that’s all chase outside of the city. However, once they get back into the city for Spencer to get the tools he needs to prove his innocence, the tempo does pick back up. This also gives Mekhi Phifer something to do—otherwise his character feels like he is more there for Sinise to interact with than as a fleshed-out character, which I think is also a problem with some of the other secondary characters. Madeline Stowe is incredibly underutilized as his wife, when there’s so much more that could have been mined from her character as a doctor. She is a healer, and this is juxtaposed with her husband, who creates weapons. Missed opportunity in my mind.

Vincent D’Onofrio is fun to watch, but his look kept giving me flashbacks to Adam Baldwin’s Jayne in Firefly (which was released a year later).

Vincent D’Onofrio as Hathaway

Vincent D’Onofrio in Imposter


Adam Baldwin in Firefly

The cinematography was overall engaging and made a good blend of real world and sets. There is a blue tint to the proceedings, which lends the film a bit of coldness, which I think Steven Spielberg has done good work with in some of his more recent films (Minority Report being one of them), but I was left wondering why a bit stronger palette wasn’t chosen, especially dealing with Dick’s theme of the soul. Trying to get to the heart of humanity isn’t cold and unfeeling; it’s the complete opposite in my mind.

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Playing with Dick’s themes of the soul, and what makes you you, is very intriguing. Even though the ending reveals that the Spencer we’ve been watching for two hours isn’t the real one, you want him to win and to prove that he’s human. I was a bit disappointed with the double-blind ending, and there’s a big plot hole regarding the damage of the woods that could have been explained with a throwaway line, or some different camera angles.

Imposter is an engaging enough film, but it won’t leave you with a lot of strong feelings either way. Recommended if you’re bored on a rainy Sunday afternoon and want a sci-fi version of The Fugitive.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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