Of all of the film adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2006) is the most unique. Director/screenwriter Richard Linklater pulled off an almost impossible feet, not only turning in the most faithful adaptation of Dick’s work yet committed to screen, but by doing so, he also successfully placed artistic integrity above commercial appeal.
Firstly, the original source material, although overtly science fiction was also one of the most intensely personal of Dick’s novels. Set in the near future and following the investigations of undercover narcotics officer Bob Arctor, the narrative begins as a crime thriller steeped in an atmosphere of paranoia. Writing in the mid Seventies and having witnessed the paranoia that had swept the United States establishment in the wake of the Cold War, the rise of counter culture and the Watergate scandal, Dick also drew heavily on his own experiences. As the novel goes on the narrative focus shifts subtly and the progress of Arctor’s investigations becomes less pivotal than the deterioration of his own mental state, as he himself falls victims to the very drug he is policing. Subverting the readers’ expectations was not a new aspect of Dick’s writing, but reading the novel, one gets the sense that this was less of a technique as it was an organic process, as his closeness to the subject matter unearthed more and more intense personal feelings.
Linklater is clearly a fan of the novel in its many guises, but most of all he seems to understand the personal aspect and embrace it. So here we here we have a film that features the trappings of the sci-fi thriller, with surveillance technology, and the high tech camouflage of the police ‘scramble suit’ (tellingly designed to protect the identity of undercover officers from each other rather than their suspects), while the real story, slowly takes a hold, taking a tragic turn before you realise the trick.
Key to the film’s artistic success is an aspect that might seem almost gimmicky at first. In what the DVD packaging describes as ‘an edgy graphic-novel look’, the film is given life through the seldom used animation technique of roto-scoping. While the idea of filming the entire story with live actors and the spending 18 months painstakingly drawing over every frame using computer software proved arduous, Linklater’s unique vision is more than justified on viewing the finished product. From the opening scene, the director’s goal becomes clear, as we witness peripheral character Charles Freck in the throes of drug induced paranoia over an aphid infestation. Here we see the character’s innermost thoughts given life, as Rory Cochrane’s edgy performance is visibly plagued by a swarm of animated bugs. Although only visible in this first scene, the character is clearly suffering this secret infestation for the rest of the film and we as viewers feel more deeply invested in the various characters’ plights as a result. Furthermore, the unique look of the film imbues it with a strong sense of cohesiveness.
This also helps us to invest in the characters more strongly, given that the ensemble is an array of all to familiar faces. With a role call of well known actors, including Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson, the film never feels like a star vehicle. The animation, together with a snappy script, elevates their performances beyond the usual ‘work for hire’ vibe that character actors so often fall prey to. Perhaps the most surprising casting choice at the time was Robert Downey Jr., as Arctor’s close ‘frenemy’ Jim Barris. Showcasing his now trademark knack for witty dialogue and an indomitable screen presence, this is the film that put Downey Jr. squarely back on the Hollywood radar - a casting coup akin to John Travolta’s superb ‘comeback’ in 1990’s ‘Pulp Fiction’.
As mentioned above, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is surprisingly faithful to the source material. It helps that the novel is one of the most cohesive and ironically (given the druggy haze it describes) straightforward of Dick’s studies on how we perceive reality. Thrillingly, whatever expectations you bring to this film are subverted in the most sublime way possible as you are rewarded not only with the keen insights of a fantastic writer, but also that of a man who has stared into the abyss and survived. Anyone who has ever pushed their mind and body to the limit in anyway will find something to relate to here. On a personal note, this film took a story I have loved since university and added new depths of insight and meaning - just as much as my own personal experiences enhanced my understanding of the text in with each passing year.
Ultimately, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is neither fully a police procedural or a stoner comedy, although it plays its thrills and gloriously funny anecdotes as keenly as any example of either genre. While there are many fine examples of Philip K. Dick’s ideas committed to the screen, this film trumps them all. While favourites such as ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), ‘Total Recall’ (1990) and ‘Minority Report’ give a passing nod to the mind of one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ feels like it embodies his very soul, and on reflection, Linklater’s contribution to the legacy of Philip K. Dick stands head and shoulders above them all.
And with that, Robert Barton-Ancliffe donned his scramble-suit and vanished into the night...