Philip K. Dick is one of the most iconic sci-fi writers ever to pick a pen – his tales of paranoia, shady agents, artificial intelligence and mind-bending psychosis have influenced – directly or indirectly – a wide range films and directors throughout the past 30 years, from the earliest films of David Cronenberg and George Lucas to paranoid sci-fi brain-twisters like 12 Monkeys and Videodrome. Direct adaptations of Dick’s novels and stories have proved more problematic however, and inevitably the most notable – Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report – have jettisoned many of the writer’s more obtuse concepts in place of fast-moving Hollywood action.
Richard Linklater’s attempt to bring Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly to the big screen proves to be the most faithful adaptation yet, and if it will inevitably find little favour amongst mainstream audiences, should make those who love their sci-fi dense and cerebral very happy indeed. It’s filmed in the rotoscope animated style that Linklater previously used in his trippy Waking Life but dates back to Ralph Bakshi’s work during the 1970s, and basically involves animating directly on top of live actors and sets to create an strange, shifting animated environment and astonishingly realistic physical movement. Set only a few years from now in the sun-bleached Californian town of Anaheim, the main focus of the story is upon a man named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). Arctor is an undercover drug enforcement cop, so far deep into his cover story that his superiors don’t even know who he really is – at police headquarters he is known only as Fred and wears a constantly-shifting ‘scramble suit’ to hide his identity. Life outside those walls consists largely of sitting around his house with drug-buddies Barris (Robert Downey Jr) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) –- all of them strung out on the mind-altering Substance D – and when Arctor is given the task of placing himself under surveillance, the already disturbed man really begins to lose his grip on reality.
This is sci-fi, but only just. Certain elements place it in the future – in particular the hypnotic, brilliantly realised scramble suits – bit unlike previous Dick adaptations, Linklater makes little attempt to place the film in some dsytopian future world. The cars, the clothes, the language are all contemporary, and much of the film relies upon dialogue rather than spectacle. Fans of Linklater’s Slacker and especially Waking Life will feel right at home – the paranoid, drug-addled banter between Downey Jr, Harrelson and Rory Cochrane (playing an older, even more narcotically-frazzled version of his Dazed & Confused character) is by turns hilarious, bizarre and unnerving. It doesn’t really move the ‘plot’ (such as it is) along but certainly helps maintain the strange, quasi-delusional atmosphere and allows for some highly entertaining performances from the stars.
As for the more dramatic elements of the story, this is a world away from the driving sci-fi thrills of Minority Report or Blade Runner. For a start, it’s difficult to always be sure if Arctor (the drug addict) is aware of Arctor (the undercover cop), although the idea of someone putting himself under 24-hour surveillance is a fascinating one. He has a strange relationship with a physical contact-phobic girl called Donna (Winona Ryder) who might be involved in wholesale supply of Substance D, but although Arctor’s police colleagues are interested in investigating her, Linklater is not, and we ultimately learn little about her. And unsurprisingly the climax is an inconclusive, haunting coda, with little explained or resolved.
But for those who value for atmosphere and style as high (or higher) than plot, A Scannner Darkly really delivers. Although there is nothing in the film that couldn’t have been produced with live-action and CGI, the animation style adds a level of disturbing, dreamlike ‘reality’, as the surroundings constantly shift and vibrate, and the animated versions of these famous actors move with uncanny realism. The sound design is also superb – eerie and pulsing, and in the standout scene in which Arctor’s cover is finally blown – almost overwhelming. It’s possible A Scanner Darkly might have worked better as a short film, but Linklater deserves much credit for sticking so faithfully to the source material and not being tempted (or forced) to put extra emphasis upon the more obvious story elements. This is certainly a movie that demands more than one viewing, and although not one of Linklater’s very best films, is further proof of the director’s singular talent.
[Warner Bros DVD of the movie features a commentary by Keanu Reeves, Rochard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Letham and Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett! The story of the filming of the movie, One Summer in Austin along with The Weight of the Line: Animation Tales and a trailer for good measure]
Skilled indie director, specialising in dialogue-driven comedy-drama. Linklater's 1989 debut Slacker was an unusual but well-realised portrait of disaffected 20-something life in his home town of Austin, Texas, while many consider Dazed and Confused, his warm but unsentimental snapshot of mid-70s youth culture, to be one of the best teen movies ever made. Linklater's first stab at the mainstream - comedy western The Newton Boys - was a disappointment, but Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape and the animated Waking Life are all intelligent, intriguing pictures.