CS Soapbox: the novel that inspired Matrix, Inception and WandaVision
In 1969, famous science fiction author Philip K. Dick wrote what was arguably his most groundbreaking and influential novel, titled Ubik. Since his death in 1982, the work of the late writer has become a cornerstone of the genre (the expression “Dickian” is common parlance) and has grown into many classic films and on television (Blade runner, Minority report, Total recall, The man of the high castle), again Ubik has never been adapted… directly. However, the novel has been cannibalized over the years by many great features, including The Wachowski’s. The matrix, Christopher Nolan’s Creation and now the hit Disney + series from Marvel Studios WandaVision.
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The labyrinthine story of Ubik takes place in the “future” of 1992 and follows Joe Chip, a technician working for a company called Runciter Associates that employs specialist people called “inertials” whose powers include the ability to block telepaths and precogs (a common Dick motive also used in Minority report) generally to prevent them from corporate espionage. Ella, late wife of founder Glen Runciter and business partner, exists in a state called half-life where her consciousness is still active. The company is hired to send Runciter, Chip, and a team of their best operatives to the Moon to prevent a psychic intrusion on a moon base, but a bomb explosion kills Runciter and they return to Earth.
It is, as they say, that the plot thickens. Chip and his team – which includes a psychic girl named Pat Conley who can change the past – find their reality distorted and ‘deteriorating’, with common objects reverting to older forms (TVs become radios, cigarettes become deformed). old outdated brands, etc.), with their world eventually settling in 1939. The money they mysteriously use bears the portrait of Runciter. The team members themselves start to deteriorate and die, but a post from Runciter contains an advertisement for a spray called Ubik that Chip uses to stop the deterioration. Each chapter, in fact, begins with an advertisement for Ubik showing a different usage.
Chip believes that Conley is the source of this fractured reality, which she admits, only to discover that a being named Jory is actually devouring the team in half-life in order to sustain himself. Runciter was, in fact, the sole survivor of the moon explosion, with all the others on half-lives. Ella developed Ubik to defend herself and other half-lives against Jory (who has help from people in the real world), and gives Chip a lifetime stash. A strange coda, omnisciently told by Ubik himself, reveals Runciter in the real world mourning the loss of his team to find a room with Joe Chip’s face on it.
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Just from this brief description you can see how the story influenced Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Matrix Trilogy, specifically the journey of Keanu Reeves’ character Neo as he attempts to navigate a “real world” that is not real and can be manipulated. The idea of people living in this alternate consciousness reality while being essentially vegetative inside the cryo-tubes was another big draw. Jory’s predatory character has a strong connection to the Agent Smith program played by Hugo Weaving, which also uses people within the Matrix itself as saboteurs and informants. Even the somewhat anachronistic production conception of the film which draws inspiration from all eras of the 20th century is in keeping with Ubik’s themes.
Christopher Nolan’s Creation draws a lot of material from Dick’s book, including the team sailing an alternate dream reality, the physical changes in that fake reality, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb ultimately not being able to discern if he’s still in the world of the dream at the end (an idea also used in the adaptation of Dick Total recall). In Creation there are dream “extractors” as opposed to “anti-telepaths”, and the context of corporate espionage is the same. The dead woman being a powerful force in the dream world is also a lift. Another great similarity is Cobb’s ‘totem’ (a spinning top) used to indicate whether they are still in a dream, which is a coin or money in. Ubik.
This brings us to Marvel WandaVision, in which showrunner Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman apparently found an ideal vehicle for Dick’s ideas, albeit the reverse. Instead of reality turning back the clock, Wanda Maximoff’s psychic character (whose character could be compared to Pat Conley in the novel) has essentially taken an entire New Jersey town hostage as she reforms their external and internal realities. to adapt them to the context of 1950s sitcom tropes (The Dick Van Dyke Show), then the 1960s (Nice to meet u), then the 70s (The Brady Bunch), then the 80s (Family ties) and -in this week’s episode- the 90s (Malcom in the middle). In each case, the settings, cars, clothes and manners of everyone, including Wanda, change with each new rearrangement of the reality of the city. Even items like a surveillance drone revert to a more ’60s toy helicopter look once it enters town in Episode 2.
Another postponement of Ubik are the interstitial ads that usually appear in the middle of each WandaVision episode and seem to have clues as to what’s going on. It remains to be seen how this will pay off in future episodes, but there are hints of an evil force behind Wanda instigating and controlling her behavior in the same way that Ubik (short for “ubiquitous”) fits. at the end of the novel, and who many (including the wife of the deceased author) say is a substitute for God himself.
Whether Schaeffer & Co. ever uttered the word “Ubik” during production of the Marvel series is irrelevant, although it wouldn’t be surprising to find that it was a point of reference. The show also draws inspiration from other sources such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s. Stalker and its most recent Americanization Annihilation, with a hint of fuzzy area episode “It’s a good life.” What is important is that the noble concepts of the novel have found their most common outlet. Even the very nature of how the series changes its proportions or switches from black and white to color to fit the era of the sitcom it ape goes hand in hand with Dick’s own adaptation plans. Ubik under French director Jean-Pierre Gorin (Everything is fine), with his non-produced screenplay finally published in print form. One of the then drastic ideas that Dick had to adapt was that the quality of the film itself would deteriorate and go from color to black and white, then to the choppy early silent films and finally dark.
Since Dick’s death, several other filmmakers have tried to adapt Ubik several times over the decades. Tommy Pallotta, collaborator of Richard Linklater, wanted to produce a version of the book after the critical success of their adaptation of Dick in 2006 A dark scanner, arguably the most faithful film adaptation of all of the author’s works to date. Linklater had flirted with the adaptation Ubik before To scan but encountered rights issues even after trying his own spec script. Then in 2011, it was announced that Oscar-winning surrealist filmmaker Michel Gondry (whose Eternal Sunshine of the Flawless Spirit has a PKD influence) would tackle the book by producers Steve Golin and Steve Zaillian before dropping it. Even maverick filmmaker and PKD super fan Terry Gilliam (12 monkeys) considered adapting several of his books, including Ubik, but found the idea problematic as so much has been swept away from it over the years.
“That’s the problem, so much has been brought up about Ubik,” Gilliam told us in 2019. “It probably doesn’t sound fresher to an audience. I’m curious if Dick would work better now or not. I don’t know anymore because so many movies have been made that have taken the best of Dick in them and played with them.
In a way it’s sad that we’ll probably never see Ubik on screen, as so many other works have already used his ideas, but it’s also heartwarming that what was once considered such a distant sci-fi tale is now being incorporated into massively successful works of storytelling. commercial on television and in the cinema. .