Judge Geoffrey Miller doesn't mind if you call him a dickhead.
Our reviews of A Scanner Darkly (Blu-Ray) (published April 16th, 2007), A Scanner Darkly (Blu-Ray) (published September 27th, 2010), and A Scanner Darkly (HD DVD) (published April 16th, 2007) are also available.
"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?"
It's Philip K. Dick's world; we just live in it. Since his untimely death in 1982 (mere months before the release of Blade Runner, the first film adapted from his work), his unconventional sci-fi stories, laced with paranoia, mind-altering drugs, and shifting realities, have become increasingly popular, to the point that their themes are etched into our pop culture consciousness. Check out how Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner) has wormed its way into sci-fi boilerplate. Can you watch a movie with an android without considering the implications of their "humanity?" Dig how The Truman Show and Vanilla Sky unravel the façade of a fake reality just like the best of Dick's novels. Then there's the biggest one of them all, The Matrix, which poses the most Dickian of questions: Red pill or blue pill?
Yet despite all of his influence and a never-ending string of film adaptations, no film has come close to truly capturing Dick's vision…until A Scanner Darkly.
Facts of the Case
Seven years in the future, 20 percent of the population is using Substance D, or "Death," a highly addictive drug that slowly destroys the mind. A totalitarian police state has been created to keep a close eye on all citizens and defeat the Substance D menace. Fred (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narcotics agent assigned to gather evidence on Bob Arctor, a Substance D dealer. Except Fred and Arctor are the same person, unbeknownst to him, because Substance D has split his brain into two personalities. As Fred/Arctor continues to take more and more Substance D, what little that's left of his psyche falls apart.
Dick published A Scanner Darkly in 1977, after his amphetamine-fueled rush of novels and short stories in the 50s and 60s. By this time, he had gotten clean, established financial security, and slowed down his voluminous output to a more reasonable pace. As an older, wiser writer, Dick no longer felt the need to cover his paranoia and social commentary in sci-fi conventions. Thus, A Scanner Darkly is not only one of his most personal and direct novels, it's also largely bereft of speculative, futuristic technology (save a few devices, one of which is crucial to the plot). It exists in a sort of netherworld between sci-fi and modern fiction, presenting a world eerily like our own, yet distinctly from the near future.
But Dick rarely played sci-fi straight, even when he was young. Contrary to the fairly standard action-adventure presented in many Dick film adaptations, his stories erred towards character pieces with heavy philosophical overtones. Dick was interested in the way society was changing, and how that in turn affected our humanity; he didn't particularly care about the "science" half of sci-fi, except for the ways it could advance his ideas. He derisively dismissed typical "space opera" adventures and larger-than-life heroes, preferring unextraordinary everyman protagonists who ultimately have little impact on the world at large.
Because of this, adaptations of his work have ended to dress them up in more conventional sci-fi trappings, with mostly disastrous results. Through the years, most attempts to film Dick stories have taken the Total Recall route: Take a cool-sounding Dick idea, throw out anything too high-minded, and turn it into a big budget action vehicle for a suitable star. With that attitude, it's no wonder that so much dreck like Paycheck and Imposter has sullied Dick's reputation.
Director/writer Richard Linklater has reversed this trend with A Scanner Darkly, the first Philip K. Dick film adaptation since Blade Runner to be indisputably great. Unlike Blade Runner, which took great liberties with its source material, A Scanner Darkly is a loving translation of one of Dick's best novels by a true fan. Even though he's been dead nearly a quarter-century, Dick is clearly the driving force behind this film, more than Linklater of any member of the cast.
Linklater's script makes a handful of superficial changes: some of the technology has been updated (cell phones replace pay phones) and the outdated hippie slang has been removed. There's also one new plot twist (which I won't give away because it spoils the whole movie and book), which was hinted at but not stated directly in the book. It's surprisingly a natural fit, so well done that it would be tough for someone unfamiliar with the book to guess it was new to the film. It is, in every other way, remarkably accurate to the book in tone and structure.
Besides being faithful yet modernized, the script maintains the subtle dark humor inherent in Dick's writing. While often ignored, Dick's gift for dry and understated comedy took the edge off the dystopian worlds he created. As two of Arctor's junkie buddies, Freck (Rory Cochrane) and Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), talk in a dinner, Freck imagines Barris imagining the waitresses taking her clothes off, in a little cartoon thought bubble no less. It's a twisty, roundabout expression of his horniness, hilarious in its vividness. Throughout the film, they freak out and overanalyze just about everything, making laughs out of the absurdity of stoner paranoia.
So the script gets it right, but so much more is conveyed through A Scanner Darkly's singular visuals. Using a technique called "interpolated rotoscoping"—essentially filming actors on a set traditionally then drawing over the results—A Scanner Darkly is halfway between live-action and animation. While Linklater's 2001 experimental feature, Waking Life, which used the same basic technique, is the clear antecedent, the level of detail and refinement here blows away any previous attempts. It took 500 hours to create a single minute of final footage, in a laborious process that took 18 months in all to complete. The results are stunning, creating an off-kilter reality that fits this world of addicts trapped in altered states of mind. It was clearly the right choice, as so many aspects of the novel feel right at home rendered in this unique style. For example, the "scramble suit," worn by detectives to keep from blowing their cover, is more tangible and believable animated than any CGI job could have made it; it's a constantly shifting blur of different faces and bodies stitched together.
The casting is nearly flawless. No one would ever accuse Keanu Reeves of being Laurence Olivier, but he's perfect as Fred/Arctor, a man whose calm exterior belies his inner turmoil. Arctor's friends, played by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Roy Cochrane, form a bumbling trio of sad clowns, equally pitiful and laughable in their drugged-out despair. Winona Ryder thoroughly embodies Donna Hawthorne, the "dark-haired girl" archetype common in Dick novels, an unattainable mystery woman who Fred/Arctor needs for both romantic and chemical reasons—she's his dealer.
Though it preceded both the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism, A Scanner Darkly is oddly prescient in critiquing both. The lengths the government goes to stop Substance D users spits in the face of civil liberties; they sacrifice personal rights of citizens to get to the Substance D users, who, as it turns out, are mostly a innocent bunch of hooligans dealing with personal demons. It was Dick's own paranoia, which occasionally stemmed from delusion, that informed the book (and much of his other work) but it's hard to deny that he was on to something way before his time. The world of A Scanner Darkly is a frighteningly plausible one; it's scary to think just how little it would take for this to become our new reality. It is a dystopia that looks just like modern day America, a dystopia where being watched in your own home by government cameras is just as common as asking for a Coke with your fries.
The transfer, as you might expect, is magnificent, capturing every nuance of the detailed animation, all the strange sounds buzzing around, and the post-rock soundtrack. The commentary track, featuring Linklater, Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author and Philip K. Dick fan Jonathan Lethem, and Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett is an informative and fascinating listen. (Guess what? Keanu is actually pretty smart!) The two featurettes, one about the on-set filming and another on the animation process, are enjoyable, although a little short.
A Scanner Darkly is a must for all Philip K. Dick enthusiasts. It complements the book so well it's the rare film adaptation that fits right alongside its literary counterpart. Beyond that, this is a great film, period, and you don't need to know the book or the history behind it. For someone not familiar with the book, it may take a few viewings to all sink in, but that's okay. It is sure to become a cult classic, introducing a whole new generation to Philp K. Dick's iconoclastic vision.
A Scanner Darkly is as much cautionary tale as head trip, and it succeeds at both. Not guilty.
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• Commentary by writer/director Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author Jonathan Lethem, and Isa Hackett Dick
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