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[whitespace] 'Impostor'
Photograph by Kimberley Wright

Do Actors Dream of Electric Oscars? Gary Sinise (right) and Mehki Phifer hide from the future police in 'Impostor.'

Faking It

Philip K. Dick's metaphysics are ground down in 'Impostor'

By Richard von Busack

ANYONE WHO has ever asked themselves, "Am I actually an alien robot from Alpha Centauri?" will be disappointed by Impostor, which treats this important question as grounds for an unusually mundane sci-fi chase picture. Essentially, Impostor is just as divided as its hero, Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise), a scientist at work on the new version of the Manhattan Project, seeking to destroy the home world of aliens who have besieged Earth for decades.

Olham is suspected of being a bomb-bearing outer-space android by the crypto-fascist wartime Earth government of 2079. Olham, who is happily married to a hospital administrator named Maya (Madeleine Stowe), is ready for an important day at work. Shortly before the Chancellor of Earth (Lindsay Crouse) arrives at Olham's lab to inspect the weapon, a security agent named Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio, some fun but not a lot of fun) arrests and drugs our hero, ready to vivisect him and search for an alien bomb hidden in his guts. Olham escapes and heads to the bombed-out ruins on the edge of his city, where he finds help from a subterranean named Cale (Mekhi Phifer).

Style-free director Gary Fleder likes fight scenes, but he isn't a good at them. The conflicts between the police and the hunted fugitive are staged about as well as the tussles on TV's Highlander. Much grunting and slapping of flesh takes place, half-hidden in the murk of a polluted future. I can't remember a film that overdid the post-apocalyptic darkness to this extent--it's surprising that Earth can fight off the aliens when they can't even see their hands in front of their faces.

The writings of Philip K. Dick are still far too smart and rarefied for an expensive sci-fi movie. Compare the richness and emotions of Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to the impressively produced but essentially mannered Blade Runner. Questions of identity haunt Dick's work; his source story for Impostor was written in 1953, during the anti-Communist fear. The story asked, "Could a man be so subverted that he wouldn't even know it?" At times--and this must be the hazard of using four separate writers to adapt Dick--the film suggests that the Alpha Centauri conflict has been cooked up. During some draft of the script, did this invasion turn out to be an immense government lie?

The standard problem of adapting Dick is simplifying his work into the frame of a science-fiction actioner. When Hollywood is finished with him, he always seems like a writer who was only about three weeks ahead of his time. Co-producer Sinise was interested in the emotional content of Dick; he tried to flesh out this commonplace wrong-man thriller with some of Dick's sense of obsessive love--as when Olman refers to his wife as "my salvation." But trying to be both an action picture and a philosophical picture slows down what little momentum the film has. Trying to suit two different kinds of audiences, the film suits neither.

Impostor (PG-13 96 min.), directed by Gary Fleder, written by Caroline Case, Ehren Kruger, David Twohy and Scott Rosenberg, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stowe and Vincent D'Onofrio, plays valleywide.

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From the January 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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