As an intellectual (not nerd) I read a lot of science fiction, and have a particular fondness for Philip K. Dick. His work has often been targeted by Hollywood – Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck – mostly for his vivid visions of the future. As a writer, Dick often creates a general tone of morose confusion, and though his ideas are outstanding, it’s always the feeling behind them that gives his work more emotional punch. Unfortunately, Joe Public doesn’t always want something they have to ponder, so Mr Hollywood takes Dick’s work and strips it down to the barest ideas, then adds a beefy actor and makes a fortune. It’s like giving Ben Affleck a crayon and asking him to recreate the Mona Lisa.
So on reading that Richard Linklater has created the most faithful adaptation of a Dick novel yet, I was quite excited about this film. At its simplest level, A Scanner Darkly is about undercover cops investigating users of a highly addictive drug called Substance D. It’s set seven years in the future, so there’s not a huge amount of the ‘sci’ in the ‘fi’. But delving deeper, the story centres on Bob Arctor/Fred (Keanu Reeves, acting quite well), the undercover cop whose brain is slowly being eaten away by the very drug he’s investigating, so much so that he begins to lose sight of who he really is. Delve a bit deeper still, and it’s Dick’s way of exploring the darkest nature of addiction, something he knows only too well (being a user himself, which may have made him a tad mental and cost the lives of many of his friends.)
What immediately makes this film stand out is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping, which is the method of laying animation over film. In layman’s terms, it looks pretty damn cool. And took bloody ages – 500 hours for one minute of animation, to be anally factual. But as well as giving the film a unique look (well, unique alongside Linklater’s previous work Waking Life) the technique finally allows Dick’s lucid writing style to be visualised. Faces flicker, the patterns on t-shirts shift, hallucinations of giant bugs can be brought to screen without looking massively out of place. Where it works best is with the ‘scramble suits’ worn by the cops to keep their identities a secret. The suits flick through hundreds of different images at a time, creating an almost disorientating effect, but realising Dick’s idea perfectly.
But it’s not just a pretty picture. Far from it. The overall tone is dark, and I feel a great sadness when watching Arctor’s decline. There are moments of light with Robert Downy Jr’s energetic and ever so slightly dangerous Barris, and Woody Harrlesson’s idiotic Luckman. Watching their demented conversations about bicycle gears, or Barris’ attempt to make a gun silencer, gives some light relief. But if Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is the brightly coloured, loud-mouthed uncle of the ‘films-about-drugs’ family, then Scanner is the poetic, yet clinically depressed teen.
Having read the book, I suffered from the ‘hang on, I’m sure that bit doesn’t go there’ phenomena. Some details were left out (understandably to keep the 100 minute run-time, though it’s a shame the extent of Arctor’s confusion isn’t fully developed) and other events were in a different order. But overall the essence of the book was captured successfully. For being faithful, I’m awarding Scanner a point, and I’m giving it another point for using an innovative visual technique to good effect. So A Scanner Darkly makes CF2. Not everyone will like it. But I do. And that’s what counts.