A quick look at the films gleaned from the work of Philip K. Dick comes up with a couple of decent offerings. But for every Minority Report or Blade Runner, we’re stuck also with a Paycheck or (shudder) Total Recall. Even the good ones tend not to understand PKD so much as they benefit from directors who brought their own visions.
With his long awaited A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater has created something entirely new. Besides making one of the most original films about the crushing imprisonment of addiction (from drug use to consumerism), he has also made the most true-to-its-source movie of Dick’s writing. You’d think they’d have a special Oscar for that.
Steven Spielberg’s translation of the short story, “Minority Report,” was less an expression of scientific Calvinism than a whip-fast chase film in a gleaming futuristic cityscape. For Blade Runner, Ridley Scott jettisoned most of the rubbly theological theorizing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to focus on noir atmospherics, burying the novel’s central question—“What does it mean to be a human?”—under neon-streaked steam clouds and another chase scenario.
Linklater brings to his adaptation a true fan’s appreciation; for many PKD aficionados, Scanner is one of the great ones. Published in 1977 after a three-year break (unusual for the prolific author), the book seems an easy dividing mark between the more technology- and plot-obsessed works of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the introspective and spiritually-minded books he’d publish until the end of his career. Many read the book as the author’s coming to terms with his years doing drugs. It’s a perfect fit for Linklater, in part because its focus on a group of junkies engaged in stoned, out-there conversation offers an episodic structure that recalls Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Moreover, it plays on the loose fringe of “reality,” well suited for Linklater’s rotoscoping animation technique, pioneered in Waking Life, where drawings are layered on top of live, filmed images. Everything looks about two-thirds real, with characters moving about in a colorful, watery fugue.
In Scanner, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, possessed of a surprising pathos) is a drug dealer and police informant, living with fellow junkies who don’t know he’s spying on them. To protect his identity, when visiting police HQ, Bob wears a full body covering called a “scramble suit,” which cycles through millions of identities each minute, making him look like everybody and, in effect, nobody. The result is like Cubism in human form, woozy and kaleidoscopic.
The suits make for images so fascinating they feel nearly “addictive,” appropriate given that the film is about (among other things), viewing, reality, and addiction. Bob has only a tenuous hold on reality, due to his addiction to a drug called Substance D, which eventually causes a severing of the brain’s hemispheres. His sanity further deteriorates as he uses the suit, in which he’s called “Fred” by his fellow cops. “Fred” views surveillance feeds of his own home, watching “Bob” interact with his housemates, and tries to figure out which is the real him.
The conversations between Bob and his junkie friends are for the most part comic routines, wonderfully performed by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane. There’s a subplot involving Bob’s girlfriend (Winona Ryder), but the guys’ bickering over semantics and mind-boggling minutiae (most of the dialogue coming verbatim from the novel, with a few witty updates) forms the heart of the film. And beneath their confusion and delusion lies a dark point: they’re trapped. This trap is not the sort seen in so many other addiction movies (the junkie goes through harrowing degradation to get his fix), but addiction as a spiritual self-imprisonment, in which one’s mind slowly but surely blocks out all other interests or cares.
This might make A Scanner Darkly sound like a message film, which it most assuredly is not. Set “seven years in the future,” it is rife with little digs at authority and the anti-drug establishment, even as it satirizes these downward-spiraling addicts. The paranoia felt by Philip Dick during the early ‘70s now seems wholly rational, in an age of domestic surveillance, data mining, and video monitoring. The film assumes the omnipresent police state, not just as an external fascist force, but integral to the drug underworld, each feeding off the other. The film finds Dick’s target with the same off-key sense of humor and profound tragedy.
In a generous acknowledgement of his source, Linklater ends the film with a long quotation from the author’s note that ends the book:
This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed—run over, maimed, destroyed—but they continued to play anyhow.
It goes on to list all his friends who were dead or damaged after years of drug use. Dick’s own name shows up near the bottom, five years before his death.
A Scanner Darkly - Trailer