I’ve been eagerly waiting the release of Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly. I’m a long time fan of his novels—he’s one of the most respected, influential and interesting science fiction writers in the history of the genre—and enjoyed this version of one of his books I have not read.
PKD’s books are often dense, convoluted and strange trips into the mental workings (or mental falling apart) of his characters—fantasy and reality are often indistinguishable in PKD’s world. You never really know what is happening and what is real in a lot of his stories. This is certainly the case in A Scanner Darkly as it’s a bizarre trip into a world of drugs and paranoia (that’s another of PKD’s favorite topics) as various characters fall to depths because of the drugs they are addicted to.
Keanu Reeves plays an undercover cop named Bob Arcter who becomes addicted to the drug “Substance D” (the “D” stands for death). It’s a highly addictive drug that a major chunk of the population is addicted to. No one knows Arcter’s identity in the police force because he wears a “scramble” suit that has over one million images of people and clothes flickering over it at all times. It’s a neat trick and one of the only overt sci-fi inventions or elements in the film, yet, A Scanner Darkly is still a sci-fi film at its core.
Arcter spends his time hanging out with fellow drug fiends in a squalid house while slowly losing more and more of his faculties and mental clarity because of his taking substance d. He takes tests at the police mental health department and talks to his boss--whose identity is also a secret as they too wear a scramble suit.
That’s the simple version of A Scanner Darkly. It’s way more complicated and intricate than that. The script incorporates a lot of PKD’s interests into it—psychology, philosophy, religion, the perception of the world around us, morality, personal choice, the paranoid state of man, the always present split personality of humans and drugs as objects of control and ruin are all given time in the story.
The film has a great cast with Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson providing some funny moments as people in Arcter’s sphere who are even more whacked out than he is. Both of these actors are known for being able to deliver an eccentric performance with the best of them and they rise to the occasion nicely. I was also so happy to see Winona Ryder make a nice return to the film world as Arcter’s “sort of” girlfriend and part-time drug dealer.
A Scanner Darkly is animated in the same way Linklater’s A Waking Life was—with each individual film frame painted over after the actors were filmed with traditional film techniques. I liked seeing the story this way as it really fuels PKD’s hallucinogenic story and takes it places that it wouldn’t have gone—the fantasy scenes for example—had it been strictly shot on film.
A Scanner Darkly is interesting, complex, dark, humorous, bleak and will make you work a little harder for your sci-fi as its not one of these aliens and effects sci-fi films—it tries to dig deep into the human mind and the objects that control and destroy us. I think Philip K. Dick would be very happy with this adaptation if he were alive.